Colombia’s “Watergate” Scandal
Almost weekly new evidence emerged revealing the names of high-level government officials engaged in illegal activities including the wiretapping of political opponents, maintaining links to an illegal group and issuing lists containing the names of the president’s political enemies. While Senate hearings and widespread media coverage initially failed to directly link the president to the escalating scandal, they did begin to undermine the government’s credibility. Less than a year after the scandal erupted onto the political scene, the president was forced to fire two of his political allies for their role in the illegal wiretaps. Meanwhile, supporters of the president repeatedly pointed out that, while many high-ranking government officials had been charged with wrongdoing, the president himself had not been directly implicated in any illegal acts. While the aforementioned scenario sounds eerily similar to the current “para-politics” scandal in Colombia, it is actually a description of the first year of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s that eventually brought down US President Richard Nixon.
The Nixon administration had established a small group of operatives called “the Plumbers” whose mission was to plug-up leaks and ensure the secrecy of the government’s illegal activities. The group engaged in illegal operations on behalf of the Nixon White House that included placing listening devices in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee located in the Watergate office building in Washington, DC. The wire-tapping occurred during the 1972 presidential election campaign.
Obviously the Plumbers were a small unit engaged in espionage and political sabotage and not the widespread violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by Colombia’s largest paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Nevertheless, both the Plumbers and the AUC were used by their respective governments to help ensure electoral victory. In the case of the Plumbers, it was to ensure Nixon’s re-election. For the AUC, it was to guarantee victory for President Alvaro Uribe and his congressional allies in northern Colombia.
The greatest similarities between the para-politics scandal and Watergate exist in the drama that unfolded after the initial crimes were committed. In both cases, Senate hearings and other investigations revealed links between government officials and the covert activities being perpetrated by the illegal groups. Investigations in Colombia have revealed the existence of “hit lists” containing the names of unionists and other political opponents of President Uribe. High-ranking intelligence officers drew up the lists and then passed them to AUC leaders who threatened or killed the targets. Similarly, the Nixon administration drew up an “enemies list” of political opponents who were to be targets of illegal investigations by US federal law enforcement agencies.
In Colombia last week, President Uribe demanded the resignations of the chief of the country’s National Police, General Jorge Daniel Castro, and his head of intelligence, General Guillermo Chavez, after it was revealed that the National Police had illegally wiretapped members of the political opposition. Spokespersons for Uribe immediately proclaimed that the president knew nothing of the affair and that he will not tolerate any illegal activities by members of his government. Similarly, ten months after the Watergate scandal had broken, President Nixon fired two of his closest aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, when evidence emerged linking them to the illegal Watergate wiretappings. Nixon’s spokespeople immediately pointed out that the president was unaware of their illegal activities and would not tolerate such wrongdoings. As was the case with Watergate, public knowledge of official involvement in Colombia’s illegal wiretappings resulted from investigations conducted by journalists, not by the government.
The current para-politics scandal is less than a year old and has so far failed to directly link President Uribe to any illegal activities. At the same point in the Watergate scandal, Nixon had also not been directly linked to any wrongdoings. It wasn’t until two years after the Watergate scandal erupted that it finally became evident Nixon was personally aware of the illegal activities that had occurred. Furthermore, he had been involved in ordering them. However, these facts only became apparent after it was discovered that the paranoid Nixon had taped all conversations that took place in the White House’s Oval office. Those tapes turned out to be the “smoking gun” that finally brought down the president. Up until that point, Nixon had fired all those around him who had been implicated in the scandal while proclaiming his own innocence. Without the discovery of the White House tapes, Nixon might well have succeeded in remaining above the political fray in much the same way that President Ronald Reagan did during the Iran-Contra scandal a decade later.
Like Nixon, Uribe is firing all those close to him who have been implicated in the para-politics scandal. And unless one of his political allies decides to turn on the president, or unless Uribe has a smoking gun of his own hidden away somewhere, he may well survive the scandal. However, not being directly implicated in the scandal does not mean that Uribe is “not a crook.” It might simply mean that he isn’t as stupid as Nixon and has loyal political allies willing to take the fall for him. After all, as we eventually learned with Watergate, when there is so much smoke swirling around there is usually a fire at its center.