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Why Look At Colombia? Part II – Getting the Facts

August 28, 2009

From the point of view of law and business, accurate information is important. Will foreign investors, tourists, and even social justice groups, have the facts they need to do their work? If so, what legal regimes will help – and which need to be fixed –  in order to facilitate peaceful and constructive development? 

Groups like Foundation Caring For Colombia (on whose board I sit) can only do their vital work — ours is healing children through health, education, and art — if all stakeholders know what is really going on.

We expect information, but not balanced information, from international organizations like Human Rights Watch. They rightly shine a very bright light on human rights violations by the Colombian Army and the irregular armies of the FARC and demobilized paramilitaries — just as they do with the American Army in Iraq. Groups like HRW also address the lack of land/agricultural reforms, and the impunity of killers of trade unionist and journalists. 

Reading their websites would definitely not, though, give a complete picture of what is going on in Colombia or even the U.S.  That is not their job. Their job is advocacy. Getting attention for what is unreported because powerful organizations like governments don’t want to propagate the information. 

But even Human Rights Watch reports under-reported progress. Plug in “Colombia gays” on their search bar (just click here).  The country has made significant progress in providing equality to same-sex couples. I have been publicly introduced, on television and elsewhere, as my husband’s husband “esposo” – and far from experiencing discrimination, it seems to open doors to closer relationships with elected officials, executives, and others. Folks seem to respect and appreciate the honesty and warmth and confidence in our relationship.

In a similar way, the two posts in this series are designed to do the same thing, to get better information what is very much under-reported in Colombia, an astoundingly rapid social transformation.  Part I reported the data. Part II here explores why Americans, in particular, have only old news and are missing the story. It’s because their press is missing the story.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. Who attacks the press without an agenda? I do have an agenda. I have firsthand long-term and reliable information on the basis of which I think the world could help continue the badly-needed social transformation of Colombia. I want the world to be encouraged, to participate, and not to shy away. I am not a journalist. I am a business person, a lawyer, and married into a Colombian family. That is my point of view.

The impression most Americans have is that Colombia remains awash in war and totally untrustworthy.  That impression is keeping many American investors away.

But not as many Europeans. The leading investment bank on project finance in Colombia is BNP Paribas. French.  There are about 50 Carrefour hypermarkets in France. Not one Wal-Mart. The top home improvement store chain is partnered with a Chilean firm, not a US firm, while the growing middle class expands consumption in the retail sector at unprecedented levels. 

Americans, usually thought of as an intrepid bunch, are far behind the curve in many ways. Could the information deficit explain why Americans remain hesitant?

The focus of American news on Colombia is often on diplomatic tensions with Colombia’s neighbors, and the implication generally is that it is due to unreasonable behavior by Colombia or the United States.  Now, the US has quite an odious history of backing Latin American strongmen (or “caudillos”).   But how should one assess whether that is what we face in Colombia?  In other words,  are press reports about Colombia’s “transformation” balanced, in the sense that they provide enough information for people to make up their own mind to assess the situation?  Or do they focus too much on the diplomatic stuff?

The place to start is with the two reporters working most on the Bogota beat for American newspaper readers are Juan Forero of the Washington Post and Simon Romero of the New York Times.  (Click on their names to go to lists of their stories on their websites.)

They both are missing the big picture news of the social transformation.  It’s like they are covering the fall of the Berlin Wall by mentioning only the unruly crowds, not the end of totalitarian government.

Neither paper has run a feature-length piece, say in their magazines, on the social transformation, for which there is a lot of reliable data and many more interesting stories.  The Washington Post ran an editorial denouncing Chavez as a “caudillo” recently, but drew the wrong conclusion (that US diplomacy should directly confront his “braying” about war), wrong because it is wrong to take these “threats” seriously. But the focus remains unbalanced: war, military, drugs, violence.

Thus, the most recent NY Times magazine cover on Colombia was on semi-submersible drug boats.  If this is the only boat they report on, if you’ll forgive the pun, they are missing the boat, and so are their readers.

Reviewing the list of stories run by the Post’s Forero not only proves the point, but raises serious omissions. 

Comparatively, what is the role of the Venezuelan government in funneling arms, and raw materials for cocaine processing, to the FARC rebels? What is the role of the Ecuadoreans, on whose soil major camps with top FARC leaders were long tolerated, with at least some knowledge of government officials, and allegedly the President himself?  Did you understand the US anti-drugs military aircraft and support crews are moving out of the US-leased and controlled base at Manta, Ecuador, onto Colombian bases under Colombian control? Is that information the American press should not bury?

His most recent (as of this writing) piece is: U.S.-Colombia Deal Prompts Questions : Lack of Debate, Dubious Motives Cited.  Really? “Lack of debate?” Nineteen days earlier he published an article about the debate kicked off by the move.  And the later story followed (by a couple weeks) President Uribe’s personal visit to every single South American capital, and the debate over the US troops agreement.  “Dubious motives?”  Fighting the drug war for decades is not dubious in any sense of that word, it’s a well-known fact.  It has been the focus of the US presence for decades.  The headline (not for the first time in his reporting) parrots a Hugo Chavez story line, here, that the US might be about to invade Colombia’s neighbors. Other than the rantings of Chavez, there is no original reporting to support this story line. Meanwhile, there is major news out lately confirming that Chavez himself is bankrolling and selling arms to the FARC terrorists who a drug-traffickers and kidnappers.   But not getting much coverage by Forero.

