Chile 40 Years Later: The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics


In November 2012, a 70-year old Israeli ex-mercenary named Yair Klein testified via teleconference from his home country before the Colombian Supreme Court. The former Israeli Defense Forces lieutenant colonel has been wanted in Colombia since a 2001 in absentia conviction for training paramilitary groups, but the European Court of Human Rights blocked an extradition request over concerns for his safety. Klein admitted to the court he had made several trips to Colombia during the 1980s to train paramilitaries and insisted this was done with the knowledge and support of both the Colombian internal security services and the military, who, he said, provided the necessary weapons, ammunition, equipment, and bases for him to work.

Photo Credit: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

In itself the testimony was not extraordinary—the Colombian government and paramilitary groups have long been known to work hand in hand—but one comment, made almost as an aside, sparked the media’s interest. According to Klein, one of the local landowners who organized and paid for the training and allowed his own farm to be used as a training center “was later, with time, the president of Colombia.” He refused to give a name but assured the court, “you know exactly who it is.” And everyone did know. The words “president” and “paramilitaries” used in the same sentence by now induce a reflex response among followers of Colombian politics, and the image of a short, bespectacled man, bookish but somewhat sour looking, like a librarian with a grudge, forms in the mind. A few days later in another meeting with the court, when a magistrate requested the name of the individual, Klein relented, identifying the landowner as Álvaro Uribe Vélez—Harvard graduate, personal friend of George W. Bush, and the current subject of 289 investigations filed in the Accusations Committee of the Colombian House of Representatives.

The ex-president is an almost ubiquitous presence in the national media. The recent deluge began in September last year when extradited paramilitary boss Salvatore Mancuso, speaking via teleconference from prison in the United States to the Attorney General in Colombia as part of an ongoing judicial process, claimed paramilitaries from the largest paramilitary group, the AUC, met with Uribe’s advisors and distributed campaign materials in the region of Northern Santander during his presidential campaign in 2002. The AUC, he said, had also financed a pro-Uribe rally in the region of Cordoba on the Atlantic coast. Mancuso claimed Uribe was well aware of this support, and, referring to the then-Presidential candidate as an “ally,” said they had met each other personally on Uribe’s farm while he was the governor of Antioquia. Another former paramilitary, nicknamed “El Iguano” (The Iguana) and also serving a sentence in the United States, followed Mancuso’s testimony, telling the high court in Bogota that AUC paramilitaries had paid for pro-Uribe campaign materials during the run-up to the elections, including t-shirts and flyers, and had a strong influence on the outcome in the region; the AUC, he said, had hired buses to transport campesinos to the polling stations, but not before making each passenger aware of “the necessity of voting for Uribe Vélez.”

Again, these were not new revelations; paramilitary leaders have openly said Uribe was their man politically, but the testimonies brought the issue back to the public’s attention. As did another development in October, when Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella, an Uribe loyalist and former senator who served more than three years in prison for his connection to the paramilitaries, echoed Mancuso’s statements, adding that during his time in office Uribe was fully aware of the links between politicians and paramilitaries, links that would eventually be exposed halfway through Uribe’s presidency in what came to be known as the “para-politics” scandal. To date this scandal has involved investigations into more than 150 former and current members of congress and 55 convictions.

Espriella was the self-confessed “spokesperson” for Mancuso in the congress and a signatory of the infamous Ralito Pact between paramilitary leaders and more than 50 politicians, which outlined their aim to “refound the nation” in their interests through the accumulation of land and resources. Speaking to the press, he bemoaned the fact that while he and others were convicted and imprisoned, the former president had faced no repercussions despite the AUC’s support for his electoral campaign. “We feel,” he said, speaking for the other imprisoned former members of congress, “and I think with reason, that the situation wasn’t just.” Uribe, via Twitter, called him a “little thief.” Espriella, Uribe said, had been pressured by Mancuso to testify.

A month later came Klein’s accusation and a customary Twitter rebuttal — Klein was “a coward insinuating from far away.” Also in November, the International Criminal Court announced that the extrajudicial killings of innocent civilians by the Colombian military were being considered not only a policy of the state, but as possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. The murders, known as False Positives because the victims were presented as guerillas, have been going on in Colombia for more than a quarter of a century and reached their peak between 2002 and 2008 during Uribe’s presidency. In December, a court in Virginia sentenced Uribe’s hand-picked former head of security, Mauricio Santoyo, to 13 years in prison for accepting bribes and providing material support and resources to the AUC, thereby adding one more individual to the substantial list of Uribe’s close associates sentenced for their connections to paramilitaries.

