At the close of an indefensible presidency, George Bush was true to form.
He committed an indefensible act.
The president awarded the nation’s hghest civilian honor to South American strongman whose government maintains links with right-wing paramilitary death squads that have killed, maimed and displaced thousands of labor organizers, civil rights activists, political dissenters and advocates for democracy.
When he presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Bush referred to his political ally as a “model of leadership.”
Technically, this is accurate — since a model can be good or evil.
In the case of Uribe, the model is an evil one.
Here is what Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division and a longtime campaigner for labor and human rights, said about Bush decision to finish his presidency on this very ugly note:
President Bush’s award of the Medal of Freedom to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is outrageous and offensive given the Uribe administrations horrific human rights abuses documented by the thousands of assassinated, attacked or displaced union, Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders and given the administrations deep links to murderous right-wing paramilitaries.
How could Bush award our nations highest civilian honor to the leader of a country with worldwide pariah status for its systematic crushing of the most basic human rights?
More than 460 unionists have been murdered in Colombia since Uribe took office in August 2002, including 43 in 2008 alone (an increase from 2007), even as Colombia faced scrutiny related to a trade agreement Bush negotiated with Uribe. Colombia has the worlds highest assassination rate for unionists.
In addition, the Uribe administration has worked consistently to undermine Afro-Colombians hard-won civil rights and territorial control. Systematic violence against Afro-Colombians and assassinations of their leaders continue unabated. African descendants comprise 26 percent of Colombias population. Because the Colombian law is on the side of Afro-Colombian territorial rights, wealthy interests have employed illegal means to physically remove Afro-Colombians and others from their lands, with hundreds of thousands forcibly expelled from their lands since 2006 alone, often with assistance by the Colombian military. No Afro-Colombian lands have been returned to community control during the Uribe administration. Joint operations between the Colombian military and illegal terrorist paramilitary organizations like the Operation Genesis in the Afro-Colombian Chocó region have targeted Afro-Colombian leaders with assassinations, while the Colombian military has aerially bombarded Afro-Colombian territories. Such forced displacements are now occurring in port communities, such as Buenaventura, and other regions Colombia Free Trade Agreement supporters seek to develop.
More than 200,000 indigenous citizens are being displaced annually. When asked about this, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield said: I do not challenge your figure. I have heard from enough sources – including government of Colombia sources – that the number of internally displaced people in Colombia is, in fact, continuing to rise, according to a March 25 article in Roll Calls CongressNow wire service.
In 2008, Colombian prosecutors ordered the arrest of Mario Uribe, the presidents cousin and closest political ally, who chaired the Colombian Senate and is accused of ties to paramilitary groups. Mario Uribe sought political asylum in the Costa Rican embassy in Bogotá, which denied his request as inadmissible. The Colombian Supreme Court has identified paramilitary ties to 65 current and former members of the Colombian Congress. Thirty-two lawmakers have been detained so far, with 26 of these from Uribes governing coalition. Thirty-three additional legislators are under investigation, including 29 from Uribes coalition. These include Nancy Gutierrez, a leader in Uribes political party who serves in a position equivalent to that of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. To relate this to the U.S. context, it would be as if the president, Senate majority leader and House speaker were all simultaneously convicted or under investigation for ties to terrorist groups.