By James Patrick Jordan – Jun 12, 2023
As Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez near the one year anniversary of their election, efforts to undermine their government are escalating. In some cases, these have included assassination threats and attempts, and calls for a coup. Many political opponents are engineering what increasingly appears to be an effort to remove President Petro by “lawfare,” manipulations designed to give a semblance of legality in the removal of legitimately elected governments. For many, all these elements are familiar, as if they are taken from playbooks for coups in Latin America and elsewhere that were supported by the government of the United States. Another approaching anniversary is the 50th anniversary of the US supported coup against Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973. It is not at all unreasonable for us to look at what is happening today in Colombia and ask if US actors are playing any role in this unrest.
Context: Threats to the Petro/Marquez administration
Since the beginning of the year, there have been two assassination attempts against Vice President Francia Márquez, an eco-defender and grassroots leader who is the first woman and Afro-Colombian to hold that office. Both she and President Petro have been the targets of numerous threats. Another incident occurred when social media posts appeared calling for people to invade the Casa de Nariño, the residency of President Petro, on April 19 of this year, in a proposed “popular coup”. Although nothing came of this, it was widely reported in the media and personally denounced by President Petro.
On May 10, more than 3,000 members of ACORE (Colombian Association of Retired Military Officers) participated in a demonstration organized by their former president and retired colonel John Marulanda. Marulanda stated that, “I believe that Colombia is following the steps of Peru and I believe that in Peru the reserves were successful in the sense that there they were able to oust a corrupt president. We are going to do our best here to oust a guy who was a guerrilla.” Marulanda was referring to removal of the elected President of Peru Pedro Castillo in a US supported “lawfare” coup last December. Also, in his youth, Gustavo Petro had been a member of the M-19 insurgency.
These threats, assassination attempts, and calls for a coup occur while politicians opposed to Petro undermine the government via “lawfare.” One early sign was the targeting of Colombia’s Minister of Mines and Energy, Irene Velez, with calls for her resignation. Velez is a cabinet member who is much vilified on the right because she is an environmentalist who seeks to develop more sustainable methods of mining and energy development with community consultation preceding new enterprises. Velez’ took a bold step with huge impact when she announced a halt to all oil and gas exploration. She is developing a new mining code that prioritizes small scale and artisanal mining over big, corporate enterprises, and seeks to democratize that sector to ensure enhanced social and environmental responsibility.
Colombia is infamous for selling its natural resources to the highest bidders without regard for the damage to communities and the ecosystems where they live. In fact, in many cases, these corporations have colluded with and paid paramilitaries to assassinate eco-defenders, Indigenous mining opponents, and union organizers. For instance, Drummond Coal, with corporate headquarters near Birmingham, Alabama, infamously paid paramilitaries from the AUC (United Self-defense Forces of Colombia) to murder two leaders of the Sintramienergetica union in the Department of César. The Petro administration recently ordered the arrest of Alfredo Araujo, who was the highest Colombia based executive of Drummond when the murders took place.
A particular blow to the president and his Historic Pact (Pacto Histórico) political coalition was the exit of certain traditional parties resulting in the loss of a majority in congress. This seriously hampered the Petro administration’s hopes for passing much needed health, agricultural, and labor reforms. Consideration of those reforms was completely derailed at least for several months when they were suspended pending the investigation of allegations of wiretapping against Petro’s former Chief of Staff, Laura Sarabia, and of campaign fraud. In the case of the Sarabia allegations, she is accused of engaging government agents to illegally spy on a woman she employed as a nanny, whom she suspected had stolen money from her. Petro has denied any knowledge of or involvement in this. The allegations of campaign fraud stem from the recording of former Colombian Ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, speaking about the Sarabia matter, that he maintains was manipulated.
These latest scandals are plastered all over the media in Colombia and are on the lips of every politician arrayed against the Petro administration and the Historic Pact. However, for anyone familiar with Colombian history so far in this 21st Century, the evidence that is most abundantly clear is that of double standards.
