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Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba on Negotiating with FARC, Her Criticism of Uribe and Why She Was Detained at JFK

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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.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Republican Senator John McCain is heading to Colombia today, the first stop on a brief Latin American trip that will also take him to Mexico. McCain is expected to receive a lavish welcome, meeting with Colombian President Álvaro 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 Córdoba was interrogated for more than two hours. Immigration agents made copied of her documents, phone numbers and other personal belongings.

Córdoba 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 Colombia’s Afro-Colombian community. Her political views, including staunch support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, 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 Córdoba joins me here in the firehouse studio. Mario Michelena will be providing translation.

Welcome to Democracy Now! I would like to ask you, could you tell us what happened at the airport, give us a little bit more information on what the immigration authorities did?

PIEDAD CÓRDOBA: [translated] Yes. Well, the normal proceeding for Lain Americans is a little bit more like a delay. But once I cleared Immigration, I needed a normal proceeding for the customs. They stopped me for more than two hours and a half, and asking me questions that really didn’t have anything to do with my entrance, 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, all the ones that were related to any denunciations that I thought I was going to do at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights about the presence of paramilitary groups in Colombia that were threatening students 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 and Bill Richardson, who is a personal friend of mine, and some congresswomen, so that they would intervene and I could get out of the airport. I think they were thinking of sending me back, but one of the officers mentioned to me that in the computer there was some note that said that I was a FARC member.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But you were traveling with a diplomatic visa.

PIEDAD CÓRDOBA: [translated] I have an official passport, which is the passport that the congressmen get in my country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, I’d like to ask you also, John McCain, United States senator and presidential candidate, is in Colombia right now. Accompanying him is Charlie Black, who’s one of his chief advisers 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 CÓRDOBA: [translated] 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 will provide security for them, and they would prevent any attacks against the oil fields. It’s not a very nice work for Colombians. And they’re lobbying and the financing of the groups is not well seen or regarded.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the paramilitary groups, in recent years, many of your fellow members of the Colombian 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 CÓRDOBA: [translated] Well, first of all, since a while back, there’s been, on the side of the media, most of it, a strategy and a work of selling to the country the image that the paramilitary groups are good and necessary, independently from the massacres that they’ve committed and the desperation of people, the fears of people. And a lot of the congressmen that are right now in jail and under investigation, they were backing the current president of the republic. That’s been a scandal, created a stir, but unfortunately — it is very strange — because of that role that the media has played, most of the public opinion doesn’t have a clear idea in which way the president of the country arrived to power. That explains, to a certain extent, his popularity, because on one side there is a certain tiredness of the people in regards with the war and the kidnappings, and they have been very careful in terms of establishing public opinion, in the sense that all the ills of the country are the responsibility of the FARC. And there is really no auditing or any monitoring or any polls that will give us an explanation regarding the popularity of the president, if it’s true or not. I think they’ve been very clever in managing that. They’ve used the strategy of propaganda and fear to propaganda, and that explains to a great extent the [inaudible] of the positive numbers, poll numbers, of the president of the republic, that I think that pretty quickly we’re going to realize that’s not true.

JUAN GONZALEZ: If you can, you could 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 Iván Laverde Zapata, said — claimed that top leaders of the intelligence service, El DAS, in Colombia were involved with Carlos Castaño in your kidnapping. Could you tell us about your experience being a kidnap victim and about this recent revelation?

SEN. PIEDAD CÓRDOBA: [translated] Well, I had an understanding, since a while back, that certain sectors of the right wing in our country who have been the government for a long time and for whom the opposition, and who oppose — who are against the mafia-ruled regime that has infiltrated a lot of our institutions, the way they’ve concentrated the wealth of the country and how they impoverished it and displaced people, well, we were almost like, you know, an uncomfortable presence. So, many of the denunciations we made at the time gave account that such institutions like the DAS, which is like the FBI here in the States, have been infiltrating Colombia through paramilitary groups. I could say the same here, that neo-Nazi group infringe on human rights and kidnap people. And even though when you realize those news you think that’s [inaudible], that’s been the practice really lately in Colombia, to kidnap and make people disappear and murder people. And although that’s disgraceful, I’m not surprising. I think it’s very positive so that the country and the world would realize what a kind of a corrupt democracy that exists in Colombia, and in which way it’s been managed and manipulated through fear, and through terror, they silence people. And the ones who don’t silence, like me, we are submitted to be kidnapped or killed or disappeared or to be finished morally and politically.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how were you eventually freed from your kidnappers?

