Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has named his immediate predecessor, Andres Pastrana, to become Bogota's next ambassador to Washington. He will arrive at a sensitive time for Colombia, which has an annual $600 million U.S. aid package to combat drug trafficking, but which has also passed a controversial disarmament law granting amnesty to members of paramilitary groups involved in the drug trade.
Critics are predicting failure for government efforts to dismantle sophisticated networks of drug traffickers through the law, which was designed to demobilize thousands of paramilitary fighters. But the Colombian government and the Bush administration are eager to see a negotiated peace process go forward, regardless of the legal weaknesses.
Colombia's vice president, Francisco Santos Calderon, told Washington Post editors and reporters last week that the law "opens a huge window of opportunity that would allow us to repair a lot of damage." Of the paramilitary fighters, he said, "Of course, some wanted them to hang from the lampposts." But "this is not an impunity law," he added, saying it was meant to "give the peace process a legal framework."
R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state, said in Washington last week, "We hope very much that this law will be implemented in an aggressive way, in a way that would lead to effective implementation of the program."
Although the paramilitary groups were formed to fight guerrilla violence, human rights organizations say they have emerged as heavily armed and well-financed groups that protect landowners and have links to drug trafficking and kidnappings.
Uribe's office announced Monday that Pastrana would create an international panel to supervise implementation of the law.
The new ambassador will replace Luis Alberto Moreno, who has just been named to head the Inter-American Development Bank. Pastrana served as Colombia's president from 1998 to 2002, making sustained efforts to negotiate peace accords with leftist guerrillas.
Detractors insist the new law has been driven by the paramilitary groups and their allies as an opportunity for ex-fighters responsible for atrocities and drug dealing to decommission with little sacrifice, leaving their financial holdings and support structures intact.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch for Latin America, said in a recent session with Washington Post reporters and editors that the law does not revoke special benefits the paramilitary members have cultivated and "offers them a clean record, while protecting them from potential extradition."
Vivanco charged that the law contains little incentive and no strict requirement to fully disclose past crimes, financial assets or names of collaborators. "If you leave my financial assets intact, I am going to be able to hire an army when I get out. Also, recruitment has continued," he said.
Vivanco argued that by pleading guilty to some criminal acts and then serving light sentences, the paramilitary fighters could avoid extradition to the United States by asserting double jeopardy.
"These people are avoiding accountability for their criminal activity by infiltrating power and the government. This law is designed not to reconstruct the truth and lead to investigation," he said. Spending three years confined to a ranch with a cell phone does not constitute real punishment, Vivanco maintained. "What they are getting is much greater than what they are losing."
Brumidi's Capitol Accomplishments
If the United States ever had a martyr to the cultural embodiment of democracy, it was Constantino Brumidi. The immigrant from Italy died at his Washington home in 1880 in the midst of his work on the frieze of American history in the dome of the Capitol Rotunda.
Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) sponsored a reception last Wednesday evening on behalf of the Senate Cultural Caucus, celebrating the bicentennial of Brumidi's birth and the passing of a Senate resolution honoring him.
Brumidi painted murals in the Capitol over a span of 25 years, including his first fresco there, in what is today the House Appropriations Committee Room. He also painted a famous corridor on the Senate side of the building.
The most famous of his works is "The Apotheosis of Washington," the fresco inside the dome of the Capitol, which has been a source of inspiration to legislators and visitors alike.
The artist came to America in 1852 and struggled as immigrants do. When he was hired for his first Capitol commission, Brumidi said: "I no longer have any desire for fame or fortune. My one ambition and my daily prayer is that I may live long enough to make beautiful the Capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty."
And so he did.