For instance, let’s look at former President Álvaro Uribe, darling of the ultra-right, “father of the paramilitaries”, and, according to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, one of Colombia’s Top 100 Narco-Traffickers. If ever there were a “Teflon presidency” in Colombia, it was that of Uribe. During and since his time in office, he has faced multiple allegations, multiple charges of crimes, yet still has remained out of jail and in positions of power and influence. The administration of President Uribe was embroiled in a wiretapping scandal that resulted in the dismantling of the hated DAS (Administrative Department of Security) for its spying on supreme court justices, congress persons, and journalists—accusations at least as serious as those against Sarabia for spying on a nanny. According to testimony from former Deputy Director of DAS, Fernando Tabares, he attended a 2007 meeting with DAS Director Martha Leal and Uribe’s Chief of Staff, Bernardo Moreno. Tabares maintains that, “I was told that it was a direct order from the President of the Republic,”, and that the wiretaps were “nothing unusual.” President Juan Manuel Santos, who had been Uribe’s Minister of Defense, and, then, Vice President, disbanded DAS in 2011.
One doesn’t have to look back to 2007 to see clear indications of double standards. While Colombia’s Federal Attorney General Francisco Barbosa launches a very public investigation into the Sarabia wiretapping scandal, his office is avoiding an even more serious allegation of spying by his ally in the Ombudsman’s office, Carlos Camargo, who was accused in May of intercepting private communications between members of the SINDHEP Human Rights workers union before expelling them from the negotiation table.
Barbosa is no stranger to double standards. Nor is he a stranger to launching investigations of wiretapping in order to divert attention from his political patrons and allies. During the 2018 election cycle a group of police officer whistle blowers came forward with evidence of election fraud. Specifically, the officers uncovered evidence that the election campaign of President Ivan Duque had sought mafia support and that his Party, the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) had conspired with José Guillermo Hernández to launder the contributions.
Barbosa accused the whistleblower police of wiretapping other police officers to obtain the information. Barbosa’s allegations were widely interpreted as an attempt to cover up the fraud, as well as to divert attention away from ongoing investigations against former President Uribe. Barbosa, himself, is a close friend to Uribe and also had worked with one of the main suspects involved in the 2018 fraud allegations.
These latest investigations and scandal allegations take place following indications that the Petro administration is serious about ending the almost 100% rate of impunity for paramilitary and military crimes. It is no coincidence that these investigations are proceeding directly following the arrest of Drummond’s Araujo, but also just after the declaration of Salvatore Mancuso, former second in command of the AUC, to the JEP (Special Jurisdiction for the Peace), that he is prepared to give testimony linking Colombia’s political and business establishments with paramilitaries in specific crimes.
Barbosa’s concern about election fraud is also highly selective. As for Benedetti’s claim that his recordings were manipulated, there is some precedence for this sort of thing as well. In the illegal 2008 Colombian Air Force bombing of a FARC negotiation camp in Ecuador, many will remember the saga of the “magic computers.” These were recovered and used for accusations against everyone from union leaders to then President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. However, those computers were “lost” at certain points in the chain of custody and showed clear evidence of tampering by the government of Álvaro Uribe. When we see such patterns emerge, we cannot be dismissive of Benedetti’s claims about the recordings..
Is there a US role?
It is not too much of a stretch to conclude that the enemies of democracy and the opponents of the Petro administration in Colombia are prepared to use a variety of approaches to bring down this government. But, what about the United States? Might the US, or US actors, support a coup in Colombia?
Unfortunately, there are signs that, true to form, US actors may well be doing just that. Real democracy in Colombia is not something the US wants. Sovereignty, independence, and popular power are not conducive to maintaining Colombia as Uncle Sam’s favorite puppet in the hemisphere.
Lawfare is a method that has become increasingly popular on the part of the Latin American right, more often than not, with US support. A few examples are the removal of Manuel Zelaya from the presidency in Honduras in 2009, the violent but short lived 2019 coup in Bolivia, and the removal of Peru’s elected President Pedro Castillo in 2022. In each of these cases, the US played a direct role.
There are indications that the Biden administration is taking a multi-faceted approach to reining in any attempts by Petro and Marquez to act independently or at odds with US designs for the region. On one hand, we see displays of cordial relations. On the other hand, there were more questionable activities, including a scheme by DEA agents to embarrass and derail the Petro campaign even before he had won the presidency.
