P.W.'s Big Adventure

Dodging hyperbole and herbicide in Colombia with U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone

"I come for your guidance and your wisdom," Wellstone proclaimed, addressing his hosts over the din of the refinery, in an air-conditioned room provided by the government's oil company, Ecopetrol. "Please be my teachers." When the human-rights workers proceeded to speak of how the government was abetting the right-wing paramilitary groups, the senator was back on familiar turf. He prodded the locals for more detail, so that his traveling companion Anne W. Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, might hear as well. "Are you saying that you think that the paramilitary and the military are the same?" he asked at one point. Yes, the activists said, prompting the senator to pointedly glare at Patterson.

But Wellstone didn't hold that line for long. "I'm not under the impression that this is a government that is repressive, or that this is a government that doesn't care about human rights," he said, no doubt mindful of his earlier meetings with Pres. Andrés Pastrana and Luís Fernando Ramírez, Pastrana's earnest minister of defense. (The human-rights workers, of course, had heard this line before. "The government has done a good job of selling themselves as the victim," one of them commented to me after the meeting. "Looks like they got to the senator as well.")

Wellstone would get few straight answers to his questions in Colombia--and fewer yet after he left. Even as he was en route back to the States, the Associated Press was reporting that Barrancabermeja police had thwarted a bomb attack that might have been aimed at the senator and Ambassador Patterson as they traveled from the Barrancabermeja airport into the city. Despite subsequent evidence to the contrary--including photos of the two bombs that had been found in a wooded area far from the visiting party's route into town--the report managed to find its way into the international press, alarming Wellstone and his aides. Though the sense of panic subsided as more information filtered into his office, the senator had to be concerned that the "assassination" attempt will make it harder for him to convince his colleagues to accompany him on his next trip to Colombia.

 

Steven Dudley is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia. He reports regularly for theWashington Post and National Public Radio.

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