An Election For Peace? Four Key Developments in Havana and the Campaign Trail

Recent polls have shown that Sunday’s Presidential election run-off in Colombia is anybody’s game. President-canddiate Juan Manuel Santos is seeking a re-election and his challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is supported by Santos’ predecessor, the hyper-popular and controversial former President Alvaro Uribe.

Four recent developments have significantly shifted the narratives and political environment’s surrounding the defining issue in this election (the peace talks with the FARC in Havana). Zuluaga has moderated his position on the talks, but – echoing Uribe as President – he denies the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia. On the other hand, the FARC and the government in Havana have agreed upon a preliminary set of principles on the fifth issue on the table (Victim’s and their rights), and the leader of the FARC declared a ceasefire until June 30.

 

The FARC – preparing for President Zuluaga?

 

The FARC’s leader, Timoleon Jimenez (alias ‘Timochenko’) declared a unilateral ceasefire for the second round-off Presidential elections. Elections are on June 15, and the FARC declared a break from hostilities towards the Colombian Armed Forces and infrastructure from the 9th to the 30th of June.

Interestingly, Timochenko made the announcement in a letter directed towards Zuluaga exclusively. In the letter, the rebel leader tries to argue that in a recent confrontation in Chilvi, Tumaco, during the course of which the FARC  ‘supposedly’ threw an explosive that killed 2 children, had nothing to do with them.

Timochenko makes reference to Zuluaga’s assertion that the FARC have not shown any gestures of goodwill for peace; Timochenko said that this ceasefire is an example and that it is the government – who will not declare a bilateral ceasefire- who has not shown good will.

Given Zuluaga’s victory in the first round of elections, perhaps the FARC are trying to prepare for negotiations with a President Zuluaga but for now this is only speculation.

 

Zuluaga with the Conservatives – giving Peace a Chance?

 

Former Conservative Presidential Candidate Marta Lucia Ramirez – another Uribe supporter – endorsed Zuluaga for the run-off. As part of her endorsement, she reached an policy agreement with Zuluaga, moderating his position on the peace talks. Instead of now suspending the dialogues as soon as he would take office, Zuluaga says he will continue the dialogues but only according to certain conditions. If elected, Zuluaga will try and verify that within a month, the FARC are no longer recruiting minors, placing anti-personnel landmines (and letting the government know where they are), to end ‘terrorist attacks’ against the population, end war crimes, attacks against infrastructure, and for their to be a timeline on the negotiations. The agreement also calls on the FARC to honour their promises to no longer kidnap for ransom.

Uribe, Zuluaga’s mentor, has said that “Zuluaga was never against peace”, but was against impunity and a condition-less negoitation. Others have argued that this 180 degree turn-around on Zuluaga’s part is not to be trusted.   

Zuluaga’s significant change on an issue that arguably created a reaction which in turn created his party (Uribe’s ‘Democratic Centre’) can perhaps be read several ways. Zuluaga may indeed believe and respect the accord, and try to seek a negotiated settlement with the FARC in good faith. Perhaps then, the questions surrounding Uribe’s desire to stay central to Colombian political life are less about militarily defeating the FARC, and more about electing his candidate to the country’s highest office. Given how the tightness between the two candidates, that includes appealing to a broader base who may see some promise in the talks, and trying to disrupt Santos’ narrative that the President represents peace and that Zuluaga and Uribe are war-mongers.

Another potential scenario is that Zuluaga has no intention of continuing the Peace talks. His positions started from breaking the talks altogether, to suspending them, to now continuing them conditionally. According to this thesis, Zuluaga is seeking to have his cake and eat it too: He can this way be perceived as balanced, wanting a negotiated settlement over more war, but setting restrictive conditions that would amount to a de-facto suspension of the talks.

In response to whether his new position was ‘treason’ to his generally pro-military approach constituency, Zuluaga said that he is “opening space [in his campaign] for very important groups that represent millions of Colombians”.

 

There might be peace, but there is no war – Uribe’s War On Terror narratives on the campaign trail

 

The other important item coming from Zuluaga is his interview with alternative newspaper La Silla Vacia. Here, Zuluaga says that there is no “armed conflict” in Colombia, and instead that security issues are rooted in a “terrorist threat” (the guerrillas). He has repeatedly (and erroneously) called the FARC “the largest drug cartel in the world”. Zuluaga’s discourse is precisely how Uribe characterized the guerrillas during his presidency – as “narco-terrorists” who are not worthy of political status. On the other hand, in this narrative the Colombian State and its’ use of force is seen as legitimate. Uribe’s discourse clearly has spectres of the War On Terror in which the enemy is depoliticized and seen as a security threat to overcome, and not to reach a political negotiation with.

In a televised debate a few nights ago, Santos asked repeatedly whether Zuluaga considered Colombia’s situation to constitute an “armed conflict”, which Zuluaga dodged.

