With friends like these...
With friends like these...
Blairâ€™s penchant for making right-wing friends across the world has been much commented on during his term of office. One particular friendship that is about to move from uncomfortable to highly embarrassing is with Colombian President
Alvaro Uribe Velaz, a statesman not noted for his pursuit of social justice.
Last week 3 Colombian trade unionists were assassinated by the Colombian armed forces, a small number compared to the hundreds killed in Najaf last week. Itâ€™s hardly surprising given that more trade unionists are killed in Colombia then in the rest of the world put together. But this particular murder, in the oil-rich region of Arauca, is cause for particularly acute embarrassment.
This was the actual army. The armed forces of the state took it upon themselves to murder the representatives of the health workers and agricultural workers unions along with the trasurer of the CUT (TUC).
Surely cause for blushes in the Foreign Office â€“ it was only a few weeks ago Bill Rammell, foreign office minister for Latin America, told British trade unionists that, â€œThere has been progress in improving the human rights situation,â€ in Colombia.
But progress is in short supply in President Uribeâ€™s Colombia. The Vice President called the victims guerrillas. The Defence Minister described them as â€œdelinquentsâ€. This is a country where the President described Amnesty International as wanting â€œterrorism to triumph in Colombiaâ€. Tony sure hangs out with some fantastic orators.
7,000 people were assassinated for their political activities last year in Colombia, there is almost complete impunity and numerous trade unionists languish in jail. The British government continues to send military assistance, courtesy of the taxpayer, to the same armed forces who carried out last weekâ€™s murders.
Reports in the Guardian suggest that Britain is the second biggest contributor of military aid to this conflict-ridden country. The reason for doubt is that our government refuses to tell us what this aid consists of and where it goes.
In Colombia as in Iraq, Britain is First Lieutenant to the American General. We mostly provide the PR, but we do want to show willing to getting moderately entangled with the dirty stuff. The Blair government have followed the US administration down a dark alley.
A very dark alley it is too. According to the Colombian Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners the number of people detained for political reasons during the first two years of the current administration stands at 6,590. 24 are trade union leaders, 29 human rights defenders, 13 indigenous activists, 261 student activists, and 38 religious activists.
President Uribe himself is surely an embarrassment. As much as he tries he simply canâ€™t keep his mouth shut when it comes to human rights organisations, in his own country or abroad. A year ago he called a wide range of them â€œterrorist sympathisersâ€ and â€œcowardsâ€. Even worse, in late July US declassified intelligence reports from 1991 detailed links between Uribe and Colombiaâ€™s notorious drug cartels, claiming he was a close friend of drug baron Pablo Escobar.
But more embarrassing for those in Blairâ€™s own party, is Uribeâ€™s vision of society. His contribution to the global war on terror, even though Colombiaâ€™s Marxist guerrillas share nothing with Al Quaeda, is complemented by a set of rampant neo-liberal economic policies. The recent announcement to sell-off $10bn of state-owned companies is part of a wide-ranging austerity plan (in everything except the armed forces of course).
The result? The UNDP and the Colombian governmentâ€™s own accounting office said recently that Colombiaâ€™s development level has declined continuously since 1997, with over 64 % of people now living in poverty. While, according to some, the Colombian economy may be growing, the majority are slipping downhill.
In the US, Labour Party activists cannot help but see that, yet again, Blair seems closer to Bush than Kerry. John Kerry, together with John Edwards and 20 other Senators jumped on the Colombia band wagon last week, writing to President Uribe that they were deeply concerned at the â€œcontinued levels of violence directed at the civilian populationâ€, and urging Uribe to break all links between his armed forces and the paramilitary death squads that carry out most of the state-sponsored violence.
In Aznar, Blair also lost a good friend. The new government in Spain has shown its social democratic colours, cancelling its deal to sell battle tanks to Colombia, worried about an arms race between Colombia and Venezuela, a very real prospect that threatens to destabilise the entire region.
Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell, surely bemused by the sudden prominence of a country which he must have thought on taking office would cause him little trouble, said on 21st July "Categorically, I can say that we are not considering withdrawing our military assistance". So there we are then.
For once letâ€™s look to Europe, rather than the US; to the democrats rather than the republicans; to the social democrats, rather the furthest right politicians. They might know how to clear up this mess or they might not. But theyâ€™ve got to be better company than this lot.