Analysis of Ambassador William Brownfield’s Address on Colombia

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The U.S.-Colombia relationship has surfaced as a key point of contention among Latin America policy groups, as Colombian President Álvaro Uribe had his first meeting with President Obama on Monday, June 29. In a session at the White House, the presidents discussed the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the future of Plan Colombia, as well as the establishment of new development initiatives, as President Uribe looked to secure strong bilateral ties with the Obama administration. On June 30, Uribe addressed an audience of distinguished diplomats and Latin America experts at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, to outline the advantages of his “democratic security” policies and to emphasize the progress his administration has made in combating narco-trafficking and addressing Colombia’s well-known capacity for human rights violations. In a less publicized, but equally important presentation that afternoon, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William R. Brownfield discussed the outcome of Uribe’s visit and presented his own vision of the future of U.S.-Colombia relations. He also offered key insights into the goals of the Obama administration in Colombia and openly discussed the most controversial issues facing the bilateral relationship.

Tensions in Venezuela
In his previous post, from 2004 to 2007, Mr. Brownfield served a controversial tenure as the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. While Brownfield inherited the burden of tensions that had been growing for years before he arrived in Caracas, the ambassador often needlessly provoked the anti-American sentiments of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and contributed to the further estrangement of the U.S. from Venezuela. If conciliation was a desired trait, Brownfield clearly was not the right man for the job.

Instead of meeting with members or supporters of the Chávez government to move past the hostilities in the U.S.-Venezuela relationship, Brownfield spent much of his time engaging in what many have termed “baseball diplomacy”: visiting, despite the objections of local and national leaders, poor, pro-Chávez communities to distribute donations for youth baseball leagues, schools, and charities. This condescending attempt to improve the image of the U.S. at the expense of the Chávez government—almost mocking Chávez’s social development programs—enraged Chávez supporters in a number of communities, who would often greet Brownfield with angry demonstrations and cries of “Get out, gringo!”

In one such instance in April 2006, protestors assaulted and blocked Brownfield’s car as he attempted to attend a charity event at a sports center, causing Chávez to state that Ambassador Brownfield had deliberately provoked the demonstration. Chávez threatened to expel Brownfield from Venezuela in relation to the incident. Brownfield and Chávez clashed again in December of that year, when the Ambassador alleged that the Venezuelan police did not effectively target cocaine smugglers, and again the next month when he claimed that Chávez had not fairly compensated the former U.S. owners of nationalized assets.

Brownfield is not solely to blame for the deterioration of U.S.-Venezuela relations during his tenure. Along with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, he often called for constructive engagement with the Venezuelan leader, and Chávez himself made almost no effort to meet with the U.S. Ambassador. President Chávez threatened to expel Brownfield in 2007, with his usual rodomontade of fiery rhetoric about the U.S.’s “meddling,” instead of addressing the problems that Brownfield had brought to his attention. Nevertheless, Brownfield’s “baseball diplomacy” and his frequent criticisms of Chávez only exacerbated the tension between the two nations, and his approach proved ineffective for enhancing the image and influence of the U.S. in Venezuela. Rather, the Ambassador became an easy target for Chávez’s anti-American rhetoric.

Snapshot or Video?
Needless to say, Ambassador Brownfield has enjoyed much friendlier relations with the government of Colombia, which actively has sought out a trade partnership and financial assistance from the U.S. and has thanked the Ambassador for his work. The close relations between the U.S. and Colombia are evident in the Ambassador’s approach to the Uribe administration, which appears to be the reverse of his approach to Chávez: Brownfield consistently champions the successes of the Colombian government, while deemphasizing its failures.

Ambassador Brownfield’s address at the Wilson Center focused on two contrasting perspectives by which one could assess the situation in Colombia, which he termed the “snapshot” and the “video.” On the one hand, it would be possible to isolate the salting gun of human rights violations and political scandals that have marred the Uribe administration in recent years: the continued violence against trade unionists, the false positives crisis, the DAS wiretapping scandal, the widespread links between members of Congress and paramilitary gangs. Brownfield emphasized that he, as Ambassador, could not be held accountable for fixing all of these ugly “snapshots”: “If they [Brownfield’s superiors in Washington] hold me to the snapshot standard, then my suggestion to them is, you had better find another ambassador, because… I am fairly certain that I will never be able to deliver that sort of a snapshot.” Indeed, he suggested, it is unlikely that any country in the world could “meet minimum international standards on every criterion that we could generate and ask to assess.” This sentiment, Brownfield would have one believe, appears particularly true for Colombia, which has been racked by internal conflict for forty years.

