old legend says that when God made Colombia, St. Peter asked, “Why have you
given so much natural wealth to one country?” God replied, “You haven’t seen
the leaders I will give them yet.” It is this same wealth that is at the
heart of the West’s close interest in Colombia, and it is this same poor
leadership that explains why Colombia has so frequently handed it over to
them. For despite Colombia possessing 16 of the world’s 22 most desirable
resources, including oil, gold, platinum, emeralds and some of the richest
soils in the world, 64 per cent of Colombians live in poverty. And while 2.5
million families have no homes and 3.5 million children have no school to
attend, a mere one percent of the population own well over half of
Colombia’s wealth could benefit not just the Colombian people, but many throughout the world. The fact that it has only benefited a few at the top, explains the 19 conflicts that have blighted Colombia since independence. The current conflict has lasted 55 years, and has claimed the lives of millions. It is a dirty war, conducted not between armies, but by a proxy paramilitary force working with the official armed forces. These forces have inflicted murder, torture and forced displacement on innocent civilians, while claiming they are fighting a leftist guerrilla insurgency—most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).
Since 1953 there have been nine peace processes, each convincing certain guerrilla factions to disband. In every instance, the guerrilla leaders who agreed to re-enter civil society have been assassinated. In 1985, for example, the FARC agreed to a cease-fire, to form a political party —the Patriotic Union—and to participate in elections. In the following months, two presidential candidates, scores of elected congressmen, regional deputies and local councilors, and over 3,000 party activists were assassinated.
This one fact is central to understanding Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict: the insurgents do not trust the State. Our current President, Alvaro Uribe Velez, often seems to say, as does the current U.S. administration, that Colombia is in the grip of an international terrorist campaign initiated on September 11, 2001. This is a ludicrous myth that flies in the face of Colombian history.
In more analytical moments, Uribe claims, as did the Clinton administration, that it is drugs that are the problem. Of course drug money plays a role in fuelling Colombia’s conflict, but it isn’t merely the armed groups that benefit. Every layer of society right up to the presidency is infected. The 500 tons of Cocaine exported from Colombia last year had a street value of $110 billion. Only $3 billion of this ended up in Colombia, mostly in the hands of wealthy landowners and others in the elite, with a small proportion going to the peasant farmers. It is multinational corporations in the West that produce the chemicals needed to turn coca into cocaine. Surely in the face of such figures we must ask whose drug business is this? If the intention is to halt coca growing then the billions in U.S. military aid could instead have paid the small farmers, many times over, simply not to grow it.
But both drugs and terrorism have provided perfect pretexts in Colombia, as elsewhere, for U.S. intervention in the conflict. Colombia is now the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, behind only Israel and Egypt. While Plan Colombia, a billion-dollar “anti-narcotics” military assistance package, is causing misery for thousands of desperate coca farmers through a vicious campaign of aerial fumigation reminiscent of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, it is effectively shoring up U.S. control of the Colombian economy.
Terrorism also provides the pretext in Colombia, as elsewhere, for draconian legislation aimed squarely at civilians. Uribe claims his “war on terrorism” is reducing human rights abuses. But while indicators show a decline in kidnapping, the government’s own sources show human rights violations attributable directly to the armed forces on the increase. In one example, 2,000 people were arrested in Saravena in Arauca department, rounded up in a sports stadium and marked on their wrists with indelible ink. Only one of those 2,000 people remains under arrest. This is what we call a “miracle-fishing” exercise. The rebels used to conduct miracle-fishing operations at highway checkpoints where they would detain busloads of people in the hope of finding a rich individual to kidnap for ransom. Now the State rounds up hundreds of civilians in the hope of finding a single rebel.
The War on Terror turns the truth on its head. Laws currently being debated include allowing the state to intercept communications, conduct raids, open mail, tap phones and give the army the powers to investigate, prosecute and judge. Are these powers really aimed at guerrillas who live in hammocks in the jungle and don’t receive mail or have telephones? Or is this actually empowering the same armed forces that have well documented links with the paramilitaries who carry out the vast majority of massacres, torture, murder and disappearances against trade unionists, human rights defenders, teachers and peasant leaders?
We have been bombarded with claims of Uribe’s “unprecedented popularity” for many months, often polling 70 percent approval for his “total war” on the guerrillas. This is not surprising given the years of war the Colombian people have endured, the total control of the media by the president’s closest friends and the seduction of Uribe’s simple solution. But when Uribe went to the polls with a 14-point referendum, people woke up to the fact that he was proposing a neoliberal onslaught in line with the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as extending the power of his own presidential office. A campaign of active abstention, breaking the traditional political model in Colombia, succeeded in defeating the referendum with over three-quarters of the electorate staying away from the polls.
The opposition movement to Uribe disagrees on many points, but we are united in saying that, while we reject violence and the use of force as a political weapon, we still have to accept that this is a political conflict. Only a negotiated political settlement will produce a solution to the conflict, and a settlement must be based on social justice that undercuts the attraction of violence.
In October, Luis Eduardo Garzon, running on a progressive alliance ticket, was elected mayor of Bogotá. Garzon, who was beaten for the Presidency by Uribe in 2002, has consistently opposed Uribe’s policies. Policies that have turned much of the country into militarized zones and dragged an increasing number of civilians into the conflict with the introduction of such programs as the “informant networks” and “peasant militias,” as well as sweeping privatization and austerity measures. Claiming the rich in Colombia have been given preference for too long, Garzon has declared his first day in office “a day without hunger” and proposes the establishment of massive food distribution networks in Bogotá’s sprawling shantytowns.
Altogether, the alliance took a third of regional votes and won many hundreds of municipal council seats as well as the governorships of two provinces. Garzon’s victory opens a vital political space that bodes well. The winds of democratic change in Latin America that swept Lula and Chávez to power, and overthrew the rule of the IMF in Argentina are beginning to blow into Colombia.
Wilson Borja is a Congress member for the Social and Political Front in Colombia. He has been the victim of numerous assassination attempts. He recently toured the UK with campaign groups War on Want and Justice for Colombia. For more details see www.waronwant.org/colombia or www.justiceforcolombia.org. This article first appeared in Colombia Journal Online