Various reports relating to ongoing cases against former Senator Piedad Córdoba and her brother, Álvaro, show that US agents from the DEA posed as Mexican narcotraffickers who attended an event organized by the former senator and tried to have photos taken with then-candidate Petro, and to offer him campaign contributions. While the cases against the Córdobas are themselves problematic and full of irregularities and based on the testimonies of paid informants, the efforts of the DEA agents to associate directly with the Petro campaign constitutes direct interference in Colombia’s electoral affairs.
It is notable that while a senator, Petro was one of a few voices who spoke out strongly against the charges brought against former FARC commander and peace negotiator Jesús Santrich, who was jailed and facing extradition based on a spurious case brought by the DEA. It has been shown that, from the beginning, the snitch used to entrap Santrich intended to bring about the collapse of Colombia’s peace process. The case was based on unsubstantiated evidence, and false and contradictory statements solicited by paid informants. Santrich eventually returned to arms after repeatedly being targeted by the state and the DEA and threatened with assassination by paramilitaries and even members of he Colombian Armed Forces. He was eventually murdered in an ambush in Venezuela on May 17, 2021. Both the US and Colombian governments offered a bounty for his killing.
Republican Congresspersons have been especially confrontational and provocative regarding the Petro administration. This is evidenced by denunciations of the Petro administration by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and others. Shortly after his election, Cruz accused Petro of being a “Marxist” and “anti-American” and proposed the Caution Act in Congress to limit aid to Colombia based on certain conditions. Particularly provocative was an April 19, 2023 visit to President Petro by Rep. Marco Diaz-Balart of Florida. Diaz-Balart is Chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and Co-chair of the Colombia Caucus.
In a press release following the visit, Diaz-Balart proclaimed that,
“As co-chair of the Congressional Colombia Caucus, I joined a caucus meeting today with Colombia’s newly elected president in respect for the longstanding relationship between the United States and Colombia…. Since the highly successful Plan Colombia, the United States has provided more than $13 billion in assistance to promote security, eradicate drug trafficking, and combat terrorism in Colombia. However, the actions and comments from Colombia’s new president have put the largely successful U.S.-Colombia relationship in jeopardy… I will not permit U.S. taxpayer dollars to support a government in Colombia that sustains the Maduro regime with intelligence-sharing or funding, allows Russia a foothold in the country, partners with the Cuban regime to facilitate human trafficking, or that enables drug trafficking and production. Should the current president decide to support malign, anti-American actors in our hemisphere, then he will be responsible for destroying the foundation of our countries’ relationship.”
Díaz-Balart made these comments the very same day that had been called for people to “invade” the Casa de Nariño, the president’s residence. The Diaz-Balart visit took place only one month following the second assassination attempt this year against Vice President Marquez, the first on January 10, the second on March 21.
In fact, just five days after the second attempt on Marquez’ life, Diaz-Balart had publicly expressed the absurd and ridiculous allegation that, “I am concerned that Petro is sharing intelligence with enemies.”
This statement was prompted after Ivan Duque, the previous right wing Colombian president, had raised the issue with Díaz-Balart. Duque is known for his government’s non-compliance with the 2016 Peace Accord. Duque’s term in office was marked by a spike in political violence to a rate of more than one victim per day.
That Díaz-Balart could visit Petro on this day, in this atmosphere, and say nothing to condemn the threats, assassination attempts, and calls for a coup, while making such accusatory and inflammatory comments, and threatening to withhold aid from Colombia for the most indefensible of false allegations, cannot be dismissed as an unintentional error based on ignorance. Diaz-Balart knew what he was doing: adding fuel to the flames.
What can we learn from the National Endowment for Democracy
A study of funding of the Congressionally created and founded National Endowment for Democracy is an always reliable tool for assessing US interest in the manipulation of and interference in foreign electoral affairs. An oft quoted statement by Alan Weinstein, one of the NED founders, explains the character of the NED: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” The NED has been directly involved in coups throughout Latin America and the world, including the attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002 and the coup against Haiti in 2004. More recently, its funding can be traced to backers of the coups in Bolivia and Peru.