Finally, another term from Uribe’s language that Zuluaga has been employing is the juxtaposition between a legitimate democracy (represented, they argue, by the Colombian state) and the ‘authoritarian’ regimes in Cuba and Venezuela (referred to as ‘Castro-Chavismo’). Zuluaga contends that the FARC are a representation of ‘Castro-Chavismo’ and that the negotiations in Havana are subsequently ceding Colombia’s democracy.

This represents a key difference between Uribe and Santos – enshrined in the landmark 2011 Victim’s & Land Restitution Law- over a semantic question of immense political importance: Is there an armed conflict in Colombia? The Victim’s Law explicitly makes reference to one, which Uribe opposed when the Law was a bill under his government. This technical/abstract distinction affects the nature of the negotiations in Havana. Given the vehement rejection of most Colombians – particularly Urbanites and elites- of the FARC, Santos knows he does not have a mandate to negotiate at any cost. Nevertheless, recognizing an armed conflict between two belligerents logically precedes a need for a negotiation. The FARC, weakened but not defeated, see the process (or at least are trying to frame it as) a negotiation between equal parts. Zuluaga on the other hand, sees the FARC as terrorists who need to surrender to the legitimate institutions and justice of the Colombian state.

Some victim’s groups – who in discussions about the Law became political footballs for differences about the armed conflict definition – are therefore concerned that a Zuluaga Presidency  would roll back some of the gains made with Santos of recognizing a conflict (and therefore, that there are victims who have been abused by different perpetrators, not just the guerrillas).

 

Victim’s Tentatively Recognized by FARC and the government?

 

That was the other big news today. the FARC and the government negotiators in Havana have reached an agreement on 10 ‘principles’ surrounding the fifth item on the table – victims and their rights.

The ten points include a recognition of the conflict’s victims, and a commitment to not letting the negotiations result in “an exchange of impunities”.  The accord has commitments to responsibility, reparations, and a guarantee of protection and security. The deal also included a tentative commission to ‘clarify’ the historical truth of the conflict, a key demand of the insurgents. It will further include a gender sup-group.

Interestingly, the deal also includes something quite novel in peace processes – spaces for victims’ participation. Apparently a delegation will go to Havana soon, and several forums will be organized around the country in the coming month.

This point may be politically motivated (it cannot be a coincidence that this was announced a week before the Presidential elections). However, it also allows Santos to argue that the FARC are willing to recognize their victims, and that the State has also victimized.

Whether this will calm enough the anxiety of what exact balance between justice and peace is being struck in Havana, and be an example of supposed good faith between both parties, can’t be known until Sunday.

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Zuluaga/Uribe win first round of Presidential Elections – What next?

Last Sunday, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the candidate of Alvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Centre”, won the first-round of the 2014 Presidential elections with 29% of the vote.

The President-candidate for the ‘National Unity’ party, Juan Manuel Santos, came in second place with 25% of the vote.

Over 60% of Colombian electors abstained from voting.

Martha Lucia Ramirez, the candidate for the Conservative Party and Uribe’s former Defense Minister got a little over 15% of the vote, as did Clara Lopez Obregon for the Leftist Alternative Democratic Pole. Former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of the Green Party came in last place with around 8%.

The option of ‘voting in blank’, or opting to vote for none of the candidates in protest came last, although for sometime it was Santos’ main rival.

Since no candidate received a majority/plurality of votes, the two main contenders (Zuluaga and Santos) will square off in a second round/run-off on June 15th.

A re-election about peace?

The wedge issue between both candidates is the current peace talks with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, in Havana. Zuluaga, representing Uribe’s hard-line military approach to ending the conflict, vehemently opposes the negotiations and if elected will probably call them off.

Santos in his concession speech on Sunday night again re-iterated that this is a ‘historic’ election about choosing between more war or peace (meaning to continue the seemingly promising negotiations through his re-election).

The FARC for their part have yet to comment on Sunday’s result. 

The issue at hand now is whether Santos will be able to convince the Colombian people of both the need for the current peace process, and if he will be able to attract the support of the other parties.

The significance of Zuluaga’s victory is that Uribe is still one of the most powerful forces in Colombian electoral politics. Uribe was able to take a candidate with little national prominence six months ago to first place on Sunday. The nearly 3.7 million votes for Zuluaga are no doubt a testament to Uribe’s popularity, but are also relatively small compared to Uribe’s results in 2002, 2006 and other elections.   Zuluaga, who is not particularly charismatic, is understood to be “Uribe’s candidate”; during his victory speech the crowd began chanting “Uribe! Uribe!”.

On the other hand, it is surprising that Santos lost. Incumbents are typically favoured in elections. Perhaps Sunday’s results show that many of the votes Santos won in 2010 (when he was framed as Uribe’s natural successor) were actually for Uribe. Moreover, one of the major deficiencies in Colombian democracy is the rampant clientelism.  Santos still lost despite having the entire State apparatus at his disposal with some saying that traditional political ‘machineries’/establishments will decide the second round/ the run-off.

