It is fantastic to see Ingrid Betancourt free. She was the Green Party candidate running for president of Colombia against Alvaro Uribe in 2002 when she was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) just days after appealing to the FARC to stop its campaign of kidnapping. She was held hostage for more than six years and was released last week along with 14 others. The flamboyant rescue operation by the Colombian army has been splashed across newspapers and TV screens globally, but the celebration of their release should not be confused with celebration of the Colombian government.
I reached Manuel Rozental at his home in Canada. He’s a Colombian doctor and human rights activist who fled Colombia after receiving several threats on his life: “We’re talking about the regime with the worst human rights record in the continent and the army with the worst human rights record in the continent with the greatest U.S. support, including the contractors or mercenaries. So the fact that this regime was involved in this liberation does not and should not and cannot cover up the fact that it is a horrendous regime.”
Colombia has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid outside of Israel and Egypt. Amnesty International USA has called for a halt to all support for Colombia, saying “… torture, massacres, ‘disappearances’ and killings of noncombatants are widespread, and collusion between the armed forces and paramilitary groups continues to this day. In 2006, U.S. assistance to Colombia amounted to an estimated $728 million, approximately 80 per cent of which was military and police assistance.”
John McCain was in Colombia on July 2, the day Betancourt was released along with U.S. military contractors and Colombian soldiers and police officers who were held. McCain’s links to Colombia are worth noting. The Huffington Post reports that a McCain fundraising event was just given by billionaire Carl Lindner of Cincinnati, the former CEO of Chiquita Brands International. Chiquita, under Lindner’s watch, paid and armed one of the most notorious right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The U.S. government fined Chiquita $25 million for its funding and arming of the AUC, designated a “foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. State Department as early as 2001. One of the conditions of the deal was that Chiquita would not have to name the top executives involved.
The Huffington Post and The New York Times recently reported another McCain connection to Colombia. His top adviser, Charlie Black, resigned in March as chairman of the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm BKSH & Associates in order to work full time on the McCain campaign. Since 1998, BKSH has earned $1.8 million representing Occidental Petroleum, which has controversial oil operations in Colombia. Occidental worked with a military contractor and the Colombian military to counter pipeline attacks. In December 1998, the Colombian military dropped a bomb on the village of Santa Domingo, killing 11 adults and seven children. According to the Los Angeles Times, Occidental “supplied, directly or through contractors, troop transportation, planning facilities and fuel to Colombian military aircraft, including the helicopter crew accused of dropping the bomb.”
It was a photographed hug that grabbed the attention of Inter Press Service, an independent, global news agency. Soon after Betancourt was released, IPS published a story, “The General Ingrid Hugged,” about the national commander of the Colombian army, Gen. Mario Montoya. Montoya has been linked to a secret commando group from the late 1970s that bombed and massacred political opponents of the right wing. While the initial flurry of photo ops, with Betancourt hugging Montoya and standing with Uribe, has boosted public acclaim for the Uribe administration and the Colombian military, Betancourt is beginning to assert her traditionally oppositional status. She told RFI radio in France: “President Uribe, and not just President Uribe but Colombia as a whole, should change some things. … I think the time has come to change the language of radicalism, extremism and hatred, the very strong words that cause deep hurt to a human being. … There comes a time when one has to agree to talk to the people you hate.”