As the year began, a preliminary investigation closed 12 years before was reopened after two imprisoned paramilitaries gave separate testimonies alleging that while governor of Antioquia during the 1990s, Uribe had supported the creation of an armed militia which would later become the “Metro” block of the AUC. Uribe, once again taking to his preferred medium to express his thoughts on the matter— to quote Abad, he is “not a person who enjoys developing an argument across the pages of an essay”—assured his followers the latest accusations were the “slanders of criminal prisoners.” He is now claiming the men were manipulated and bribed to testify by the initiator of the investigation, an opposition senator named Ivan Cepeda. As per the usual pattern, threats against Cepeda’s life “have increased dramatically since his role leading the case against former president Uribe for links to paramilitaries,” quoting a British solidarity organization following the process.

After the investigation began, Cepeda received an anonymous call warning him of an assassination plot that was to take place in Bogota and was allegedly funded by two brothers, Pedro and Santiago Gallon, well-known in Colombia for their links to paramilitarism and narcotrafficking and their role in the infamous murder of national team footballer Andres Escobar outside a nightclub in 1994. The Gallon brothers are part owners of Las Guacharacas, a farm with links to paramilitary activity that they purchased from, as chance would have it, Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Uribe is quick to disassociate himself from the property—also the site where the creation of the “Metro” bloc allegedly took place—and claims it was sold completely in 1996. But, as of 2007, the remaining share of the farm was still owned by “Uribe Vélez Investments and Company.” Finally, in February, the International Criminal Court announced it was doing what the Colombian government has refused to and is investigating Uribe for his role in the extrajudicial killings of civilians by the military.

If history is a guide, these accusations will go no further than the relevant congressional committee. And if the ICC case proceeds, it will surely have to take into account the enormous diplomatic, financial, and military support from Washington. Equally discouraging, in August the Supreme Court removed Ivan Velásquez, a Supreme Court judge and special prosecutor in charge of leading investigations into connections between politicians and paramilitaries, from his position. Human Rights Watch noted at the time, “The clean-up of the house has been championed by this judge and his departure is a setback for democracy,” particularly as it occurred, the Globe and Mail pointed out, just as an investigation “closes in on Mr. Uribe’s former high-level aides.” When two Colombian columnists questioned the motives behind the treatment of Velásquez, the court threatened libel action. Uribe, who has never taken kindly to investigations into his own and his family’s possible criminal activity, has often confronted Velásquez, and there are indications he was previously involved in an attempt to discredit the judge.

A paramilitary bribed to present false testimony against Velásquez to portray him as having a vendetta against Uribe claims after he did so he was congratulated by Uribe’s cousin Mario, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in early 2011 for his connections with the AUC, and his brother Santiago, who was investigated for founding a paramilitary group during the 1990s called The Clan of the Twelve Apostles, which assassinated “guerilla sympathisers” and was so named because one of the members was a priest. The paramilitary, who came clean in 2009, was told by his lawyer the false testimony would be “a favor for some friends.” Just as it was during his presidency, confronting the grand facilitator of the Ralito Pact continues to be a risky business. In 2011, for example, a member of the commission charged with investigating the former president’s role in the state security agency’s wire-tapping of political opponents resigned after two days on the job. He had been receiving threats warning him “not to mess with Uribe.”

Over his two terms, Uribe was the consummate shill for Washington’s objectives in the region, deepening to an unprecedented extent his country’s role as a service area for the advanced industrial economies and mortgaging Colombia’s future to the caprices of foreign corporations. On leaving office, he was rewarded with the position of “Distinguished Scholar in Global Leadership” at Georgetown University. The appointment provoked a letter of complaint from a prominent Colombian priest, Javier Giraldo, who suggested the statesman’s history “would imply a need for moral censure before entrusting him with any future responsibility.” Georgetown ignored the complaint. Father Giraldo’s letter, signed by over 100 scholars, noted Uribe had supported the rise of paramilitarism in Colombia and condemned “his strategies of impunity for those who, through the government or the ‘para-government,”’committed crimes against humanity,” which will, he wrote, “go down in history for their brazenness.”

Brazen is an apt term for the autobiography released by Uribe in the midst of this latest torrent of accusations, in which he recounts the story of how one man overcame enormous odds and pulled Colombia back from the brink. No Lost Causes is the amalgam of distortions, omissions, and fabrications one would expect to justify a campaign of state and paramilitary terror. The business press, incidentally, loved it. “The Man Who Saved Colombia” ran the headline of a review in the Wall Street Journal. The Financial Times was only slightly less laudatory, praising Uribe as the “Margaret Thatcher of Latin America,” although the reviewer did feel compelled to mention his Presidency “certainly had sinister aspects.”

