In the jubilation around the sensational release of Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages from the FARC guerillas in Colombia, it's easy to ignore Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba. But with her reddened brown eyes bubbling with tears she tries to contain, Cordoba provides a unique view into the effects of U.S. military policy in Latin America. But it's not clear if either John McCain fresh from his Colombia tour or Barack Obama are listening.
During one of several public events she participated in during her visit to New York, Cordoba, an outspoken critic of the administration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, did not, unlike Senator McCain, laud the effects of U.S. military aid to her country. "The (U.S.) aid is being given to a corrupt democracy, a democracy that governs through fear and terror," said Cordoba, a former president of both the Colombian Human Rights Commission and Congress. She was herself kidnapped by 12 heavily-armed paramilitary operatives as she left a medical clinic in 2004. "The (Colombian) government uses the money and arms from Plan Colombia (PC) not just to combat drug traffickers," she said, adding, "It's also used to silence those of us who speak out against the government. They try to silence us by kidnapping, disappearing and even killing many of us."
In a hemisphere that, with increasing frequency, rejects Washington's free-trade and drug war policies, Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama would do well to listen to denunciations by Cordoba and other critics of U.S.-backed governments like those of Colombia and Mexico, where McCain just voiced his support for that country's equivalent of the drug war, Plan Merida, also known as "Plan Mexico."
Candidates McCain and Obama's failure to denounce the exponential increase in atrocities committed by the governments of Colombia's Uribe and of Mexico's Felipe Calderon may signal that neither will be the "change" candidate when it comes to U.S. policy in Latin America. For example, though McCain did discuss human rights during his meeting with Uribe, he did so in soft tones that lacked the stridency and urgency heard with regard to other human rights abuses discussed on the "straight talk express," where the candidate regularly references his imprisonment and torture. For his part though, he opposes the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia (FTA). Senator Obama has been generally supportive of Plan Colombia, a policy that has yielded little to inspire "hope" in the hemisphere.
In the past seven years, the more than $700 million that Colombia, which has one of the worst human rights records in the Americas, receives in mostly military aid each year under PC, has done little to deter drug flows and lots to foment fear and terror. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, at least 28 trade unionists have been killed so far this year in Colombia, making it the country with the world's highest rate of killings of trade unionists and increases in extra judicial executions. Four million Colombians have been internally displaced since the commencement of PC, and most of the four million Colombians living outside their country migrated during that period also.
In a letter sent to McCain earlier this week, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, reminded the Senator that "more than 60 members of President Álvaro Uribe's coalition in the Colombian Congress -- representing approximately 20 percent of the Congress -- are under investigation for rigging elections or collaborating with paramilitaries, considered terrorists by the United States." Neither candidate has raised the alarm on the atrocities of the Uribe government.
As he toured Mexico, McCain said nothing about the fact that U.S. military aid under Plan Merida contributed to the record 468 civilians that were killed in Mexico because of drug wars between the government and cartels in the month of June. That month saw 509 civilians killed in Iraq. Neither McCain nor Obama --both of whom support Plan Mexico -- discuss publicly how our southern neighbor, a country with no previous history of the militarization seen in the rest of the hemisphere, has witnessed what some are calling "Colombianization": 25,000 troops and police deployed throughout the country; illegal detentions and unlawful searches; corruption linked from local officials to the highest levels of government; increased internal displacement and migration out of conflicted areas.
Ninety-six members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to the governor of the State of Mexico and the country's Attorney General calling for an investigation into the case of 26 female detainees who were physically, sexually and psychologically abused in San Salvador Atenco. In the first five months of this year there were 300 human rights claims - double the rate from the previous year, according to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission. And as McCain toured Mexico, he acted as if he was blind to the most recent scandal in the country: revelations of a "training" video showing police officers in the city of Leon forcing a fellow officer to crawl through vomit and injecting carbonated water into the nose of another. An instructor identified by Mexican officials as the employee of a U.S. security firm yells out commands in English.
Should they continue to support deadly military policies, hiding under cover of anti-drug policy, McCain and Obama threaten to continue policies that increase migration flows and repression against civilians, something no candidate who is about being a "maverick" or a "change" agent should be silent about.