However, one could also take the point of view of a “video” that portrays the overall changes that have taken place in Colombia over the past ten years, and from this perspective, the Ambassador contended, the current situation in Colombia appears remarkably promising. In 1999, Colombia faced a third consecutive year of recession and the possibility of a coup d’état by Marxist narco-traffickers. Officials in Washington “were literally and seriously asking themselves, ‘Is it possible that FARC will win the conflict and be the government of Colombia?’” They feared that Colombia could “become the world’s first narco-state, a country whose government is controlled or dominated by organized crime and narcotics traffickers.” By comparison, an optimistic Ambassador asserted, today’s Colombia is safer, richer, and more confident in taking independent positions on the international stage.

Ambassador Brownfield believes that the “video” perspective is the best indicator of the current state of affairs in Colombia, and he feels that it represents the vision which the new administration should assume when charting the future of the bilateral relationship. It is critical, he maintains, that the two countries proceed with the realization that Colombia has changed; we must “turn this bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Colombia into a long-term, sustainable relationship” that will move beyond the crisis-management diplomacy of the past decade.

Indeed, “a relationship based upon crisis management and response and extensive foreign assistance is not sustainable. The American people and their institutions in the Congress and the executive branch will not sustain such a relationship forever. They expect crises to be resolved or at least reduced to manageable levels, and they expect the relationship to move from a relationship of foreign assistance dependency to a more sustainable relationship.” Thus, in order for the progress in Colombia to continue, Washington must adopt a broad “strategic vision” for a multidimensional relationship based on cooperation in trade, energy, the environment, social programs, and human rights. The U.S. should look beyond crises toward the advancement of the Colombian economy and society as a whole.

Brownfield’s Assessment and his Detractors
It is almost undeniable that if one accepts Ambassador Brownfield’s “video” perspective, the picture of Colombia is a positive one. His assertion that, “By any measurable criteria, Colombia today is a better country than it was in 1999” is unconvincing, but the spirit of this statement—that Colombia’s overall progress outweighs its setbacks—is backed by one stream of evidence. Since Uribe’s inauguration in 2002, the murder rate has fallen by 45 percent and the level of kidnapping by 75 percent; poverty and unemployment levels have dropped significantly, while in 2007 the economy experienced an unprecedented 7 percent growth. Most importantly, the people of Colombia feel safer and more confident in their government, as evidenced by President Uribe’s popular approval rating of 71 percent even after his seven years in office.

However, despite the signs of progress that Ambassador Brownfield was keen to illuminate, several attendees at the address posed serious challenges to his assessments. A representative of Human Rights First cited a recent report released by her organization that discusses the 32 instances since 2002 in which Colombian human rights defenders have faced baseless prosecution. A representative of the International Crisis Group pointed out that, “The video is going the wrong way” with respect to the extrajudicial executions. In the past several years, there have been over 1,000 alleged cases in the “false positives” scandal, in which innocent young men are murdered by members of the Colombian armed forces and reported as guerrillas killed in combat. Furthermore, Mr. José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Human Rights Watch Americas division, strongly condemned President Uribe’s disparaging rhetoric against human rights and union activists, and he questioned the recent wiretapping scandal that casts Uribe’s widening executive authority under suspicion.

The criticisms posed by these analysts underlie a fundamental rift among Latin America policy experts with regards to U.S.-Colombia relations. Some, like the Ambassador, feel that the immediate human rights problems and political scandals facing Colombia are sufficiently isolated as to justify a shift toward a comprehensive, long-term relationship. However, others believe that the Ambassador’s “video” metaphor obstructs the gravity of the ongoing crises, which demand immediate attention before new bilateral initiatives can proceed.

