Colombia: Secretary of State Kerry’s visit, and Senator Kerry’s record

Secretary of State Kerry and Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín.

John Kerry is about to make his second trip to Latin America as secretary of state. The first was in June, when he attended the OAS General Assembly meeting in Guatemala. This time, he is to go to Colombia on Sunday and Monday, and then to Brazil.

In Colombia, Secretary of State Kerry is expected to discuss with President Juan Manuel Santos the ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, for which the Obama administration has expressed support; the issue of security and Colombia’s provision of security assistance to third countries; and the state of bilateral trade two years after approval of a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.

In his 28 years as a U.S. senator with a strong interest in foreign affairs, John Kerry has a long record of positions on U.S. policy toward Latin America. He opposed the Reagan administration’s massive aid to abusive regimes in Central America, especially aid to the Nicaraguan contras, during the civil wars of the 1980s. He has criticized the U.S. approach to Cuba as “frozen, stalemated.”

During the past 15 years, though, Senator Kerry consistently supported the aid packages that made Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. military assistance in Latin America.

His support for “Plan Colombia,” however, was neither full-throated nor wholehearted. While Senator Kerry supported assistance to curtail drug trafficking, he criticized insufficient emphasis on drug treatment to reduce demand at home. He expressed concerns about the possibility that counter-drug aid could evolve into a larger counter-insurgency mission (as it did during the 2000s). He criticized the Colombian government’s human rights record, and endorsed human rights conditions that his Senate colleagues applied to U.S. military assistance. He has even at times urged the State Department not to certify improvements in the Colombian military’s human rights record, as required by foreign aid law.

Here are excerpts from Senator John Kerry’s record on Colombia, the country that Secretary of State John Kerry will be visiting in a few days.

From his 1998 book The New War, where he characterized drug cartels as a principal threat.

Drugs have made Colombia rich; the nation is awash in profits earned by the export of cocaine to the US and the rest of the world.

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But the country has been all but stolen from its people, virtually taken over by the drug cartels. … A willing army of young Colombians enlist with the cartels, dreaming of easy money, while some young Colombians join the police, army, and customs department just to make money by cooperating with drug criminals.

From the June 22, 2000 Senate debate on the “Plan Colombia” aid appropriation, where he supported the aid package as a flawed but necessary option. Here, he raised concerns about counterinsurgency entanglements, displacement, human rights, and insufficient attention to domestic drug demand. He said he expected Europe to counter-balance the U.S. aid package’s lopsided emphasis on military aid. This did not happen.

Colombia’s situation is bleak, and this may be its last chance to begin to dig its way out. If we fail to support aid to Colombia, we can only sit back and watch it deteriorate even further.
… My first concern is the fine line that exists between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations, particularly since they are so intertwined in Colombia. It is impossible to attack drug trafficking in Colombia without seriously undercutting the insurgents’ operations. We must acknowledge that the more involved in Colombia’s counternarcotics efforts we become the more we will become involved in its counterinsurgency, regardless of our intentions to steer clear of it. But, because the drug trade is the most destabilizing factor in Colombia, our cooperation with the government will over the long run, advance the development and expansion of democracy, and will limit the insurgents’ ability to terrorize the civilian population. But our military involvement in Colombia should go no further than this. Efforts to limit number of personnel are designed to address this.
I appreciate the concerns expressed by my colleagues that the United States contribution to Plan Colombia is skewed in favor of the military, but we must keep in mind that our contribution is only a percentage of the total Plan. … As part of our contribution, and to balance military aid, the United States must continue to support Colombian requests for additional funding from international financial institutions and other EU donors. We must also continue to implement stringent human rights vetting and end-use monitoring agreements, and make sure that our Colombia policy does not end with the extension of aid.
Second, I am concerned that even if the Plan is successful at destroying coca production and reducing the northward flow of drugs, large numbers of coca farmers will be displaced, worsening the current crisis of internally displaced people in Colombia.
My third major concern with respect to this aid package is that it does not adequately address Colombia’s human rights problem. … I would like to commend my colleagues on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee for bolstering the human rights component of this legislation.
Despite my reservations, the potential benefits of this plan are too large to ignore. In light of the changes made by the committee, I believe the plan can help advance United States interests by reducing drug trafficking and thereby promoting stability and democracy in Colombia. We must now work to ensure that our concerns do not become realities.
… Increasing funding and expanding drug treatment and prevention programs are absolutely imperative if we are to coordinate an effective counterdrug campaign, particularly if we are to expect any real improvement in the situation in Colombia.
… As we support Colombia’s efforts to attack the sources of illegal drugs, we need to make sure we are addressing our own problems. … It is clear that drug treatment works, and there is no excuse for the high numbers of addicts who have been unable to receive treatment. As we increase funding for supply reduction programs in Colombia, we must increase funding for treatment to balance and complement it.