The name of the game for Zuluaga and Santos now is to try and lure the votes from the other parties. However, discipline in Colombia’s political parties is not great, nevertheless these endorsements matter. Zuluaga recently received the endorsement of the Conservative candidate who urged him to be more “flexible” with the peace talks which she conditionally supported. However, the Conservative congressional caucus seems to be rooting for Santos, and the Party as a whole is still open to both candidates.

The Greens are telling their followers that they are ‘free’ to choose either Zuluaga, Santos, or to vote ‘blank’/for none.

Santos, with his flagship initiative being a call to peace, was hoping to attract liberal and progressive voters to his re-election campaign. However, the Alternative Democratic Pole or ‘el Polo’, the main Leftist party in Colombia, has said that it cannot endorse Santos. Jorge Enrique Robledo of the Pole, and one of the most popular Senators in Colombia, for example, says that he supports the process but that the peace talks cannot overshadow Santos’ acceptance of Free Trade Agreements, and what is seen as a harmful economic and social policy.

At the same time, other opinion leaders in the Centre and on the Left like former Senator Piedad Cordoba, Senator-elect Ivan Cepeda, and former mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus are saying that they will ‘vote for peace’, a clear nod to Santos. Cepeda has additionally said that he is not a “santista”/Santos supporter, but that he wants his party to understand the high stakes in the election – that breaking the peace process may mean thousands of more dead and a Zuluaga victory a return of Uribe and ‘paramilitarization’ to Colombia.

The issue on the Left seems to be that, if people accept the credibility of the peace process (which is still an issue in contention), whether or not they are willing to accept a continuing economic liberalization/Santos’ neoliberal economic program in exchange for a potentially historic change (peace with the strongest insurgent group).

The different Colombias vote differently…..

Colombia, like most societies, is deeply stratified along lines of class privilege, region/geography, and race. The regions where the FARC are still a force to be reckoned with are rural areas outside the limits of not only Urban Colombia but also the success of Uribe’s counterinsurgency. Many of these areas are considered ‘peripheral’ by urbanites and elites  and in places like Cauca have large Afro-descendent/Black and indigenous populations.

It is important to note that these ‘peripheral’ regions where the active combat with the FARC is still ongoing,  Santos and the candidates most in favour of the peace process won by large margins, and little popularity for Zuluaga.

Zuluaga, by contrast won all over the country but also had extremely strong support in urban areas, and among the middle and upper classes.

This means that if indeed Zuluaga’s win on Sunday was evidence that people still love Uribe (and his hardline against the FARC), this perhaps maybe a sentiment coming from those who are probably not currently living with the war. The hard-line/war sentiment is therefore something that may be imposed on those who will actually bear the brutal consequences of rejecting a negotiated settlement to the war.

 

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Colombian Presidential Elections Tomorrow – What is at stake?

Tomorrow, May 25th, are the first-round of Presidential elections. If the winner does not gain a majority, there will be a run-off in which the leading 2 candidates will face-off in June.

Although initially unpopular, the two main contenders seem to be the incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon with the National Unity party, and right-wing ‘Democratic Centre’, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga Escobar. Zuluaga’s political movement is comes from the opposition that former President and Senator-Elect Alvaro Uribe Velez (2002-2010) has presented to Santos.

Santos, Uribe’s Defence Minister, was elected in 2010 on a promise of continuity of Uribe, particularly with respect to security policy. However, the right-wing ex-President has felt ‘betrayed’ by his successor given Santos’ normalization of relations with Venezuela, and his opening of a peace process with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC. Uribe, who became popular because of his hard-line military stance towards the demonized guerrillas, sees the process as a ceding the nation to ‘terrorism’.

Santos in turn emphasizes, rightly so, that this is the most promising peace process with the FARC in Colombia’s history. Out of 5 points on the agenda, agreements have already been reached on controversial items such as agrarian reform, opening the political system, and an agreement on drug trafficking (with the FARC for the first time partially recognizing their involvement in the illicit business). In a sign of confidence, the FARC and the ELN have declared a unilateral ceasefire during elections.

More Scandals than Peace

Over the lats few weeks, scandals have dominated the national imagination concerning the elections. In particular, there are accusations from Uribe that Santos’ campaign, through his Venezuelan campaign advisor JJ Rendon, received $12 million from narcotraffickers. Santos is starting legal proceedings against Uribe for these accusations, and Uribe has yet to provide evidence to authorities.

On the other hand, a video surfaced in which Oscar Ivan Zuluaga appears to be meeting with a hacker, Andres Sepulveda, that is spying on the peace negotiations in Havana. Zuluaga and Uribe have claimed that the video is a fabrication, whereas the Fiscalia/Attorney General has verified that the video is real.