Distressing Counterclaims
Many of Ambassador Brownfield’s counterarguments were thorough and logical, given his charge: It must be recognized that the role of an ambassador, tasked with the responsibility to carry out the President’s broad vision for a proper bilateral relationship, is vastly different from that of an analyst who, for example, focuses exclusively on human rights. Brownfield pointed out, appropriately, that as ambassador, he is not obliged to accept all of the claims of Human Rights First at face value, and that it would be difficult for him to openly criticize Colombia’s judicial system for baseless prosecutions. “What we have been doing for the last nearly ten years is building, supporting, and strengthening institutions in Colombia that under their Constitution, as well as international conventions, agreements, and other documents, are designed to address just those sorts of issues [such as baseless prosecutions]… And if on the one hand I am being pressed, as I should be, to build these institutions, and then on the other hand I have people coming to me saying that you should in essence address shortcomings—or if I were a cynic, I would say, attack those institutions—I have to figure how to balance these two approaches, because at the end of the day, the solution has to come from the institutions themselves.” Indeed, for the U.S. to simultaneously support and condemn Colombia’s justice system would be inimical to real progress.

In many of his counterclaims, however, the Ambassador appeared easy to apologize for the flaws of the Uribe administration, and his approach misrepresented the severity of Colombia’s internal crisis. Particularly distressing was the Ambassador’s response to Mr. Vivanco, who found it horrifying that, “We’re looking into 1,700 cases [of false positives] under the government of Uribe,” and that the security forces, “after so much training [under Plan Colombia], are capable of committing these types of atrocities.” Brownfield promised to address the false positives scandal, “directly, specifically, and aggressively,” but instead of outlining how he planned to do this, he chose to emphasize the overall reduction in extrajudicial executions under the Uribe administration, a development which he linked to the demobilization of the AUC paramilitary group. The Ambassador speculated that it may even be possible to understand the false positives scandal in the larger context of President Uribe’s policies: These extrajudicial executions “might, in a speculative sense, represent the forces of the state that were previously farmed out or contracted out to paramilitary institutions.”

But a murder is no less a murder, whether committed by paramilitaries or soldiers. Regardless that the overall level of violence is down, the deaths of an alleged 1,700 innocent civilians at the hands of the military since 2002 is an urgent problem, not merely a bad snapshot. Ambassador Brownfield undermines this reality when he emphasizes that, “I hope to be held to a standard where I can make progress on the larger issue.” Right now Colombia faces an immediate crisis, not just a larger issue, and this can only be resolved if the Colombian government acts quickly and effectively to stop extrajudicial executions and to bring the perpetrators to justice. So far, over 700 members of the armed forces are under investigation, but the rate of conviction is extremely low.

Equally disconcerting was Ambassador Brownfield’s discussion of the recent wiretapping scandal, in which Colombia’s secret intelligence service was accused of using illegal surveillance techniques against Supreme Court judges, opposition politicians, and human rights activists. The Ambassador focused his discussion of the scandal almost entirely on Mr. Vivanco’s question as to whether or not the U.S.-provided equipment had been used in the wiretapping; he asserted that to the best of his knowledge, this has not occurred. However, once Brownfield had addressed this specific issue, he avoided discussing the scandal’s wider implications, despite that Vivanco had referred to the wiretapping as a “serious setback” under the Uribe administration.

Indeed, the wiretapping scandal is indicative of a dangerous concentration of power in a corrupt executive branch, and it raises significant concerns as to whether the U.S. should continue its uncompromised support of the Uribe administration. Regardless of whether or not U.S. companies provided the equipment, the wiretapping scandal points to a further erosion of Colombia’s democratic institutions. There is little justification for the Ambassador’s failure to criticize Uribe on this point, save as a tactic not to seek out a confrontation on such a contentious issue.

