Senator John McCain heads to Colombia today where he is expected to receive a lavish welcome from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. We speak with Colombia Senator, Piedad Córdoba, who received a far different reception when she came to the United States–she was detained and questioned by immigration authorities at JFK airport. Córdoba has played a leading role in mediation efforts with the Colombian rebel group FARC and has been an outspoken critic of the Uribe government as well as a leading voice in Colombia’s Afro-Colombian community
Republican Senator John McCain is heading to Colombia today, the first stop on a brief Latin America trip that will also take him to Mexico. McCain is expected to receive a lavish welcome, meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe later tonight. But meanwhile here in the United States, a counterpart of McCain’s in the Colombian Senate has been given a far different reception. On Friday, Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba was detained by immigration authorities at New York’s JFK airport.
Despite holding a diplomatic passport, Senator Cordoba was interrogated for more than two hours. Immigration agents made copies of her documents, phone numbers, and other personal belongings.
Cordoba has played a leading role in mediation efforts with the Colombian rebel group FARC. She has been outspoken critic of the Uribe government and a leading voice in Colombia’s Afro-Colombian community. Her political views, including staunch support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, have led to allegations of treason from opponents. She was recently accused of illegal contact with FARC rebels, one of several political controversies she’s faced in Colombia. Senator Cordoba joins me here in the firehouse studio.
Sen. Piedad Córdoba, Senator in the Colombian Congress. She has served as a government mediator in talks with the Colombian rebel group FARC.
JUAN GONZALES: This is Democracy Now! I’m Juan Gonzales. Republican Senator John McCain is heading to Columbia today, the first stop on a brief Latin American trip that will take him to Mexico. McCain is expected to receive a lavish welcome, meeting with Columbian President Alvaro Uribe later tonight. Meanwhile, here in the United States, a counterpart of John McCain’s in the Colombian senate has been given a far different reception. On Friday, Columbian senator Piedad Cordoba was detained by immigration authorities at New York’s JFK airport. Despite holding a diplomatic passport, senator Cordoba was interrogated for more than two hours. Immigration agents made copied of her documents, phone numbers, and other personal belongings. Cordoba has played a leading role in mediation efforts with the Colombian rebel group FARC. She has been an outspoken critic of the Uribe government, and a leading voice in Columbia’s Afro-Columbian community. Her political views, including staunch support for the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, have led to allegation of treason from opponents. She was recently accused of illegal contact with FARC rebels, one of several political controversies she has faced in Colombia. Senator Cordoba joins me here in the firehouse studio. Mario Michelena will be providing translation. Welcome to Democracy Now! I would like to ask you, can you tell us what happened at the airport, give us a little bit more information on what the immigration authorities did?
PIEDAD CORDOBA: The normal proceedings for Lain Americans is it is more like a delay. But once I cleared immigration, I needed a normal proceedings for the customs. They stopped me for more than two hours and a half. Asking me questions that didn’t really have anything to do with it. With my work in Colombia, and my commitment to the issue of the liberation of the FARC hostages. And I had come here invited by the Venezuelan embassy, and besides the point, all my documents, my personal documents, and all my documents that were related to communications that I thought that I was going to do at the Human Rights about the groups in Columbia, and human rights advocates and myself, they photocopied all those documents, in front of me. And even things that were completely personal, and they didn’t give me any explanation. And I had to call the Department of State, Mr. Shannon, a personal friend of mine, and some Congress women, so that they would intervene and I could get out of the airport. I think that they were thinking of send me back. One of the officers mentioned to me that in the computer there was some note that said that I was a FARC member.
JUAN GONZALES: But you were traveling with a diplomatic visa.
PIEDAD CORDOBA: I had an official passport, which is the passport that Congressmen get in my country.
JUAN GONZALES: I would like to ask you also- John McCain, United States Senator and President candidate, is in Columbia right now. Accompanying him is Charlie Black, who is one of his chief advisors and who also has been a lobbyist for Occidental petroleum for many years. Occidental being the largest oil producer in your country. Could you talk a little bit about the role of occidental in Colombia?
PIEDAD CORDOBA: Unfortunately, certain companies like this one and most of the oil companies have been very linked to the paramilitary groups, giving them financing with the argument that they would provide security for them and they would prevent any attacks against the oil fields—it is not a very nice world for Colombians. And they’re lobbying, and the financing of the groups is not well seen.
JUAN GONZALES: In terms of the paramilitary groups, in recent years, many of your fellow members of the Columbian Congress, especially several who are tied to president Uribe, have been linked to involvement with the paramilitaries, yet President Uribe by most accounts is still extremely popular among the Colombian people. How do you explain this continued popularity of President Uribe in your country?
PIEDAD CORDOBA: First of all, since a while back there has been, on the side of the media, there has been selling to the country the image that the paramilitary groups are good and necessary. With the massacres that they have committed and the desperation of people, a lot of the congressmen that are right now in jail and under investigation, they were backing the current presidential republic. That is going to create a stir, but unfortunately, it is very strange, because of that role that the media has played, most of the public opinion does not have a clear idea in which way the President of the country arrived to power. And this explains to a certain extent his popularity. Because on one side there is a certain tiredness of the people because of the war and the kidnappings. And they’ve been very careful in terms of establishing public opinion in the sense that all the ills of the country, the solidarity of the FARC-–and there is really no monitoring, or any polls that will give us an explanation-–regarding the popularity of the President, if it is true or not, I think they’re very clever in managing that. They’ve used the strategy of propaganda, fear and propaganda, and that explains to a great extent the immobility of the positive poll numbers. I think that pretty quickly we’re going to realize that’s not true.