Typically, one will see NED funding at higher levels in the year before major elections in any given country where it is involved. Oftentimes, in countries where the NED doesn’t have a presence and, in many cases, is prohibited from open activity, the NED will fund activities in those countries through regional grants with the cooperation of US-allied countries. The NED funds organizations and activities in both Colombia and Peru that are oriented toward Cuba and Venezuela. We have also seen major funding for cross-border activities that include Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. In all of those nations but Ecuador, Center-Left candidates were recently elected to the presidency. Ecuador has a history of powerful social movements and past Center-Left administrations that have booted both the NED and a US military base from the country. It is facing general elections later this year.
In Peru, President Pedro Castillo, elected by a broad popular movement, was driven out of office in a US-supported “lawfare” coup. Some analysts believe that Castillo’s fatal mistake was breaking with US policies against Venezuela early on in his administration. There were also indications that he was opposing the expansion of US military bases. The astute observer cannot but see similarities between the situation in Peru and in Colombia, where Petro has advocated for normalization with Cuba and Venezuela, and has brought Colombia back into UNASUR, which was organized under the initiative of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. UNASUR, the Union of South American nations, does not include US participation, and has acted as a counter-balance to the US dominated Organization of American States.
Petro has not opposed US military bases—indeed, there is talk of expanding US bases in Colombia, and he has even suggested that the Pentagon and NATO might play a role in a multinational military presence in the Amazon basin—a truly bad idea. However, Petro has declared his opposition to the Drug War. Drug War funding is the primary channel for military and “security” funding in Colombia and throughout Latin America. Even the unfortunate Amazon proposal is a dangerous and clumsy attempt to shift military focus away from certain hotspots like the border with Venezuela. All this counters foundational aspects of and justifications for the US military presence in Colombia and throughout Latin America.
When we look at NED funding for Latin America over the past six years, we see that funding not only rose, true to pattern, in 2021 the year preceding the 2022 election, but it rose again continuing into 2023.
In 2017, preceding the 2018 election in which the right wing Ivan Duque defeated Gustavo Petro, funding for Colombia by the NED reached $2,622,230 with an additional $967,975 of regional funding that specified activities in Colombia. The total was $3,590,205.
In 2018, as one might predict, the funding declined to $1,688,068 for Colombia-specific and an additional $1,153,871 for Colombia-included funding, for a total of $2,841,939. In 2019, the numbers were $1,539,054 and $1,040,816, respectively, for a total of $2,579,870.
In 2020, grants rose significantly to $2,241,133 and $2,241,133, totaling $3,034,353. In 2021, once again, leading to the 2022 elections, funding rose to $2,901,602 for Colombia specific projects, and another $1,950,000, for a total of $4,851,602, over $1.8 million more than in 2020.
Interestingly, figures for 2023 NED funding for Colombia have not yet been made public, even though they usually are posted in February of any given year. Granted, published grants and their descriptions are intentionally vague and designed to give as little information as possible. Still, this year, not only in Colombia, but globally, it seems the NED has committed to even less transparency than usual.
Outside of funding directly through the NED, we do know that in December, 2022, the Department of Labor awarded an unprecedentedly large $12 million grant to the Solidarity Center, one of the NED’s core institutes, for activities in Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador. This follows a similar unprecedented $10 million to the Solidarity Center for its activities in Mexico, another country that has elected a Center-Left President, Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has frequently been at odds with the US over Venezuela, Cuba, the NATO/Russia/Ukraine war and other US foreign policy objectives.
The Solidarity Center has one office that coordinates activities in both Colombia and Venezuela. That office, now located in Bogotá, funneled cash to coup plotters in Venezuela in 2002. In Colombia, at the same time it has supported labor struggles, the Solidarity Center has simultaneously, and silently, taken more questionable and even anti-labor stances. The office has been known to veto US support for FENSUAGRO, one of Colombia’s most vulnerable and Left unions. According to files released via Wikileaks, it met with the US Embassy in support of a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia while US and Colombian unionists were organizing to defeat the agreement.
