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Who is the first Colombian you can think of? Maybe it’s a popular musician, like Shakira or J Balvin. Maybe it’s an athlete, like weightlifter Oscar Figueroa or soccer player Carlos Valderrama. Or maybe it’s an actor, like “Modern Family” star Sofia Vergara or “Ice Age” star John Leguizamo — who, in researching this piece, I was surprised to find was born in Colombia.

In any case, the answer is probably not former President Alvaro Uribe. This is not terribly surprising; the only foreign leaders most Americans consistently seem to recognize are British Prime Ministers and long-time leaders of enemy nations, like Fidel Castro. Nevertheless, he is probably the most important figure in shaping Colombia over the last two decades. During his administration from 2002 to 2010, he implemented far-reaching neoliberal economic reforms such as privatization of state-owned enterprises and strong economic deregulation. He also cracked down on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a guerrilla insurgency that had been on one side of the nation’s decades-long civil war, reducing its membership from 20,000 to 8,000. He was incredibly popular throughout his presidency, winning re-election in 2006 with around 62.4% of the vote and leaving office with an approval rating of 75%. It is unsurprising that both of his successors, Juan Manuel Santos and current President Iván Duque, are both deeply connected to Uribe, with the former having been his Minister of National Defense and the latter’s party, Democratic Center, having been founded by Uribe.

All of this popularity comes in spite of the fact that Uribe and his government’s security forces, in their effort to vanquish FARC, enacted untold amounts of brutality toward Colombian civilians. The most notable examples of this are the series of murders known as the “false positives” scandal. During Uribe’s presidency, civilians, often poor and mentally ill, were promised high-paying jobs, lured into remote areas, killed by military officials and officially recorded as FARC militants to inflate military kill totals. Until these murders were revealed in 2008, the military officials involved were frequently given promotions for the estimated 10,000 killings between 2002 and 2010. Additionally, Uribe and a number of his allies were found to have ties to right-wing paramilitary groups, which over the course of the civil war killed around 100,000 civilians. Horrifyingly, all of this was carried out with U.S. funds as part of the Plan Colombia program, which pledged $10 billion between 2000 and 2015 to Colombia to fight both FARC and drug trafficking. Its principal advocates included then-Senator Joe Biden.

Why is this relevant to today?

Over the past few weeks, Colombia has been engulfed by protests. These protests started over a since-scrapped plan by the Duque administration to raise taxes on the poor, but they have now broadened to include frustrations over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that it has broken the 2016 peace deal with FARC — killing a number of social movement leaders and former FARC fighters. The police’s response to these protests has been swift and brutal, killing 39 protestors, arbitrarily detaining 900 and sexually assaulting 12, according to human rights group Temblores y Indepaz. One of the most prominent voices in favor of this crackdown has been Uribe himself, whose tweet expressing support for police was removed by Twitter for “glorifying violence.” This type of violence against protestors is not unprecedented for Duque. In 2019, protests over police brutality were met with police brutality themselves, with one estimate stating that 13 protestors were killed by police in the first two days alone. 

One would hope that given past brutality by the Colombian government — and the fact that the U.S. sends Colombia hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year — the Biden administration would at least attempt to put pressure on the Colombian government to stop this flagrant violation of human rights. This has not happened. The harshest condemnation of the continuous murder of protestors that anyone in the Biden administration has made comes from Juan González, the National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere, who stated that “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.” No action —  such as withholding aid to discourage policies that should be anathema to an administration that claims to promote “basic freedoms” — has been taken. Unfortunately, this is not surprising given that neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations withheld Plan Colombia aid despite making similar overtures to human rights while the false positives scandal unfolded in front of them. This is just another one of the numerous examples of the U.S. aiding and abetting brutal governments that align with its interests, which happened long before Plan Colombia and has continued to happen since.

So what can any of us do about this? As tired and worn-out as it sounds, the answer may be to spread awareness. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, Colombia is simply not an issue on many Americans’ radars. To some extent this is understandable. Other than being the source of the majority of the cocaine used in the U.S., not much of what goes on there is relevant to the average voter. But the same is true of Cuba and Venezuela, and both of those countries were made into issues in the 2020 presidential election. If enough people care about Colombia and vocalize it, the issue at the very least can be brought up in our political discourse. Biden should have to explain why he so staunchly supported Plan Colombia as a senator. Trump should have to explain why Uribe and his allies openly supported and campaigned for him. There’s a long road toward a decent U.S. policy in Colombia, but raising the issue would be a good first step.

Brandon Cowit is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at cowitb@umich.edu.