Finally, the Ambassador failed to forthrightly criticize President Uribe’s record of attacking human rights workers and union leaders as “terrorists” and “guerrilla sympathizers.” This is language that has quite properly outraged opponents of Uribe’s government. Brownfield commented in regards to Uribe’s rhetoric: “Saying to senior members of the government that they do not have a right to, or even that they should not, exercise their right to free speech, I’ve got a problem. That is a line I will not cross… If you tell me that my challenge is that I should push back at and to the best of my ability stop the sort of language that encourages, invites, or provides the opportunity for one to attack, kill, or abuse other human beings who are in the exercise of their responsibilities, that is an absolutely legitimate position to ask me to take. My problem is figuring where that line is.”

Brownfield’s defense of President Uribe’s “free speech” in this statement is a dubious argument: We would be outraged in the U.S. if our head of state openly slandered opponents of his government, and there is no reason to hold the leader of Colombia to a different standard. Moreover, in a country such as Colombia, where branding a human rights worker as a “terrorist” could pose a serious threat to his safety, and the safety of his family and community, Uribe’s words could have dangerous unintended consequences and must be condemned regardless of his “free speech.” Brownfield’s second statement, that he will “push back” to the “best of [his] ability,” is muddled by vague language and masks the fact that he is blatantly unwilling to censure Uribe’s vilifying rhetoric. His concern with “figuring where that line is” implies an anxiety to avoid confrontation with the President, at the expense of the security of those Colombians who dissent from his administration.

Moving Forward
These often inadequate responses indicate a flaw in the Ambassador’s “video” approach, which often overlooks the significance of what he considers to be “snapshots.” Brownfield referred to Colombia’s human rights crises as “continuing problems” that need to be addressed, but he did not put forth any specific strategies for confronting them. His tendency to lump together all of the humanitarian and corruption scandals as the third issue on the bilateral agenda, behind Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Agreement, undermines the reality that each constitutes a serious problem, unacceptable if U.S. resources are to be dedicated to Colombia’s struggle in this area. These are not isolated, sporadic incidents. When a country has seen 70 of its congressmen investigated for collusion with paramilitaries, and 33 intelligence officials and 27 military officers required to be fired in relation to various scandals over the past year, corruption and impunity must constitute a first, not a third, priority. Were the Ambassador’s new “strategic vision” for bilateral cooperation to be implemented, as he describes, it seems unlikely that the U.S. would put sufficient pressure on the Uribe administration to improve its record.

It is clear that Ambassador Brownfield genuinely cares about the Colombian people and that he wants the best for the U.S.-Colombia relationship. His reluctance to condemn the human rights violations and corruption scandals plaguing the Uribe administration seems to stem from a fear that any criticism would cause U.S.-Colombia relations to sour and thereby undermine the remarkable progress that has been made. Yet the Obama administration’s cautious position discounts the urgency of the crises that continue to kill and displace thousands of Colombians. Moreover, as evidenced by the numerous criticisms that the Ambassador has received, a dismissive attitude toward human rights invites the censure of prominent human rights groups and many Democratic Congressmen, thereby serving as a barrier to the proposed FTA and further advancements in U.S.-Colombia relations.

Given the significant level of U.S. military aid to Colombia and the status of the FTA that has yet to be ratified by Congress, it would be possible for the Obama administration to take a more forceful stance against human rights violations in Colombia without jeopardizing future bilateral relations. The U.S. could insert additional provisions into the text of the FTA in order to demand greater protection for activists from military and paramilitary violence, or it could establish specific targets in the reduction of civilian-targeted violence and impunity levels. It might also be necessary to comprehensively address the issue of the three million internally displaced people in Colombia with a program to provide for the education and resettlement of this population and ensure that future coca eradication programs do not displace legitimate farmers from their land. Such initiatives, while they represent reactions to immediate crises, should not preclude the inception of the long-term initiatives proposed by the Ambassador.

Ultimately, a long-term victory over Colombia’s violence, drug trafficking, and human rights problems can only be won through sustainable means—foreign investment, economic development initiatives, improvements in education and healthcare, and modernized infrastructure. As Ambassador Brownfield emphasized, people need a reason to feel invested in their communities and their country before they will stop producing coca or joining criminal or insurgent bands. By engaging with Colombia on a wide range of issues, while confronting the immediate challenges that have so far received too little attention, the U.S. has the opportunity to help Colombia move toward a period of greater peace and social cohesion.