An election over peace

The rift between Uribe and Santos has become one of the key substantive issues in the elections – the peace talks with the FARC. Uribe’s US-funded counterinsurgency largely successfully routed the FARC, and it seems that they are willing to sincerely negotiate with the government. However, many sectors of Colombian society, particularly the right-wing, still view the guerrillas with suspicion and prefer a military solution to the conflict. This sector is largely represented by Uribe and Zuluaga. Santos has made this a key narrative within his own Presidential campaign, saying that this election is about choosing between “war” (implicitly meaning Zuluaga and Uribe) and “peace” (him). Santos is selling his re-election as a promise of being able to finalize an agreement with the FARC, and build on the progress of the last two years.

Key questions for voters are whether they trust the Peace process in Havana (which many Colombians do, but many have memories of the failed process from 1998-2002/The Caguan negotiations). If they don’t, then Zuluaga is the obvious choice, but if they do, the next question is whether or not Santos is necessary for the peace process. Leftist Senator Piedad Cordoba Ruiz has announced that she will be “voting for peace” in the Presidential elections, an implicit nod to Santos.

For their part, the centre-left Green Alliance candidate and former Mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa Londoño has said that he will keep the current negotiating team, as would Left-wing Democratic Alternative Pole Candidate Clara Lopez Obregon. Conservative Party candidate Martha Lucia Ramirez Blanco, who also served as a Defence Minister to Uribe and partially designed his security policy, said that she would condition the talks on human rights concerns such as the FARC ending the recruitment of minors/child soldiers. Zuluaga, for his part, said he would give the FARC a week to suspend ‘all criminal activities’, or that he would end the peace talks.

Zuluaga’s position is rooted in Uribe’s stance towards negotiation during his Presidency. Uribe claimed to want a negotiated settlement with the FARC, but strictly under the condition that they cease hostilities. Given that a unilateral cessation of hostilities and ‘criminality’ was a non-starter for the FARC, critics of Uribe claimed that he was merely opting for a FARC military defeat. Zuluaga’s choice of language in the campaign seems more open to a negotiated settlement, but only as a reaction to the ‘peace and reconciliation vs. more war’ narrative promoted by Santos. After 50 years of war, no candidate will win points for projecting an image of war-mongering and intransigence.

And the rest of the issues….

According to recent polls, most Colombians seem to be skeptical about Presidential re-elections. Moreover, the peace talks with the FARC actually rank low on list of priorities for everyday Colombians (most of whom live in the city or in regions where the guerrillas have been routed, or where common criminals or paramilitary successor groups are the cuase of insecurity). As evidenced by recent mass protests, key issues that have taken a backseat to sensational headlines and the peace talks are education, health care, and Free Trade Agreements and mining. On mining, in the RCN Presidential debates, nearly all candidates agreed with vague platitudes about striking a ‘balance’ between the environment, the desires of affected communities, and the need to ‘develop’ natural resources.

In terms of Free Trade Agreements and the economic model, the only candidate that seems to be offering an alternative to trade liberalization is the Polo’s Clara Lopez.

A Historic Election?

Despite the clear problems with Santos’ economic policies (one of the sources of his declining popularity), Colombia does have a historic opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement with one of the most powerful and longest standing insurgencies in the contemporary world.  Zuluaga’s recent surge in some polls represent a threat to the talks, and the generalized distrust of the FARC may see Uribe come back to power through Zuluaga as his proxy. However, the hacker scandal has hurt Zuluaga. Shockingly, Uribe during the congressional elections made claims of fraud, and is saying that he may not accept the result of the Presidential elections. Santos is correct to a certain extent to say that this election is about peace over war, but it is unclear whether it will be his peace.

A few years ago middle and upper-class Colombians marched en masse (a rarity) against the FARC in a protest organized by social media-savy University students (One Million Voices Against the FARC). This protest could be interpreted as a validation of Uribe’s then-counterinsurgency strategy. However, as was evidenced last April 9, and the April 9 before that, Colombians are now marching in favour of peace and a negotiated settlement. This Sunday it will be seen if what Santos and Zuluaga are saying is what Colombians are hearing, if Colombians are ready for peace over war, and more importantly, if a deal with the FARC is worth all of the potential social and economic problems that a second Santos term might bring.

 

 

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Environmental Crisis in Casanare- 20,000 animals dead; What caused it?

Since last week, dryness in Colombia’s eastern Casanare state have resulted in the environmental devastation and the death of over 20,000 animals, mostly chiguiros, alligators, cows/cattle, pigs, turtles, deer, fish and birds. The crisis has centred around northern Casanare in the municpality of Paz de Ariporo.

chiguiros in Casanare. Photo credit: RCN La Radio.

The environmental crisis in Casanare has hit a nerve in the Colombian media and in social media networks. Generally, the crisis has been attributed to varying degrees to land use and climate change, although there is controversy about what actors bear what responsibility. Here  is a brief overview of what is being said and by whom.

According to local authorities, the crisis has killed off almost 10% of the animals in the region. There hasn’t been any rainfall in the savanna since December. Some environmentalists have attributed the crisis to cattle-ranching activities, others to the exploitation of oil in the region; the National Entrepreneurs Association (ANDI) President Bruce Mac Master says that climate change, and not oil companies,  is the culprit.