In the book, Uribe solemnly warns against the temptation to understand the country’s social conflict in terms of good and evil, and then proceeds to do exactly that. He rejects the notion of civilian “neutrality”—a word he places in quotation marks —in a country where the major human rights abuses have long been the responsibility of paramilitary forces linked to the state. Instead, he focuses on the real “symbol of everything that was still wrong and unjust in Colombia,” namely kidnappings by the guerillas. Once this framework of understanding is in place the remainder is largely a recounting of government rescue attempts. Uribe knows this argument will resonate. His primary achievement was to transfer the costs of the war even further away from the middle and upper classes towards the rural poor—more than 2 million people were displaced during his tenure, 5% of the population and half of the current figure, an uncontroversial statistic that does not receive a mention in the book, at last making the motorways safer for the mainly urbanized middle class to enjoy holidays or to drive to their second homes. Polls, which are disproportionately taken from the fixed telephones in the urban centers, consistently report high favorability ratings.

Much of the book is dedicated to inducing a sense of pity for a courageous man who wants nothing more than “security” and “democracy” for his country and faces constant persecution for doing so. This mentality, which justifies horrendous policies with simple-minded arguments and expresses amazement when they draw criticism, is familiar. Paramilitary boss Carlos Castaño, when asked whether his men killed people indiscriminately, responded, “There’s always a reason. The trade unionists for example. They keep people from working! That’s why we kill them.” And this was evidently all the self-justification he needed. Likewise, Salvatore Mancuso maintained that members of the AUC, responsible for more than 250,000 deaths according to cables leaked from the U.S. embassy in Bogota, were victims of the conflict and deserve reparations.

The book does little to dispel the assessment of a prominent psychiatric specialist at Bogota’s Javeriana University, who in an interview with the press this past January said he believed Uribe to be narcissistic, egocentric, and a megalomaniac, adding he appears to have “vindicatory messianic delusions.” (Quoting his autobiography: “I believed in God; I trusted in His plan. I believed that one person, surrounded by the right people and guided by the right values, was capable of making an enormous difference in a country’s destiny.”) The diagnosis is reinforced by Uribe’s behavior since he left office, defined by a sustained effort to remain part of the public consciousness. Whereas, when in power, every union action could be traced to FARC infiltration, he vocally supported a massive strike by coffee workers this year, presumably for the sole reason that the current administration was against it.

Recently, in perhaps his most audacious move, he used Twitter to leak the coordinates of a military ceasefire being undertaken to ensure a FARC guerilla could be transported to Havana to take part in the ongoing talks. A number of journalists consequently questioned his rationality and mental stability. An opposition senator suggested he be investigated for spying, a crime with a sentence of up to eight years in prison. But Santos, for his part, would go no further than calling his former boss “irresponsible.” Soon after, the popular Colombian weekly, Semana, ran an editorial titled “What to do with Uribe” and assessed his motives behind the leak, which it was widely agreed put a number of lives at risk:

“[Uribe] did it to send a signal to the effect that inside the military forces there are sectors who still listen more to him than the current government. This might be true, but to stimulate and kindle those feelings also has the consequence of generating rebellion in the barracks.”

As if it was in doubt, the self-confessed Twitter addict’s constant berating of Santos —whose own policies are not too far from his predecessor’s, although the rhetoric is different (much like in the Bush-Obama model) —is a reminder that the real goal for Latin America’s most authoritarian-minded and petulant politician is power.

And so the Colombian public was not exactly caught off guard when Uribe recently announced the coalition of politicians he formed previously was now an independent political party, named The Pure Democratic Center—the Pure has since been dropped. With considerable understatement, an opposition congressman called the title “misleading,” given the ex-President’s politics. Unable to run again for president, it is most likely Uribe will remain the power behind the party, although he has since said, with typical meekness, that he would consider running for senator in 2014 “if circumstances demand it,” echoing his peer in both economic ideology and humility, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has said, “I’d only return to politics to save France.” “If the old rooster has to return to the cockfight,” Uribe told the press, “then he will do it.” 



Ross Eventon is a freelance journalist and previously the Samuel Rubin Young Fellow at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. and a regular contributor to ZNET.



Read the rest of NACLA's Summer 2013 issue: "Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?"


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