Hollman Morris Decision Reversed

I've been meaning to update the saga of Hollman Morris, the Colombian journalist whose visa was denied by the US embassy in Bogotá. In its original decision, US officials denied the student visa for Morris to come study as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard under the "terrorist activities" section of the USA Patriot Act.

I am happy to report that the US State Department has reversed its decision and has granted Mr. Morris the visa. It speaks well of the Obama Administration that it can admit mistakes quickly and forthrightly. The decision was reversed on July 27th. From the press release:

The U.S. State Department has reversed its decision to deny a visa to leading Colombian journalist Hollman Morris. He is now free to travel to the United States, where he will begin a yearlong fellowship at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

Reacting to the news, Nieman Foundation Curator Bob Giles said “We’re very pleased that the situation has been resolved this way. Many concerned individuals worked together to support Hollman during the past month and we’re looking forward to having him join us at Harvard. His valuable expertise and insights will be a welcome addition to our new class of Nieman Fellows.”

Last month a U.S. consular official in Bogota told Morris that he was being denied a visa under the terrorist activities section of the Patriot Act. That decision was widely condemned by individuals and groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and others, many of whom lobbied on behalf of Morris.

An independent television journalist, Morris has reported extensively on his country’s civil war and resulting human rights abuses. His television show “Contravía” has been critical of alleged ties between the administration of outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups and the Colombian armed forces. Uribe once called Morris “an accomplice to terrorism” for building contacts with the country’s FARC rebels in the course of his reporting. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest rebel group, is on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Many journalists and human rights activists view efforts to link Morris with FARC as the Colombian government’s way to discredit his work. Last year, reports surfaced showing that Morris was one of many high profile critics of the government who were subjected to illegal wiretapping and surveillance by Colombia’s intelligence agency.

Morris has traveled to the United States a number of times in the past, has met with high-ranking U.S. officials to discuss Colombia’s human rights issues and in 2007 won the Human Rights Defender Award, presented annually by Human Rights Watch.

Here's a report that Hollman Morris filmed about an attack on the indigenous community of Toribío, Cauca back in 2005. There's been much progress in Colombia under Álvaro Uribe these past eight years but in much of rural Colombia the situation is much as it ever was. The last attack by the FARC on Toribío was this past March and just three days ago a Colombian soldier, Juan Diego López Bermúdez, age 25, died fighting the guerrillas just outside the town.

Toribío is a Nasa indigenous community caught between the FARC and the Colombian army. Hollman Morris with his weekly television programme on Colombia's public television channel has brought the war in rural Colombia into the homes of urban Colombia. In reporting on the sometimes indiscriminate response of the Colombian army to FARC attacks and by interviewing all actors involved in the conflict including guerrilla spokesmen, Hollman Morris earned the enmity of the Uribe Administration.

Although indigenous peoples make up just three percent of Colombia's population they account for eight percent of the 4.5 million Colombians who are internally displaced peoples. Virtually all indigenous groups in Colombia have been affected by forced displacement or are at serious risk of being displaced from their ancestral lands (UNHCR, 2005). Similarly, Afro-Colombians, who make up just over ten percent of the population, are also disproportionately affected by this phenomenon, representing 17 percent of all IDPs.

Colombia's 80 different indigenous peoples have long been in the front line of the 62-year conflict as illegal armies from across the political spectrum seek territorial control over their reservations, domination over drug crops or smuggling routes. An estimated 30,000 indigenous people have been killed during this period but 45 percent of these have been in the last eight years as the Uribe Administration took war to the guerrillas.

It is on behalf of Colombia's indigenous people that I urge you to oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement that the Obama Administration is now seeking to ratify. This agreement must be seen for what it is in Colombia - the last step in a vast redistribution of land pushing millions off the land so that wealthy agricultural interests can just take the land with impunity. The IDPs are not a by-product of the Colombian conflict. They are one of the goals.


Why Did the Obama Administration Deny a Visa to Hollman Morris?

My patience with the Obama Administration has been running thin on numerous issues for quite some time now but on the subject of human rights my patience is, well, just plum exhausted. Hollman Morris is an award-winning Colombian journalist, television producer and a defender of human rights. His reporting has been seminal to documenting the serial abuses of the Uribe Administration and of its ties to right wing death squads that have claimed an estimated 20,000 lives in the last eight years. Mr. Morris' work has earned him the sobriquet of "an ally of terrorism" from President Uribe.

This past June, Hollman Morris applied for a US visa at the American embassy in Bogotá in order to come to take up his place as an International Neiman Fellow at Harvard University, the oldest and one of the most prestigious programmes for mid-career journalists. Being named a Neiman Fellow is recognition of the incredibly important, and frankly dangerous, investigative research that Hollman Morris has performed in documenting the ties of members of the Colombian government and the Colombian armed forces have to paramilitary and drug trafficking groups. His being denied a visa by the Obama Administration is an affront to human rights groups and suggests that the Administration is not interested in having the many crimes of Alvaro Uribe aired in public.

Cecilia Zarate-Laun, a founder of the Colombia Support Network, told The Progressive that the visa suspension was “a prime example of ideological exclusion by the U.S. Government premised on the sensitivity of a foreign government to valid critical reporting.” It is an embarrassment that the Obama Administration is choosing to sweep under the rug the countless abuses of the Colombian people by the Colombian state and its armed forces. Here's a man who has risked his life to uncover human rights abuses and who has been a target of a comprehensive spying campaign by the Colombian state and the Obama Administration denies him a visa and the opportunity to join an academic mid-career development programme? The denial of the visa sends a dangerous message that journalists who defend are fair game and that the Obama Administration will look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses.

Below is a short three minute interview from October 2007 when Mr. Morris came to Washington to receive an award from Human Rights Watch as its 2007 Human Rights Defender. In the interview, Mr. Morris talks about the "other Colombia" - the fact that for ethnic minorities in Colombia life under Uribe has been deadly. In case you missed it, the Bush Administration granted Mr. Morris a visa. The Obama Administration did not. Funny that.

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US-Latin American Relations Heading South

The US Under-Secretaty of State for Latin American Affairs Arturo Valenzuela has set off a firestorm in Buenos Aires when making remarks critical of Argentina's legal protections for foreign investment. The remarks have so angered the Argentines that Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana sought out Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the margins of the World Climate Conference in Copenhagen to lodge a protest.

What set off the fireworks were comments by the Under-Secretary in Buenos Aires as his initial trip to region since being confirmed was wrapping up Wednesday. Valenzuela relayed some criticism he had heard from the representatives of US companies doing business in Argentina about the local investment climate.

"I noticed a change: In 1996 there was much more enthusiasm and intentions to invest; today I heard concerns about legal insecurity and concerns about economic management; unless there are changes, the expected investments can't be carried out," he told local press on Wednesday. Valenzuela was also the Under-Secretary for Latin American Affairs during the Clinton Administration, the hey-day of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus when free markets economic policies were all too often rammed down Latin America's throats.

That comparison to 1996 and the criticism of legal protection regime for foreign investment (inseguridad jurídica) is what triggered a ferocious response not just from the Argentine government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner but from various sectors within Argentina that has been front-page news for the last two days.

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