Whereas government environmental agency, the IDEAM, is saying that is is a ‘normal’ part of the dry season, environmentalists Wilder Burgos and Leon Paz says that usually the dry season leaves some water, and that this is unprecedented.

The Colombian Minister of Mines and Energy, Amylkar Acosta Medina, says that its would be premature to blame oil companies; Acosta said that the main agent here is the State, and he reminded that there are other activities in the region which leave a significant environmental footprint such as agribusiness (particularly Palm Oil cultivation). Acosta defended the presence of oil companies in the region, arguing that oil extraction can actually help the water supply as “for each barrel of crude that is extracted, approximately 10 barrels of water are being extracted”.  

Acosta also mentioned that should an extractive project threaten an aquifer or a zone of “hydric re-charge”, it would be protected by the Ministry of the Environment.

The Minister of the Environment, Luz Helena Sarmiento, for her part, attributed the crisis to an overexploitation of the land (particularly agriculture and large-scale cattle-ranching), a lack of care towards water deposits, and local climate change. Breaking from Acosta, Sarmiento mentioned that oil exploitation “may be” also having an impact.

The President of Colombian Petroleum Association (la Asociación Colombiana del Petróleo), Alejandro Martínez, said that given the “industry standards” there should not be an impact on bodies of water or their sources. Martínez also cited that the oil industry accounts for “only 0.35% of national water consumption”.

However, others are pointing fingers at the oil industry. According to Norbey Quevedo Hernández at El Espectador, since 1973 large-scale rice cultivators in Casanare switched to cattle-ranching/pastoralism due to the armed conflict, and an economic crisis related to contraband. In 1991, Quevedo tells us, oil deposits were found in Cusiana and Cupiagua, and the presence of oil companies followed, leading to significant environmental changes in the region. Citing the government’s Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology, and Enivronmental Studies, Quevedo argues that oil exploitation led to soil erosion due to deforestation.

Although the responsibility of oil companies is still in dispute, many sectors of the local population are attributing the environmental crisis to them.

It’s estimated that the crisis will take around 1 billion pesos (COL) to be properly addressed; oil companies in the region have promised to donate around 205 million. One Colombian lawyer has argued that companies should not have to take on the cost of the crisis at all, given how these are “speculations withou basis” to the claims that oil exploitation is contributing to the prolonged dry season. The Governor of Casanare, Marco Tulio Ruiz Riaño, called the companies collective offer “ridiculous” and countered that each company should pay 100 million. Representatives from the oil companies are apparently going to meet internally and offer a new proposal.

There is uncertainty around whether or not CORPORINOQUIA, the a local government agency, did the proper diligence in terms of planning to mitigate a potential emergency like this. The Minister of the Environment said that state agencies like Corporinoquia have been focusing solely on attending extractive companies in the region, and not on the stewardship of natural resources.

At the same time, an advisor to the Governor’s office in Casanare, Carina Rojas, has criticized the national Environmental Ministry for excessively giving out environmental licenses, that it has enabled deforestation, has insufficient controls, and is ignorant of what oil companies are investing in terms of compensation. Sarmiento has argued that there has been no excess in environmental licenses.

The Agustín Codazzi Geographic Institute (IGAC) has given five “sins” culpable for the crisis: excessive cattle-ranching, the lack of ground-water retention, oil exploitation activity, and the little productive resources of the soil/its acidic nature and low-fertile nature which has a delicate organic surface layer.

Several social and environmental activists have written to the UN and the Organization of American States, in which they attribute to the crisis to cattle-ranching and resource extraction in the region.

Finally, Carlos Victoria at Las2Orillas shares an interesting reflection on the crisis. Victoria asserts that the crisis is but one of many in Colombia, and a product of colonial and neo-colonial concepts of seeing the Earth as a “resource” to dominate, destroy, and profit off of. Victoria says that this logic of trade liberalization, and ‘globalization’, is a concept of development that benefits elites and is in the service of accumulating capital. Victoria also argues that the apolitical and “neutral” response from environmental sciences have only served to legitimate the government’s narrative around the Casanare crisis. He calls on them to no longer be “co-opted by neoliberalism” and to assume an ethical responsibility to the citizenry.

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Human Rights Watch alerts over humanitarian crisis in Buenaventura

Since the time of Alvaro Uribe Velez, where security was perceived to be improving, Colombia’s most important port, Buenaventura, has been plagued by violence from the army, drug trafficking groups, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.

Buenaventura is Colombia’s economic gate to the Pacific and to Asia. It’s strategically vital for narcotrafficking groups to move drugs, and weapons, but also for Colombian and international designs around importing foreign goods and exporting Colombian resources to the world.

Buenaventura’s poverty, its invisibility and marginality are not only part of the institutionalized racism and classism of Colombian society or the armed conflict, but also an acute example of how the promise of “trade” and globalization has been empty for the people there. More needs to be explored on the confluence of drug trafficking, international trade, and structural and imposed poverty and violence in Buenaventura.

