Archive for May, 2008

Colombia: War by Statistics

Tuesday 27 May 2008

About time I blogged about Colombia. It’s a place we cover quite often in Tribune. And it was in the papers recently:

“The legendary leader of Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group has died, delivering a devastating blow to the insurgency. Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, the founder and commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), died of a heart attack on March 26, the rebel group confirmed yesterday.” (The Guardian, Monday 26 May)

Such reports might lead readers to believe that the death of this man – who has been commander-in-chief of the Marxist guerilla army for decades (they formed in 1964) – has effectively decapitated the guerillas, and left them vulnerable. The BBC said his death “cast doubts” over the group’s future. Not so.

If the FARC are seriously weakened, it’s not because of Marulanda’s death. It may not even be by the demobilisations which are a linchpin of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s policy.

Marulanda has apparently been dead for two months, but the FARC have not gone ungoverned. Like any good Marxist organisation, they are run by committee: a central high command, with a secretariat of about seven people, has the supreme authority. One of its number, Alfonso Cano, is now commander-in-chief. Not much is known about him, expect that he has not held major military office within FARC. Marulanda himself was ill for a while, and how much power he exercised in his dying days we cannot say.

And how do we know FARC’s future is in jeopardy? Part of the reason is the government’s demobilisation policy. But some observers, notably pressure group Justice for Colombia (who are no great fans, it must be said, of the government) say their figures don’t add up. The Colombian Ministry of Defence claims that 7,849 FARC demobilised between 2003 (a year after Uribe came to power) and 2007. The government is also supposed to have demobilised  [page in Spanish] over 30,000 of the right-wing paramilitaries who are sworn enemies of the FARC. But JFC say that there were never that many paramilitaries to begin with. They put the figure in the order of 10,000.

Meanwhile, the FARC, while having a fairly standard-looking command structure, is split into seven blocs spread across the country, and further split into fronts. (Details here). Even if one bloc were annihilated (hard to do in the jungle) it would not necessarily precipiatate the fall of the rest.

That’s not to say FARC haven’t suffered setbacks. The assassination of Raul Reyes, one of Marulanda’s right-hand men and his chief negotiator, was certainly a blow. But it seems unwise to write off this tenacious guerilla army just yet. They’ve lasted 44 years and – for now – have guaranteed income from the drugs trade. The war against them is heavily financed by the US, to the disquiet of some on Capitol Hill. With a US election on its way, the FARC may be hoping they can sit it out.

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The Saudis Are Listening

Saturday 24 May 2008

I stumbled across something on the interweb recently which gave me a suprise. It happened while I was doing one of those things which, like masturbation, is widely done but seldom admitted: Googling my own name.

The controversy over BAE Systems and their Al-Yamamah contracts, with their well-documented allegations of corruption, is something I’ve written about a few times. In March, I reported for Tribune about a freedom of information case related to attempts by campaigners to force the Serious Fraud Office to repoen their corruption enquiry. Basically, the campaigners had made FOI requests to the government and had been refused; they didn’t expect to find direct evidence of bribery, but wanted the documents to build a better picture of BAE’s relationship with the Saudi and British governments (although the British weren’t a party to the contracts, they were heavily involved at various stages in promoting the deals over several decades). You can read my article here. I am in fact the only person to have reported the story (of which more later).

Anyway, I was surprised in the course of my Google-powered self-abuse to come across this slim brochure published by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Right there on page five was my article, with its rather un-Saudi-friendly headline, “UK ignores Saudi human rights abuses, says former top official”, intact. The brochure announces itself as the Weekly Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Information and Studies Centre. My story appeared alongside others from Jane’s Defence Review, Canada’s National Post and Arab News.

A quick look around the MOFA website reveals what is going on – because they helpfully explain it for you.: “The ministry of foreign affairs in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia established a center that is dedicated to finding the effective mechanism to present all kinds of information in the mean time to decision makers.” This information includes impressive-sounding databases of events, important global personalities and information about the countries of the world.

They also produce publications: “The center publishes daily an English Language report that contains news about the Kingdom foreign media published in English language be they from the Arab world or otherwise. The news items are published in a balanced manner whether they are economic or political. The report is published in a modern style and contains whatever written about the Kingdom be they negative or positive in nature… Senior officials in the Ministry receive a copy of this report which is published daily and consists of 4 colored pages that are increased sometimes to 8 pages based on  the volume of news.”

So there you have it. The Saudi royal family’s officials are monitoring the media, and even – it seems – our humble website. Maybe I can influence global opinion after all!

Welcome to my blog

Saturday 24 May 2008

Hello, I’m René and I’m the staff reporter of Tribune magazine, a political weekly based in London. This – apart from one false start a few weeks ago – is my first proper blog. Strange for a twenty-four-year-old journalist, but true. Let me explain briefly what this blog is, and isn’t, for.

Just as Tribune is closely associated with, but independent of, the Labour Party, so this blog relies on, but is independent of, my work at Tribune.  All the views are my own, etc etc. But this blog won’t be about views, but facts. I’m not going to try to imitate the polemical style of blogging of, say, Guido Fawkes. Firstly, it would just be a pale imitation (unlike Guido, I have no affiliation, official or unofficial, to any political party), and secondly I’ve got something to do which will hopefully be a nice change from that blogging style. I will try to provide some insight into some of the week’s political stories with what little inside information I can muster. Scoops are unlikely to happen, but you never know. Think of this blog as being like Nick Robinson’s, but without all the knowledge and skill. I am a trained journalist, mind, which will hopefully make things bearable. Other subjects may creep in if they can be linked somehow to the main political issues.

I will also try and set the record straight when a media outlet gets something wrong  – something I haven’t been too bad at in the past. And I’ll try to be as readable as possible. On we go.