The motivating factors behind US interference in Colombia
Gustavo Petro was clearly not the preferred candidate for Colombian president in the US among either Democrats or Republicans. However, it is notable that the Biden administration was also not warm to an election of the final candidate that emerged to confront Petro, Rodolfo Hernandez, who was described by many as “the Trump of Colombia”. Without doubt, the Biden administration has many options on the table for dealing with the Petro administration as it does with that of Lula Da Silva in Brazil. If they collaborate, they will be tolerated. If not, that’s another matter. Both Petro and Da Silva, as well as other progressive Latin American leaders, must walk a tight rope between advancing their own national interests and sovereignty, and dealing with the enormous power, scrutiny, interest, and interference of the US/NATO Empire. As for the Republicans, we can deduce that they are firmly allied with the right wing elements seeking the ouster of the elected government in Colombia.
Without doubt, both the Biden administration and House and Senate Republicans would have preferred a victory by either of the establishment candidates, Federico Gutierrez, or Sergio Fardo. However, on both the Right and the Left, as well as the Center, the establishment candidates were thoroughly repudiated. The fact that the Petro/Marquez ticket won this campaign despite the array of paramilitary threats, establishment power, and US interference against it shows just how huge was the popular support for change.
What are the driving interests that the Colombian right wing has in discrediting, undermining, paralyzing, and outright overthrowing the Petro/Marquez government? Derailing health, agricultural, and labor reforms is one reason. Enemies of the 2016 Peace Accord and the proposed Total Peace Plan prefer ongoing but “manageable” conflict to peace. Peace requires people being able to return to the homes they were forced out of, rural development, and at least some modest level of land redistribution. This is not what big landowners and transnational corporations want. They want all the land, all the resources, and all the profits. Most problematic on a personal level is that the Total Peace Plan would mean an end to the impunity from prosecution that has been enjoyed for so long by the military and by paramilitaries and their sponsors in the Colombian oligarchy.
Even more, the Colombian right is incensed at the warming of relations with Venezuela. They find company with US neocolonial corporate and military policies and objectives. The US/NATO Empire of which Colombia is such an elemental part, prefers regional conflict to regional peace in the same way some prefer manageable conflict to peace on the domestic front. Colombia is the primary launch pad of regional instability and efforts to bring down progressive governments and movements in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, ad nauseum. Whether through upholding US blockades and sanctions, using Colombian territory to train and launch paramilitary coup attempts in Caracas, or running NED and similarly sponsored programs to interfere in the electoral affairs of Venezuela, Cuba, etc., Colombia cannot be allowed to even soften the hard hand of Empire in Latin America.
Similarly problematic are Petro’s declarations against the Drug War. The Drug War is the primary justification, the primary channel, through which funds pour into Colombia’s military, police, and prisons. It is the channel through which the Empire’s military and “security” activities are directed throughout Latin America.
The Petro government has also been problematic toward other key US foreign policy objectives in Latin America and globally. Petro rejected the call by Southcomm commander Laura Richardson to send Russian arms in Colombia’s arsenal to Ukraine. Noting his country’s constitutional prohibition to promoting armed conflicts internationally, Petro said, “I prefer the old Russian weapons remain as scrap on Colombian land rather than give them to Ukraine.” As late as May 4 of this year, he refused to condemn Russia. As for China, a white paper by the influential Centers for Strategic and International Studies wrote that, “Under the Petro government, all dimensions of Colombia’s relationship with the PRC, from political and security affairs to economic ones, are poised to expand and shift in ways that may cause unease in Washington.”
The US Republican Party would like to see Petro go. It is possible that the Democrats and the Biden administration could tolerate a tame, compliant, and collaborationist Center-Left government so long as it doesn’t challenge or interfere in the Empire’s aims, and may even tolerate certain moderate expressions of independence. However, Petro has taken steps to challenge some of the most foundational of the US/NATO Empire’s aims on several different fronts.There are signs that tolerance may be reaching its limit.
Often when US supported coups occur, articles will come out exposing the US role. Movements opposed to US interference will organize to condemn and protest and try to reverse what they see happening. Maybe this time we can start mobilizing and investigating before the coup happens.
Might the US support a coup in Colombia?
So, the real question for those of us who care about democracy, peace, and international solidarity, becomes: What are we going to do about it?
James Patrick Jordan
James Patrick Jordan is National Co-Coordinator for the Alliance for Global Justice and is responsible for its Colombia, labor, and ecological solidarity programs.
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