Nevertheless, bonaverenses are by no means helpless. As told by VerdadAbierta.com, over 30,000 people marched last month against violence in the city.

Only then did the President pay attention to the situation by visiting a few weeks ago.

Check out HRW’s press release and the video below which includes testimonies from local organizers resisting the violence.

This was originally published on HRW’s website on March 20, 2014.

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“(Bogotá) – Paramilitary successor groups have abducted and disappeared scores, and possibly hundreds, of residents of the largely Afro-Colombian port of Buenaventura, Human Rights Watch said in a report and video released today. Thousands of residents have been fleeing their homes in the city each year, making Buenaventura the municipality with the highest level of ongoing forced displacement in Colombia today.

The 30-page report, “The Crisis in Buenaventura: Disappearances, Dismemberment, and Displacement in Colombia’s Main Pacific Port,” documents how many of the city’s neighborhoods are dominated by powerful criminal groups that commit widespread abuses, including abducting and dismembering people, sometimes while still alive, then dumping them in the sea. The groups maintain “chop-up houses” (casas de pique) where they slaughter victims, according to witnesses, residents, the local Catholic church, and some officials.

“The situation in Buenaventura is among the very worst we’ve seen in many years of working in Colombia and the region,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Simply walking on the wrong street can get you abducted and dismembered, so it’s no surprise the residents are fleeing by the thousands.”

Paramilitary successor groups emerged in Buenaventura after the deeply flawed official demobilization of right-wing paramilitary organizations a decade ago. Currently, the Urabeños and the Empresa are the main successor groups operating in the port city. The groups restrict residents’ movement – attacking people if they cross invisible borders between areas controlled by rival factions – recruit children, extort businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will.


More than 150 people who were reported to have gone missing in Buenaventura between January 2010 and December 2013 are presumed by officials to have been abducted and “disappeared,” twice as many as in any other municipality in Colombia. Interviews with authorities and residents, as well as official reports, strongly suggest that the actual number of people who have been abducted and killed by paramilitary successor groups in the city is significantly higher. One major cause of underreporting is the widespread fear of reprisals.

Buenaventura residents told Human Rights Watch that they had heard people scream and plead for mercy as they were being dismembered in “chop-up houses.” In March 2014, after criminal investigators found bloodstains in two suspected “chop-up houses,” the police announced the discovery of several locations in Buenaventura where victims had been dismembered alive.

“In Buenaventura, there are chop-up houses,” said Monsignor Héctor Epalza Quintero, the Catholic bishop of Buenaventura. “People say that in the middle of the night you can hear the screams of people saying ‘Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! Don’t be evil!’ These people are basically being chopped up alive.”

In 2013, violence drove more than 19,000 people from their homes in Buenaventura, more than in any other municipality in the country, according to official numbers. Decades of violence and armed conflict have forced more than 5 million Colombians to flee their homes, giving the country the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Buenaventura also led all Colombian municipalities in the numbers of newly displaced people in 2011 and 2012. Displacement caused by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas has also been a serious problem in Buenaventura’s less-populated rural areas, according to official numbers.

People living in parts of the city where the paramilitary successor groups have a strong grip reported that the police presence in their neighborhoods was scarce. Several residents reported witnessing members of the police meet with the successor group in their neighborhoods.

Prosecutors have opened more than 2,000 investigations into cases of “disappearances” and forced displacement in Buenaventura committed by a range of groups or individuals over the past two decades, but none has led to a conviction. No one had even been charged in 509 of the 512 investigations for which prosecutors provided Human Rights Watch information about the status of the investigation.

 

“There is a pervasive sense of defenselessness among Buenaventura residents, who have seen how the authorities continually fail to protect them from atrocities or bring to justice those responsible,” Vivanco said.

On March 6, after a regional police commander announced the discovery of several “chop-up sites” in Buenaventura, President Juan Manuel Santos said the government would intervene to address the city’s security problems. Along with increasing the presence of the security forces, President Santos promised to take measures to improve socio-economic conditions in the city.

Human Rights Watch outlined several steps the government should take to ensure the effectiveness of any intervention in Buenaventura. These include:

  • Maintain an uninterrupted police presence in neighborhoods were paramilitary successor groups are most active;
  • Establish an independent commission to evaluate the problem of “disappearances” in Buenaventura and develop a plan to curb the abuses and punish those responsible;
  • Create a special team of prosecutors exclusively tasked with investigating “disappearances” in Buenaventura; and
  • Vigorously investigate officials credibly alleged to have tolerated or colluded with paramilitary successor groups there.

“President Santos made an important commitment to address the human rights disaster in Buenaventura,” Vivanco said. “To be successful, the government needs to ensure accountability for abuses in Buenaventura, and dismantle the brutal paramilitary successor groups terrorizing the city.””