U.S. Criticized for Extraditing Minor Colombian Drug Suspects is real whopper.  In it, Forero leaves the impression that the extradition is so sloppy that the innocent are regularly caught up in it.  Read it closely, though, and there is only one source for — an admitted drug trafficers’ defense counsel for that idea. Not a single other minor extraditee is named except the two covered in the story (who admitted their guilt and were returned to Colombia).  It’s a sad story for the actual subjects of the article.  It is sadder still to see such weak journalism in the Washington Post.

Does the story convey what’s actually going on with extradition?  What are the other effects of extradition — the social transformation signs (or effects)?  Such as the high conviction rate of terrorists with multiple life terms in the US, a change long sought and highly praised by the US?   Is it not newsworthy that hundreds — hundreds — of real, hard-core, serious murdering drug-trafficking thugs have been put away for ever?  If your family, like mine, had been menaced by these gangs, would you have an interest in this information?

An example of even-handedness in Forero’s case was to quote (though without any original reporting) from a new US GAO report linking Hugo Chavez to drug trafficking: Venezuela’s Drug-Trafficking Role Is Growing Fast, U.S. Report Says, Government Corruption, Aid to Colombian Rebels Are Cited. 

In short, Juan Forero is capable of better. Readers should beware, though, for now at least, that his reporting is weak and his stories are unreliable.

Earlier this year, Simon Romero, whom the Times hired to replace Forero, reported on a “wider drug war” (my emphasis) threatening the indigenous population of Colombia.  One month earlier, he wrote that Colombia’s security forces had captured the number-one drug lord and the hundreds of others already killed, captured, and/or extradited to the US.  “Wider” drug war? or “Winning”?  If that were true, would it not be news?

A good news piece does not have to be alarmist (”impending doom predicted!”).  Rather what reporters need most are the facts — answers to the who, what, when, why, etc.  What is the state of the “drug war”?  What is being done to control the lawless coca-growing regions, displace the armed thugs that force the local farmers and poison their land and water with their toxic chemicals? What is being offered to the peasants as agricultural alternatives? How is life for an ordinary citizen of Colombia these days? What are the implications for the leftist popular governments elsewhere? Of those governments in Colombia?

To his credit, Romero covered the US report that coca-growing decreased an amazing 28% against last year.   And he has been scrutinizing Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and its complicity in arming the FARC narco-terrorists.  He reported on Chavez’s threats to a radio station in July but he did not write on how Chavez shut down the TV network Globovision in early August.

But reviewing both story lists, what is overwhelming is the lack of attention to the macro social and economic effects of the Uribe presidency.  He is a controversial figure everywhere, but about 70% of the population is so happy with their new quality of life they tell pollsters they want Uribe to have a third term as president. 

The lack of any real original reporting also curses the stories coming out of Colombia.  The usually-careful Andrea Jaramillo of Bloomberg in Bogota blew it last month covering a big story:  whether Venezuela cut off imports from Colombia, threatening its economy.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez certainly saidhe cut off imports from Colombia. But did he?  He said it the same week his armed police raided and shut down television network Globovision (with some irregular forces helping them).  The same week the Swedish demanded to know how rocket launchers Saab sold to Venezuela were found in FARC camps inside Colombia, with Chavez’s serial numbers on them. 

Is that information that should have been reported? Or should the famously bombastic Chavez be taken solely at his word?

Jaramillo and Chamie apparently thought so.  She wrote, quoting him, “‘This could be quite damaging for Colombia,’ Nick Chamie, head of emerging-markets research at RBC in Toronto, wrote in a report today. ‘This time Venezuela is actually carrying through on its threat to reduce its buying of Colombian exports.'” (My emphasis.)

Really? “Actually carrying through”? Where did they get that information? I emailed both of them to ask, and gave them (unsolicited) my information.  Neither has responded or corrected.

Instead, the “update 1” version of Jaramillo’s story still available on Bloomberg mentions and credits (without qualification) Chavez’s criticism of US military plans for “training and counter-drug operations.” She does not mention the prodigious presence in Caracas of fresh Colombian imports. She does not mention the Swedish rocket launchers. She does not mention a Colombian TC network broadcast of video tape showing Venezuelan police crossing the river into Colombia with barrels of drug-making chemicals and saying that a purported agreement by the Venezuelan police to equip the FARC was not only true but “miraculous” because of the important work of the FARC.

I will leave further critical review of Nick Chamie to RBC’s clients.

My sources — top executives in Colombia’s food exporting companies — said, in private and in public, that all their shipments were getting through.  True? One easy way to tell is if there were fresh cheeses or meats from Colombia in Caracas grocery stores. If so, it recently arrived from Colombia and there was no border shut-off.  But did any of the stories focus on the food on the shelves of stores in Caracas?

Similarly, the major press reported on Venezuela’s agreement to buy cars from Argentina instead of Colombia.  No actual cars or money changed hands, and it may not.  Brazil’s President Lula sent a dunning notice to Chavez because promises to pay were apparently empty.  And Lula is supposedly Chavez’s ally. This story was courageously reported by Venezuela’s El Universal. It was notreported by Romero, Forero, or Jaramillo.

How can business people and policy makers make sense of the situation with such reporting?

One Million Voices Against the FARC, Bogota, organized on FacebookOne Million Voices Against the FARC organized this march in Bogota last year, one of dozens in Colombia and more in the world’s capitals.  These everyday Colombian citizens mobilized in peaceful demonstrations in an unprecedented outpouring against the FARC kidnappings. It was organized in only a couple of months. On Facebook. 

This story reveals much more about the Colombia and Colombians today. It enables social justice, philanthropic, and commercial activities alike by encouraging investors, tourists, and others to see the possibilities now.

But you didn’t know that, did you? 

The reporters mentioned above are invited to post a comment, or write in their own pages, to reply.

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