Father Rafael, whose visit to the United States was sponsored by a number of U.S. groups and individuals and organized by the Madison, Wisconsin-based Colombia Support Network (CSN), had been scheduled to speak in 10 cities (including a meeting with Congressional staffers in Washington, D.C.) during his 4-week tour of the United States and Canada. Gallego was expected to describe his pastoral work in his home parish of Tiquisio in Bolivar Department, in north central Colombia.
Some senior Colombian church leaders who supported Father Rafael’s visa application were given the impression that it had been denied in response to opposition to his visit from the Colombian military. At first glance, the State Department’s action appears indefensible given the almost daily scandals perpetrated by the Uribe government and the Colombian military. The most recent scandal, involving what are called “false positives”, involves kidnapping of innocent noncombatants by Colombian Army units in one area, taking them to a different area of the country and murdering them, then turning up their bodies as “guerrillas killed in combat”, and receiving rewards for these killings, such as increased pay or more vacation time. Each of them is a “positive” in the Army’s lingo, i.e., a person supposedly killed in the Army’s long battle against the FARC or ELN guerrillas, but they are “false” because they were not in fact guerrillas, nor were they killed in combat.
While the State Department would be hard-pressed to create a case that Father Rafael, who has worked tirelessly for the well-being of his parishioners, represents anything like a security threat to the United States, it is true that his name has appeared on a “hit list” issued by the “Aguilas Negras” (Black Eagles) paramilitaries, who operate with near-impunity in the Tiquisio area and throughout much of the rest of Colombia and whose membership in Colombia’s paramilitaries rightly classifies them as “terrorists.”
The Aguilas Negras surely do not want Father Rafael to travel abroad to publicize their misdeeds. His visa denial, which was done by the U.S. Consulate in Bogotá in apparent consultation with Colombian authorities, begs for a closer look at what are the connections between the Uribe Administration, the Colombian Army and the paramilitaries. It further illustrates the fact that the Colombian military has cordial ties to the Aguilas Negras. Even though the commander of the Colombian army was forced to resign a few days ago as a result of the “false positives” scandal, the State Department has no problem in vetoing the right of highly regarded U.S. groups focused on Colombian-American relations, like the CSN, to invite a humble parish priest to this country who is renowned for his good deeds, while almost routinely providing suspect Colombian Army officers visas to come to the United States to study in the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas). Furthermore, the U.S. government has financed the Colombian armed forces through Plan Colombia at the rate of more than 5 billion dollars over the past decade, while tolerating egregious misdeeds by that nation’s military.
What is most remarkable is where the U.S. government seems to be establishing its human rights benchmarks as a result of guidance from the Colombian military (with the support of President Alvaro Uribe and the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá), in an atmosphere where the Colombian President has done less than nothing to address the problem of having more than 4 million internally-displaced people (now more than any other country in the world) and upwards of fifty pro-government legislators facing indictment by the country’s prosecutor and Supreme Court over their ties to Colombia’s illegal, terrorist paramilitaries, as well as the continuing threats against and murders of labor union leaders. This is but part of the reason why a pending bilateral Free Trade Agreement with Colombia has been turned down by the U.S. Congress, including a vote against the measure cast by Senator Barack Obama. We would hope that the ban against Father Rafael’s visit would be overturned by Washington once the new President is inaugurated, given that the President-elect voted against the FTA with Colombia on human rights grounds.
The CSN, along with COHA and associated U.S. organizations which helped plan Father Rafael’s trip, has compiled a lengthy list of abuses and corrupt acts fomented by the Colombian military.
CSN and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) are continuing to make representations to U.S. and Colombian officials condemning unprincipled actions of the Colombian government and Washington’s shared complicity in its stalwart defense of its Colombian allies, including its veto of Father Rafael’s planned visit. The expectation is that under an Obama administration respect for life and observance of human rights will be a centerpiece of its foreign policy, and one would hope that the new administration in Washington would take immediate steps to inculcate the staff of its embassy and consulate in Bogotá to uphold the sense of rectitude and honorable deportment that should accurately project U.S. domestic values abroad.
In recognition of the transgressions now being perpetrated by Colombian authorities, which now are appearing on the front pages of U.S. newspapers, Washington should welcome, not shun, genuine democrats who, like Father Rafael, work courageously and at great personal risk to improve their society by translating theoretical rights into practical ones. Such potential guests should be praised and rewarded for having put U.S. democratic values to the test. The State Department’s action in cancelling Father Rafael’s visit was a shameful action that needs to be condemned and reversed.
John I. Laun, President
Larry Birns, Director