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Yves Engler: Harper Supports Saudi Monarchy

Originally published on Rabble.ca on March 24, 2014. Written by Yves Engler.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims to take “strong, principled positions in our dealings with other nations, whether popular or not.” But, even the most ardent Conservative supporters must wonder what principled position is behind the recent government-sponsored arms deal with Saudi Arabia that will send over $10 billion worth of Light Armoured Vehicles to one of the most anti-woman and repressive countries in the world.

Saudi Arabia is ruled by a monarchy that’s been in power for more than seven decades. The House of Saud has outlawed labour unions and stifled independent media. With the Qur’an ostensibly acting as its constitution, over a million Christians (mostly foreign workers) in Saudi Arabia are banned from owning bibles or attending church while the Shia Muslim minority face significant state-sanctioned discrimination.

Outside its borders, the Saudi royal family uses its immense wealth to promote and fund many of the most reactionary, anti-women social forces in the world. They aggressively opposed the Arab Spring democracy movement through their significant control of Arab media, funding of authoritarian political movements and by deploying 1000 troops to support the 200-year monarchy in neighbouring Bahrain.

The Conservatives have ignored these abuses, staying quiet when the regime killed Arab Spring protesters and intervened in Bahrain. Worse still, the Harper government’s hostility towards Iran and backing of last July’s military takeover in Egypt partly reflects their pro-Saudi orientation. In a stark example of Ottawa trying to ingratiate itself with that country’s monarchy, Foreign Minister John Baird recently dubbed the body of water between Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states the “Arabian Gulf” rather than the widely accepted Persian Gulf.

Ottawa hasn’t hidden its affinity for the Saudi royal family. Baird praised a deceased prince for “dedicat[ing] his life to the security and prosperity of the people of Saudi Arabia” and another as “a man of great achievement who dedicated his life to the well-being of its people.”

“I am very bullish on where the Canadian-Saudi Arabian relationship is going,” Ed Fast told the Saudi Gazette in August. On his second trip to the country in less than a year, Canada’s International Trade Minister boasted about the two countries’ “common cause on many issues.”

Fast is not the only minister who has made the pilgrimage. Conservative ministers John Baird, Lawrence Cannon, Vic Toews, Maxime Bernier, Gerry Ritz, Peter Van Loan, and Stockwell Day (twice) have all visited Riyadh to meet the king or different Saudi princes.

These trips have spurred various business accords and an upsurge in business relations. SNC Lavalin alone has won Saudi contracts worth $1 billion in the last two years.

As a result of one of the ministerial visits, the RCMP will train Saudi Arabia’s police in “investigative techniques.” The Conservatives have also developed military relations with the Saudis. In January 2010, HMCS Fredericton participated in a mobile refueling exercise with a Saudi military vessel and, in another first, Saudi pilots began training in Alberta and Saskatchewan with NATO’s Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) in 2011.

The recently announced arms deal will see General Dynamics Land Systems Canada deliver Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi military. Canada’s biggest ever arms export agreement, it’s reportedly worth $10-13 billion over 14 years.

The LAV sale is facilitated by the Canadian Commercial Corporation, which has seen its role as this country’s arms middleman greatly expanded in recent years. The Conservative government has okayed and underwritten this deal even though Saudi troops used Canadian built LAVs when they rolled into Bahrain to put down pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011.

This sale and the Conservatives’ ties to the Saudi monarchy demonstrate exactly what principles Harper supports: misogyny, military repression, monarchy over democracy and commercial expediency, especially when it comes to the profits of a U.S. owned branch plant arms dealer.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Paramilitary presence lurks behind Gustavo Petro´s political assassination

Originally posted on Connecting Colombias:

The still shocking removal of Gustavo Petro as Bogotá mayor yesterday added to the recent electoral evidence that Colombian paramilitary-political alliances are flourishing, certainly more than their left-wing critics.

Petro, it seemed, had won. He and his supporters were ready to celebrate. Then, everything changed. Changed completely.

The courts turned a final thumbs down Tuesday to a legal challenge of the mayor´s firing. Then in the middle of the night an international human rights court seemed to ride to the mayor´s rescue when it recommended protective measures which many assumed would prevent Petro´s firing.

President Juan Manuel Santos had indicated earlier he would respect the human rights court´s recommendations. Many thought he would.

Then, while thousands gathered in Colombia´s political centre, La Plaza de Bolivár, to celebrate the supposed victory, Santos struck a rapid, hard blow against Petro and his supporters.

He ignored the Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos´s recommendation…

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Why did Canada help overthrow Haiti’s government?

Originally posted on Yves Engler:

This is the last in a four part series leading up to the 10th anniversary of the February 29 2004 overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government in Haiti.

Why did Canada help overthrow Haiti’s elected government? That’s a question I heard over and over when speaking about Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, a book I co-authored with Anthony Fenton. Most people had difficulty understanding why their country — and the U.S. to some extent — would intervene in a country so poor, so seemingly marginal to world affairs. Why would they bother?

