Bogota, Colombia: President Alvaro Uribe quickly named a new foreign minister after the resignation of Maria Consuelo Araujo on Monday, who became a lightning rod for critics accusing Uribe’s political camp of being too cozy with the country’s brutal far-right paramilitaries.
Billions of dollars in international aid for fighting rebels and drug traffickers are at stake as the administration defends itself from accusations of family ties to paramilitary groups that the U.S. calls terrorist organizations.
On Monday itself, Uribe named Fernando Araujo, who is of no relation to Maria Consuelo, as new foreign minister.
Maria Consuelo Araujo’s brother, a senator, was jailed last week on charges of conspiring with the illegal militias and orchestrating the kidnapping of a political rival. The Supreme Court recommended prosecutors also investigate her father — a political power-broker in northern Colombia who has served as agriculture minister, senator and governor — for the same crimes.
Fernando Araujo , the new foreign minster, escaped from six years as a hostage of Colombia’s leftist rebels just six weeks ago. Fleeing from his captors from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, he wandered for five days searching out his own food and water before he found help.
In the growing scandal, eight Uribe-allied federal lawmakers have now been jailed for allegedly benefiting at the ballot box from ties to the far-right paramilitaries, responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia’s decades-old civil conflict, widespread land theft and much of the country’s cocaine trade.
The alleged ties between Uribe’s political backers and the paramilitaries, particularly along the Caribbean coast where the family of Maria Consuelo Araujo is politically dominant, complicates the president’s international appeals for help in the fight against leftist rebels and the world’s largest cocaine industry. He is counting on billions of dollars in aid from the United States and the European Union, which the resigning foreign minister visited in recent weeks.
Appointed last year, Maria Consuelo Araujo brought youth, beauty and the Caribbean flair to the job as she danced spontaneously with President Hugo Chavez on a visit to Caracas. But questions quickly rose as various members of her family were investigated, including her cousin and her sister.
The European Union’s delegation in Bogota declined to comment Monday on Araujo’s resignation. But even before she quit, top U.S. Democrats such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls aid to Colombia, were calling for a rethinking of the US$700 million (Rs3,080 crore) Colombia gets in U.S. aid each year.
“The resignation of the foreign minister and the recent arrests of members of the Colombian Congress are positive, though overdue, steps, but they leave many questions unanswered,” said Leahy in a statement. “As the new U.S. Congress takes stock of this situation and the justification for continued U.S. outlays to Colombia, American taxpayers deserve assurances that the Colombian government has severed links to these terrorist groups.”
Uribe’s supporters say the president should be applauded for his determination to tackle corruption and the roots of Colombia’s violence, even when it involves his own supporters.
But as the scandal unfolds — more than 60 federal and regional politicians, almost all of them supporters of the president, are being questioned — it appears to be edging closer to Uribe himself.
Two senators belonging to president’s cousin’s political party are under investigation. Critics also want Uribe’s brother probed for allegedly supporting the creation of the militias, a charge the president denies. And an opposition senator has promised a congressional debate on the rise of the paramilitaries in the northern province of Antioquia — precisely during the time Uribe was governor there.
Some in the opposition are demanding new elections, claiming paramilitary infiltration has irreparably damaged Congress’ credibility. Two paramilitary warlords have boasted of controlling approximately a third of the Congress.
Despite all this, Uribe himself remains popular, particularly for reducing criminal violence since he was first elected in 2002. Homicides are down to a two-decade low.