JUAN GONZALES: If you can, could you tell us a little bit about your own personal experience? You also were the victim of a kidnapping back in 1999, and only recently a former paramilitary leader, Jorge Ivan Laverde Zapata, claimed that top leaders of the intelligence in Columbia were involved with Carlos Castano in your kidnapping. Could you tell us about your experience being a kidnap victim and about this recent revelation?
PIEDAD CORDOBA: I had an understanding that certain sections of the right wing country who have been in the government for the long time, and for whom the opposition, who are opposed, who are against mafia rule regime that has infiltrated a lot of our institutions. The way they have concentrated the wealth of the country and impoverished it and displaced people, we were almost an uncomfortable presence. So many of the denunciations we made at that time said institutions like the Das, which is like the FBI in the United States had been infiltrated in Columbia through paramilitary groups. I could say the same here that neo-nazi groups infringe on human rights and kidnap people. And even when you hear the news and think it is scandalous, that has been the practice really lately in Columbia. To kidnap, to make people disappear, and to murder people. And although that is disgraceful it’s not surprising, I think its very positive so that the country and the world would realize what kind of a corrupt democracy exists in Columbia, and which way it has been managed and manipulated, through fear and through terror they silence people. And the ones who do not silence like me, we are submitted to be kidnapped, or killed or disappeared to be finished.
JUAN GONZALES: How were you eventually freed from your kidnappers?
PIEDAD CORDOBA: I think that it was something to a certain extent very interesting. I was a president of the Human Rights Commission and Congress. I had made a number of denouncements because of the persecution to farmers and to human-rights sectors in the country. And I found support from the United Nations, which was very important. And also the Congresses from different parts of the world, and women’s organizations, and organizations of Afro descendents, and here the black caucus in the US, it was a very strong and very quick mobilization and many sectors of civil society asking for my liberation.
JUAN GONZALES: You have also become very controversial in your country as a result of your involvement in the peace process, or the attempts of negotiations of peace with the FARC. You were involved with President Hugo Chavez in high-profile talks. What’s the state of those talks, especially after the death of some of the key guerilla leaders in the past year? Manuel Marulanda and Raul Reyes? Where are those talks now, and what are the prospects for peace in Colombia? Because this is obviously the longest running long civil war.
PIEDAD CORDOBA: Well, I think that the first thing I have to acknowledge is the enormous support of the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, and the Venezuelan people in general, have provided to Colombia. And after many years, we’ve gained the freedom of seven people, with a lot of hostility mainly from parts of the government and some sectors of public opinion who don’t want peace in Columbia Who have this war as a business which allows them to gain enormous amounts of wealth. Right now, after the process after the killings, and the violation of Ecuadorian territory from part of the Columbian government is without a doubt, has created a situation that is very difficult. I think that it is what the sectors wanted was simply to end the process and put it to a stop. To avoid the humanitarian liberation of hostages, and I think that there is pretty strange that the death of commander Manuel Marulanda has created a situation of a lot of instability inside the FARC and generally in the country but, I think that there’s an important factor which is that many people have conquered fear and terror, they are not falling in the trap of keeping the FARC isolated so that people who are hostages of them will die in the jungle, or the persons that are detaining in jail just die there. So there is a new context. We are basically very willing to ask for a new context and make progress in the liberation of civilians and the humanitarian exchange of prisoners. There’s three American citizens we’ve been working for intensely. And also the possibility from here to December through political agreements with the FARC we would manage to finish, to end completely with the kidnapping as a weapon of political perjury. Personally I don’t think there’s a possibility of real peace with this government because of the mistrust, because of the lack of continuity, and mostly because of the scandals of support of the paramilitaries and of reforming the constitution. But if we manage to do these three things, and to form groups that are important inside the country and with international community, we will be taking the first steps towards peace process in Columbia.
JUAN GONZALES: In terms of the death of recent guerillas, recently a Colombian magazine, Semana, reported that when Raul Reyes was killed, that the Colombian military retrieve a computer, that there were many emails, that there were supposedly hundreds of e- mail’s that involved you or mentioned you. One of them supposedly claimed that in December of 2007, you urged the FARC not to release Ingrid Betancourt, the former senator and presidential candidate who has now been in captivity for about six years, of the FARC. Your response to the charges in Semana?
PIEDAD CORDOBA: Well, no, I think it is very important, that public opinion in the world knows that its been the perverse strategy of the Colombian government—it is the only attempt, the only criminal activity that has been committed, which despite the bombardment, they found these completely intact computers that were only picked up by the minister of defense and the police generals. Which I personally don’t believe that, I think it’s completely false. Many of those emails that they mentioned haven’t been seen except by them, and the right wing press internationally. I think they’re used to change the public opinion in the country and also to throw mud at the work that many of us are doing. Fortunately, in the times that they say I was sending those emails, I was in Argentina, and after two ago days of very intense work, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet with any FARC commander in Argentina. So I think that there will be an opportunity to demonstrate that that is completely false, that is a very dirty strategy of government, and in previous times they made a number of attacks against the President of the Republic at the times of the campaign, and it was demonstrated that it was created by themselves, I think this is the same kind of strategy. Because what is really strange is that in countries like Spain or France, Semana magazine would have access to the emails, and ourselves, who were supposedly the people who wrote them, don’t have access to them. So I think all that fits in this strategy of destabilization and the attempt to throw mud on the opposition in the country.
JUAN GONZALES: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Senator Piedad Cordoba of the Colombian Senate, for the opportunity to be with you. This is Democracy Now! I’m Juan Gonzales. Amy Goodman will be broadcasting from Denver tomorrow. That does it for today’s program. Thanks for joining us again.