Human Rights in Colombia: Rep. Jim McGovern (D)

04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A few days ago, I sat down with representative Jim McGovern, a democrat from the third district of Massachusetts. This time the opportunity was an interview for the Colombian daily newspaper El Espectador. We had crossed path before to talk about the slim chances for a peace process in Colombia, but in recent times it was the Peace without Border concert promoted by the Colombian pop star Juanes that gave us more opportunities to get together.

During those months of last summer leading up to the concert in Havana, I could appreciate the resilience, the straight thinking and the deep dedication of this politician and his staff for causes he believes in. This time, I knocked on his door to talk again about Colombia, a country and a people of which he has a deep knowledge. When he travels there, in general once a year, he avoids fancy meetings in the centers of Colombian politics and privileges peripheral communities in the remote regions of Putumayo or Arauca that have been marked for decades by political violence and narco trafficking.

And even when he travels to Bogota, rather then indulging in meetings at the Presidential palace or even at the U.S. Embassy, Jim McGovern reaches the marginal barrios of the capital, such as Soacha or Ciudad Bolivar. "I go where the people live," he told me underscoring his interest is in observing and taking notes of the effects of policy and power, rather then shaking hands with the powerful, and hanging out in luxurious ranches.

Thus, McGovern is a politician, who has a complex reading and understanding of this country of Latin America to which financial aid from U.S. has been flowing generously, primarily, so far, to support the strengthening of the military. The lens that McGovern uses to read Colombia is that of human rights. To him, the promotion of a culture and practice of human rights is essential even for achieving security and laying the foundation for lasting peace.

This is why McGovern does not like everything he sees when it comes to Colombia. Especially the killing of hundreds innocent young men, falsely presented as war causalities (in Colombia they are euphemistically called false positives), provokes outrage in this representative of Massachusetts -- as does in several of his colleagues in Congress. When he considers necessary, he can be a staunch critic of U.S. policy towards Latin America, and Colombia in particular. In a delicate moment for Colombia, when the concerns for human rights are once again high and when the president is flirting with the idea of a second re-election, it was a good thing to do to sit down with Jim McGovern and get his perspective.

In his recent trip to Colombia, the number two of the State Department, James Steinberg, defined Plan Colombia as "very effective", and as an "important success case." Do you share his assessment?

There are a lot of challenges, especially in the area of human rights. The issue of false positives continues to be a major concern to many of us in Congress. We continue to be concerned about the internally displaced. How can you say that a policy has been a success when so many people living inside of Colombia are displaced -- and hundreds of thousands have fled the country due to violence? There will never really be success until the war is over.

You defined the outcomes of Plan Colombia as "depressing," but you cannot deny that there was some progress.

Colombia continues to evolve and some things have changed for the better, but I don't think anybody can go down right now and say the plan has worked or "mission accomplished." There's great potential, there are great opportunities to try to create a more just society, where there is real investment in community-based development, and a society that hopefully someday will be free from this violence.

You described communities you visited last year in Colombia as cheering because of Obama's election. The skepticism towards the current U.S. administration is growing throughout the region. Should those communities still be cheering?

I think that the Obama policy towards Latin America is still a work in progress. To be fair, the whole world is in turmoil and the United States, unfortunately, in my opinion, is stuck in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now there is Haiti. As a result, I think, they are still trying to figure out what their policy in Latin America should be. I wish things were moving much faster, but there's a lot going on in the world.

But your government did find the time to negotiate and sign the agreement to use seven military bases.

I'm still not quite sure why we need those military bases, why we need that. I have yet to get a convincing argument from the Administration of why that is necessary. But if it is necessary, they didn't do a very good job of explaining it. And not just to the United States Congress, but to the people of the region.

When it comes to Colombia, does the Obama administration get it?

I'm worried that the United States looks at Colombia through a very narrow lens. There are some who believe that our only interest in Colombia should be drugs and counter-insurgency, and everything else is secondary. And I think that's the wrong way to view Colombia. I think human rights should be a central part of U.S. foreign policy and I think that when we see reports about false positives, and the activities of the DAS, it's outrageous. We should be willing to be an ally and a partner and a supporter of Colombia, but you shouldn't ignore issues like human rights, extreme poverty, or the internally displaced population. Those people are suffering. Those things need to be addressed.

So, you are against Plan Colombia.

It's not that I'm against Plan Colombia. I'm against this Plan Colombia. There should be a Plan Colombia for victims to help these people who have suffered so much.

Under the leadership of defense minister Santos, the military has been internally addressing the issue of human rights. You are not satisfied?

Colombian government officials told us that the military has changed and that everything is now perfect. Then you read again about human rights abuses committed by members of the military, and in some cases covered up by high-ranking members of the military, you can't help but wonder whether there's an institutional problem that exists within the Colombian military, that somehow they're above the law.

Do you think that those government officials lied to you?

