Even though Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is facing scrutiny from Democrats, union leaders and human rights advocates over his government’s record, a prominent Jewish organization was set to honor him this week.
The American Jewish Committee was slated to present Uribe with a “Light Unto the Nations Award” on Thursday night at its annual meeting in Washington. A statement released by the AJCommittee in advance of the dinner said the honor reflected the Colombian leader’s “relentless pursuit of peace, security and prosperity.”
The fete shone as a rare bright-spot this week for Uribe, who is one of the Bush administration’s leading friends in Latin America but has found himself battered by criticism over his allies’ alleged ties to right-wing death squads responsible for assassinating union leaders. Last month, former vice president Al Gore snubbed the Colombian president by refusing to appear with him at a forum in Miami. The day before, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the subcommittee overseeing foreign funds, froze $55 million in military aid to Colombia over the paramilitary scandal.
Avi Lyon, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, criticized the AJCommittee’s decision to honor Uribe, a sentiment he said was shared by several top American union leaders.
“For the American Jewish Committee not to recognize and understand what has gone on in Colombia is, in many respects, rather astounding,” Lyon told the Forward. “Politics makes strange bedfellows… but Colombia is a country that happens to have the unfortunate distinction of being the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist in the world. Under the circumstances, one wonders if there was a better way for American Jewish Committee to recognize President Uribe.”
Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJCommittee’s Latino and Latin American Institute, cautioned against viewing Colombia’s leadership in black-and-white terms.
“There are a lot of parallels that could be drawn between [the challenges facing] Israel and Colombia,” Siegel Vann told the Forward. “Colombia is a country that for many, many decades has been mired in violence, from the right and from the left.… It’s not a perfect government, and there’s a lot of things that have to be perfected, but I really think Uribe’s trying to take the proper steps to lead it in that way.”
Siegel Vann credited Colombia with being a staunch ally of the United States and an important counterweight to Venezuela’s anti-American leader, Hugo Chavez. She also described him as being a friend to Colombia’s Jews as well as the Jewish community of Venezuela, which has felt increasingly beleaguered since a government raid on a day school in 2004. The president of Bogotà’s Jewish community, Marcos Peckel, was scheduled to fly into Washington for the dinner honoring Uribe, which was first conceived of last July.
“The Jewish community in Colombia mostly supports Uribe, and they do back the award,” said Peckel, who acknowledged that the scandal is growing but said he thinks Uribe is “doing the right thing.”
“He’s not defending his friends who have been convicted,” he said, and “he’s taken up his own personal allegations in a way that has been convincing.”
Elected in 2002 and re-elected by a landslide last year, Uribe has an approval rating consistently above 60% in Colombia. After more than four decades of a civil war that has seen both leftist guerilla insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries commit atrocities against the civilian population, Uribe is credited with stabilizing the country and boosting its economy. The president negotiated the surrender of more than 30,000 paramilitaries, whose confessions have uncovered ties between political leaders and the gangs.
Investigators are looking into paramilitary ties of more than a dozen allies of the president, including his former domestic intelligence chief, who is accused of passing on to the militias information about academics and union officials.
While Uribe has strong backing from the Bush administration, Democratic leaders have been wary of his human rights record and of a free-trade deal approved by the White House last November. The Colombian leader’s visit to Washington this week was aimed at securing some the $600 million in annual aid for military and anti-drug operations and at salvaging the trade agreement. Democrats were expected to press Uribe to spend more money on social programs and to crack down further on right-wing gangs. The party is expected to push for changes in the Bush-negotiated trade agreement, such as the inclusion of enforceable labor standards.
Whatever progress Colombia has made under Uribe, the president’s critics say his record falls far short of deserving an honor from a Jewish organization that concerns itself with democracy and human rights.
“I really don’t understand why he is getting this award,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. “If you ask my opinion, given his very, very poor human rights record and the degree of infiltration of the paramilitary organizations into the highest level of government… I don’t really understand the grounds for recognition.”
In Congress, such concerns regarding the situation in Colombia have been raised by a number of Democratic lawmakers, including Leahy and Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee.
Eduardo Kohn, director of Latin American affairs for B’nai B’rith International, wrote in an e-mail to the Forward that he did not object to the AJCommittee’s decision to honor Uribe, whom he characterized as “trying to achieve peace and more prosperity.”
Lyon said that he had urged AJCommittee leaders to press Uribe on human rights issues — a step, Siegel Vann told the Forward, that the organization planned to take, in addition to raising concerns regarding government transparency.
Despite the criticism leveled at the AJCommittee from some quarters, Leahy’s office — reflecting the fine line being walked by Democratic lawmakers — echoed Siegel Vann’s tone of carefully considered engagement rather than overt criticism.
“Senator Leahy is not ‘antagonistic toward President Uribe,’” said the senator’s spokesman, David Carle. “He has tried to work with him to make progress on human rights… and he wants that process to continue.”