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Former Colombia president Alvaro Uribe. Friend of the Clintons has nasty ties to his country's death squads. Credit: WikiCommons

I had a story in Fusion last week about the Clinton Foundation’s dismally meager achievements in Colombia and Bill’s relationship with Canadian businessman Frank Giustra. The latter, who is said to be the Clinton Foundation’s biggest donor, has extensive business interests in Colombia and has traveled there numerous times with Bill Clinton.

The Fusion story briefly mentioned Hillary and Bill Clinton’s friendship with former president Alvaro Uribe. The latter, who is said to have close ties to Colombia’s paramilitary death squads, left office in 2010 but recently emerged to scuttle a peace agreement that would have put an end to more than fifty years of war. (Uribe’s efforts to defeat the peace referendum are described in this Nation story, which also reveals the vile work of Human Rights Watch in Colombia.)

Bill Clinton has had a long and friendly relationship with Colombia’s political elite dating back to his time as president. In 2000, his last year in office, Clinton began promoting a free trade agreement with Colombia. He also signed an executive waiver to push through a controversial $1.3 billion military aid package to the country while it was under intense international scrutiny for human rights violations.

After leaving office, Clinton struck up a close relationship with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who served from 2002 to 2010. He won reelection as president in 2006 only because members of his cabinet reportedly bribed enough senators to pass an amendment allowing him to run for an unconstitutional second term. Uribe’s time in office were marked by human rights abuses that are unparalleled in modern Latin American history.

Among the more appalling abuses committed during the Uribe years were the so-called “false positives”: thousands of civilians who were murdered by the army and other security forces and then presented to the public as armed insurgents. In one especially notorious case, soldiers and officers executed twenty young men from the poor Bogota suburb of Soacha and then shipped the bodies — including the corpse of one retarded man — to remote areas of the country, where they were dumped in military clothing. According to a UN report, the impunity rate on these extrajudicial murders likely topped 98 percent.

Uribe claimed to have shut down paramilitary forces, but they continued to thrive on his watch (and still do). They have extensive political influence and even today directly control — by holding seats themselves or funding front politicians — roughly 30 percent of the congress, according to Gimena Sanchez of the Washington Office on Latin America.

Uribe’s policies of state-sponsored violence could not have been a surprise to Clinton. In 2004, the Washington-based National Security Archives obtained via the Freedom of Information Act a remarkable DIA cable — written 13 years earlier — saying that then-Senator Uribe was a “close personal friend of Pablo Escobar” who was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín [drug] cartel at high government levels.” The report put Uribe on a list of “the more important Colombian narco-traffickers contracted by the Colombian narcotic cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection and enforcement of narcotics operations” and said Uribe was “linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the United States.”

Yet none of this prevented Bill Clinton from currying favor with Uribe, possibly because the Clinton Foundation had big plans in Colombia. Bill even invited him to attend a Clinton Global Initiative event in New York in 2005, where Uribe joined Clinton onstage for a discussion about combatting global poverty.

Three years later, Clinton accepted a “Passion” award from Uribe at a New York event for his efforts to promote the country’s image. (Uribe’s personal image was so terrible that even Clinton’s former vice president, Al Gore, reportedly refused to appear at an event with him around the same time.) Clinton took the opportunity to argue, with little evidence to support him, that the human rights situation in Colombia had greatly improved and urged Congress to pass a free trade agreement with the country. 

Here’s part on an account from Newsweek:

At the June gala, Clinton’s hosts played a video depicting him as a hero to Colombia; Uribe praised him as the country’s unofficial minister of tourism because of his many trips there. Clinton then took the microphone and praised Uribe for reducing violence in the country…Allegations that his government was tied to murderous paramilitary groups (linked to the deaths of hundreds of trade unionists) had eroded support in Congress for the free-trade agreement. 

Bill Clinton’s vocal support for the free trade deal clashed sharply with his wife’s platform for her ongoing presidential campaign. As a candidate in 2008, Hillary Clinton scornfully denounced the agreement due to concerns about labor and human rights abuses.“I have spoken out against the deal, I will vote against the deal, and I will do everything I can to urge the Congress to reject the Colombia Free Trade Agreement,” she told a union audience at the time. (Of course, she later voted for it. As we all know, and as Wikileaks has confirmed, Hillary sometimes takes public positions and sometimes takes private positions, depending on which is convenient.)

Fast forward three years to June 2010: President Obama is pushing hard to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement and no one was working harder to help him than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

At the time, Hillary Clinton was preparing for a trip to Colombia to meet with Uribe. Shortly before her departure, she received a briefing memo from Cindy Buhl, a congressional staffer for Congressman James McGovern of Massachussetts. The memo urged Hillary to confront Uribe publicly about “the recent rise in death threats, attacks and murders of Colombian human rights defenders, religious, community and other NGO leaders.”

Buhl cited a UN report saying that 1,486 civilians had been executed by security forces during Uribe’s first six years in office and said that the Colombian intelligence service was “at the service of paramilitary leaders and narcotraffickers” and used to spy on and intimidate Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians and journalists.

Secretary of State Clinton chose to ignore Buhl’s advice during her visit. On June 9, she and Uribe dined at a Bogota steakhouse along with a few other guests, including Bill Clinton and Frank Giustra, who both happened to be in Bogota at precisely the same time. (In her memoir – Hard Choices – Hillary described this as “a happy coincidence in our hectic schedules.”) During a press conference, Hillary said she wanted to “publicly express our admiration for President Uribe providing a remarkable example of strong democratic leadership.”

“Your visit,” a happy Uribe told Hillary in reply, “the fact that you spent the night in Bogotá, and President Clinton’s frequent visits, are a great manifestation of confidence in Colombia.”

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