A July 26, 2004 letter to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe from 23 U.S. senators, including Senator Kerry, expressing human rights concerns and supporting the work of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

We remain deeply concerned about the continued levels of violence directed at the civilian population. There are reports of increased violations, such as extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, attributed directly to Colombian security forces. In addition, guerrillas continued their indiscriminate use of explosive devices against civilians while paramilitary forces carried out assassinations and massacres despite the existence of a cease fire. We believe that an adherence to UNHCHR’s recommendations will help to establish the “democratic security” for all Colombians to which you are personally committed.

The most urgent of UNHCHR’s recommendations is to cut ties between the army and paramilitary forces engaged in abuses, by suspending, investigating and vigorously prosecuting officials engaged in such collaboration.

… We remain concerned about the commitment of the Attorney General’s office to investigate high-level officials implicated in human rights violations and links to paramilitary groups.

The United Nations also raises important points regarding the vulnerability of human rights defenders, journalists and union leaders. Your government’s protection program for human rights and union leaders is important. However, progress investigating and prosecuting threats and attacks against such leaders is essential.

An October 15, 2004 statement from the Kerry for President campaign

President Uribe has achieved deserved popular support for his efforts to make Colombia more secure. I have been encouraged by declining levels of murders, massacres and kidnappings and progress in addressing the challenges of drug trafficking, guerrillas and paramilitaries. I am further encouraged that the Colombian government has agreed to use the recommendations of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a framework for achieving the just peace that all Colombians deserve.
A persistent cycle of violence, such as that occurring in Colombia, can ultimately be broken only by combining greater security efforts with ending impunity, strengthening the rule of law and the defense of human and labor rights. For Colombians, that means condemning and putting a stop to the kidnappings, killings, and extortion practiced by outlawed guerrilla groups and by paramilitary groups who continually violate international humanitarian law. It also requires severing all links between the security forces and the paramilitaries; punishing those in uniform who have perpetrated these links and engage in extrajudicial killings and abuses; and better protecting judges, prosecutors, journalists, human rights activists and unionists from intimidation, violence and murder.
In Colombia, we must focus on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency at the same time as we support the rule of law, alternative development, and the expansion of legitimate state authority to achieve a durable peace. As a Senator I have consistently supported Plan Colombia; and, as President, I will work with President Uribe to keep the bipartisan spirit in Washington alive in support of Plan Colombia, while insisting on progress on ending the violence against civilians.

A July 1, 2005 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 22 U.S. senators, including Senator Kerry. The letter urges the secretary of state not to “certify” that the Colombian military’s human rights record is improving, thus freeing up a portion of military assistance. This letter includes an early mention of a practice that, three years later, would erupt in Colombia as the “false positives” scandal of extrajudicial executions.

We believe there has been insufficient progress in suspending from the armed forces, investigating and vigorously prosecuting security force members who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights, or who have aided or abetted paramilitary organizations. Even some of the highest-profile cases have not advance.
… Greater progress in breaking links between the army and paramilitary forces is
imperative. The United Nations notes “continued reports… of cases in which
coordinated operations have been carried out by members of the security forces and
paramilitary groups, and cases in which the victims had been detained by members of the paramilitary forces and subsequently reported by the army as having been killed in combat.”
… We believe that it is time for the State Department to make clear to the Colombian government that further progress regarding its own security forces is necessary prior to certification. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Statement on World Refugee Day, June 20, 2012

In Colombia, where conflict has displaced an estimated 4 million people, our partners are helping the government to provide reparations and land restitution to affected individuals and families.

September 4, 2012 statement upon the announcement of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC

Colombians have suffered for far too long from the violence and insecurity associated with its decades-long internal armed conflict. President Santos has taken the difficult steps toward negotiating a political solution and has indicated that lessons learned from prior peace talks will be taken into consideration. This is an important and welcome sign. Any negotiation that helps strengthen Colombia’s democracy, promote the respect for the rule of law and human rights, and bring peace to the country is a good thing and deserves support.

Senator Kerry at his January 24, 2013 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

One of the great stories of Latin America is Colombia … President Uribe stepped up in a critical moment and began the process of rescuing that nation, President Santos is now doing an amazing job, we strengthened the relationship by passing the economic trade agreement. We have to build on that. And that is an example for the rest of Latin America of what awaits them… [Also] hope to bridge the gap with some of the other countries.