A few years ago, when asking the Uribe government whether or not they believed that there was a connection between the military and paramilitaries, I was told ""Oh no, oh no." Then we find out very vividly that there is this connection and then the response is "Oh, we're so surprised!" You know, its kind of like that movie Casablanca, when Claude Rains says to Humphrey Bogart, "I'm shocked that there is gambling going on here," and then Humphrey Bogart hands Claude Rains his winnings. I think it's important for the Colombian government to acknowledge publicly that there are problems and that we need to fix them.

These are issues that 53 members of Congress addressed in a strong letter to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging the administration to change its policy towards Colombia. Any response?

I'm glad that the deputy secretary brought the letter to President Uribe. There are some of us in Congress trying to get our Administration to kind of expand their view on Colombia and that being insistent that Colombia adhere to a high standard of human rights is not inconsistent with maintaining security. The people of Colombia should not only be assured that they'll be protected from the FARC, but they should also be assured that they'll be protected from their own military, or their own police, including not collaborating with paramilitary and illegal armed groups.

You sound very critical of President Uribe.

I personally like President Uribe. I think he has a lot that he can be proud of in terms of what he's accomplished, but there are other issues that really deserve attention. People who come forward (delete comma) and defend populations that have been mistreated are not the enemies of the state. Too often we've seen in Colombia human rights defenders treated and labeled as terrorists. That needs to change.

So, would you give to Uribe a pass or a fail?

I'm not here to beat up on President Uribe. I want him to succeed, but I want him to pay more attention, and I want my government to pay, more attention to the victims.

There are those in Colombia who think that, by speaking out for human rights, you end up supporting the FARC.

I guess the question is, what are the consequences if you're silent? What are the consequences if nobody raises the issue of human rights? Do things get better? Or do institutional forces within the government believe they can operate more freely with impunity, and to continue some of the human rights abuses?

You are very critical of the US policy towards Colombia, and of the Colombian government.

I'm a United States Congressman. When my government does something I disagree with, or behaves badly, I raise my voice. I criticized my government when it went to war in Iraq. It doesn't mean I'm unpatriotic. It means I love my country enough to speak out to try to make it better. Dissent is not a bad thing. Dissent is a cornerstone of a democracy. What strengthens the FARC is when members of the military are involved in human rights violations. That gives more comfort to the enemy than putting someone in jail who's committed the human rights abuse.

From what you say, I understand that the false positives are a very big issue here in Washington.

This issue of false positives is a big issue and it is a serious issue. And if the Colombian government doesn't believe it's a big or serious issue, then I think they are going to have a problem with members of Congress.

What should the Colombian government do?

The issue of impunity is a real problem. The best way to put that behind you is to investigate and prosecute and put in jail people who commit human rights abuses. Period. It's not that complicated.

Listening to you I am not surprised that Piedad Cordoba calls you a friend. What do you think of her?

Yes, I got to know Piedad Cordoba and I give her credit for helping to facilitate the release of some of the hostages. That's a good thing. When families can get reunited with their loved ones who have been taken hostage by the FARC, why is that a bad thing that somebody wants to end that suffering? This is a humanitarian crisis and I think it's important that those hostages be reunited with their families.

Piedad Cordoba is also very close to Chavez. That doesn't bother you?

I'm not a fan of Hugo Chavez. I think he's a grandstander, but to the extent that the Venezuelan government or any government can play a positive role in facilitating hostage release, I don't think that's a bad idea. I understand President Uribe's frustration with President Chavez. He actually has a legitimate basis to be frustrated with the Venezuelan government.

And what do you make of the FARC?

Let me be clear. I'm not sympathetic to the FARC. They are terrorists. They have committed human rights abuses and atrocities that I think are atrocious, and horrible, and are beyond comprehension. Their practices of kidnapping is immoral. This is a force that deserves great condemnation at every time.

Are you still available to offer your personal support for the release of hostages?

If in any way, shape, or form, I can be of help in doing anything to release a single hostage, I will do it.

The hostage issue is not a humanitarian one for the Colombian government. The FARC declared it's readiness to release Moncayo almost a year ago, and he is still in the mountains. What do you make of it?

It is a humanitarian crisis. How else could you possible describe it? This is beyond my comprehension. I don't think it's acceptable to dismiss the hostage crisis as yet just another casualty of war. Yes, I wish the FARC released them all unilaterally. Immediately. I don't buy the notion that somehow the FARC is winning propaganda points by releasing these hostages. If anything, it exposes how backward, and how rotten, and how terrible the FARC is.

Do you think the Obama Administration would be supportive of a peace process?

I don't know. It's too early to say. Without a peace process, then we're talking about living with war forever and ever and ever. The FARC doesn't go away. This cycle of violence continues.

Here in Washington did you run into someone supporting the re-election of President Uribe?

I don't find anybody in Washington. I know no one, including amongst his strongest supporters, in the Congress, in the media, who would urge him to run again. If he runs again, it becomes difficult to criticize people like Chavez and others who want to keep running and running and running.