SEN. PIEDAD CÓRDOBA: [translated] Well, I think that it was something, to a certain extent, very interesting. I was the president of the Human Rights Commission in Congress. I have 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 GONZALEZ: You’ve also become very controversial in your country as a result of your involvement in the peace process or attempts of negotiations of peace with the FARC. You were involved with President Hugo Chávez in high-profile talks. What’s the state of those talks, especially after the death of some of the key guerrilla leaders in the past year — Manuel Marulanda and Raúl Reyes? Where are those talks now? And what’s the prospects for peace in Colombia? Because this is obviously the longest-running long civil war.

SEN. PIEDAD CÓRDOBA: [translated] Well, I think that the first thing that I have to acknowledge is the enormous support of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, and the Venezuelan people, in general, have provided to this peace process in Colombia. And after many years, we’ve gained the freedom of seven persons, with a lot of obstacles mostly from part of the government and some sectors of public opinion and people who don’t want peace in Colombia, who have this war as a business and who — which allows them to use enormous amounts of wealth. Right now, the process after the killing and the violation of Ecuadorian territory from the part of the Colombian government is, without a doubt — has created a situation very difficult. I think it’s — what these sectors wanted was simply to just fight the process and put it to a stop, to avoid the humanitarian liberation of hostages. And I think it’s 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 persons 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 which are detaining in jail just die there, so that there’s been a new context. We are basically very willing to ask for new context and to 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 a political agreement with the FARC, we would manage to finish, to end completely with the kidnapping and to end the kidnapping as a weapon of political pressure in the country. Personally, I don’t think that there is a possibility of a real peace process with this government because of the mistrust, because of the lack of credibility, and mostly because of the scandals of support of the paramilitaries and of vote rigging to reform 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 make — be taking the first steps for a peace process in Colombia.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the death of the guerrillas, recently a Colombian magazine, Semana, reported that when Raúl Reyes was killed, that the Colombian military retrieved a computer, that there were many emails there, supposedly hundreds of emails that involved you or mentioned you. And 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 those charges in Semana?

SEN. PIEDAD CÓRDOBA: [translated] Well, no, I think that it’s very important that the public opinion in the world knows that it’s been a strategy, perverse strategy, of the Colombian government. It’s the only attempt, the only criminal activity it has 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. I personally don’t believe that; I think it’s completely false. Many of those emails that they mentioned, they haven’t been seen, except by them and the right-wing press internationally. And I think they are used to change the public opinion in the country and also to throw mud into the work that many of us are doing.

Fortunately, in the times that they say that I was sending those emails, I was in Argentina in the position of president with Ingrid Betancourt’s mom. It was 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’s been a — there will be an opportunity to demonstrate that that’s completely false, it didn’t exist, that it’s been a very dirty strategy of the current government. For example, in previous times, they made a number of attacks against the president of the republic in the times of the electoral campaign, and then it was demonstrated that those attacks had been created by themselves, and I think this is the kind of — same kind of a strategy, in the same way, because what’s really strange is that in countries like Spain or France, Semana magazine would have access to the emails. And ourselves, who are supposedly the persons who wrote them, don’t have access to them. So I think all that fits in this strategy of destabilization and especially to throw mud on the opposition in the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Senator Piedad Córdoba of the Colombian Senate, for the opportunity to be with you.

SEN. PIEDAD CÓRDOBA: [translated] Thanks a lot for you to invite me.

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