I would answer that Canada participated in the coup as a way to make good with Washington, especially after (officially) declining the Bush administration’s invitation (order) to join the “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq in 2003. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham explained: “Foreign Affairs view was there is a limit to…

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Who is and is not a ‘paramilitary’? Erasing the changing nature of Colombia’s conflicts over land

A few weeks ago, Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program recently ran an interesting 20-minute investigative piece on the struggles of community leaders with respect to the Land Restitution process, which raises some questions about whether or not paramilitarism continues, or has changed in Colombia.

colombia-ley-de-tierras “Land & Life”, photo credit: InfoLatAm

Some context - The Paramilitary Demobilization & Contested Narratives.

Since the 1920s (and arguably, since the 16th century), disputes over who owns land, whether land can be ‘owned’, who gets to benefit off of the land, have been deeply influencing Colombia’s armed and social conflict.

Although the FARC, the ELN, drug cartels, and the army/all armed actors in Colombia have displaced people off of their land and terrorized communities in order to exert social and territorial control over them, right-wing paramilitary groups working often on behalf of narcotraffickers and large land owners have been particularly tied to the question of displacement. Colombia is said to have the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (the Norwegian Refugee Council puts it at 5.5 million, and this documentary puts it at around 6 million). This is not  even counting those who were displaced outside of Colombia. Many in Colombia say that throughout the war, as much as 10 million hectares have changed hands.

What’s interesting here is that many analyses concerning Colombia’s Land Restitution Law follow a common, and relatively accurate, narrative – Colombia’s land restitution process is at serious threat because of the continued threats by armed groups to community organizers leading land claims. However, the Al-Jazeera documentary probes deeper into the ideological and semantic questions of these threats, which arguably, are of tremendous significance to the political moment in which the land restitution process occurs.

Firstly, the confederation of right-wing paramilitary groups known as las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, or the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia) demobilized in 2003-6 in a highly-criticized process which some victim’s groups saw as a granting of impunity    Many of the middle-rung paramilitary leaders who demobilized under the law (and were not extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges) will start to be released this year.

Thousands of the former paramilitaries granted legal benefits under the demobilization process with the previous government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), re-armed into groups that have been characterized by the government and some analysts as “criminal bands” or BACRIM, or armed groups that are primarily focused on narcotrafficking, and not actors in the armed conflict.

In the documentary, a functionary of the national government says that the BACRIM are not paramilitaries, for example, because they do not engage in combat with the FARC or the ELN.

Others, such as opposition Congressman Ivan Cepeda have argued that the BACRIM are neo-paramilitaries, or a continuation of powerful interests defending themselves with private armies. What is undoubted is that the human costs of paramilitarism, and the tactics of repression, threats, and cruelty imposed by these groups on the civilian population are very similar to the ‘old’ paramilitaries and are devastating. It is important to note however that the ‘old’ paramilitaries in the 1990s committed many large, atrocious massacres, and these are much less common now, although the selective murders of activists continue at an alarming rate in Colombia. It’s also worth nothing that violence perpetrated by the neoparas/BACRIM accounts for the majority of forced displacement currently.

At the heart of the question is what is the ideological motivation (if any) behind these paramilitary successor groups – if they have, like the Castaños – a clear anti-subversive, right-wing and seemingly fascist ideological motivation, or if they are “merely” criminal groups or drug traffickers and pistols-for-hire for powerful landed interests. This raises some questions about history – one of Uribe’s main challenges in beginning negotiations with the AUC in the early 2000s was that to do so they needed to have legally recognized political status (which they did not). Moreover, some have argued that even the AUC did not necessarily have a coherent guiding ideology as many groups were the private armies of (seemingly apolitical) narcotraffickers. However, in relation to land, it is clear that the AUC did have a clear pro-business, pro-land owner and anti-dissident agenda.

“Neoparamilitarism” in the Current Political Moment – Moving toward “peace”?

SantosRestitucion President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon giving land titles in Mampujan, Cesar at a land restitution ceremony. Photo credit: Caracol.com.co

The important point here is the political interests behind this seemingly abstract distinction – if the they do have an ideological motivation, then perhaps the “neoparas” are a continuation of paramilitarism in Colombia, but if they are not, this validates the official discourse that paramilitarism in Colombia ended in 2006 with the demoblization of the AUC. Under this logic, which is the government narrative and is often reproduced in Colombian media, the only groups left to negotiate with for “peace” in Colombia are the guerrillas.

Within this narrative is the conjecture of the “historic” 2011 Victim’s and Land Restitution’s Law and the current peace talks with the FARC guerrillas in Havana. Both initiatives by the Santos government are aimed at ending Colombia’s conflict (although, a conflict defined in certain ways) and providing ‘reparations’ for “moving forward” or establishing a so-called “peace”.

Although the Victim’s Law is a useful tool and has some interesting mechanisms for Victim’s (such as a reverse-onus for land-owners accused of having ‘dirty’ land to prove that they obtained it legally), the law, as explained by the Al-Jazeera documentary, is actually quite tepid in how much land can be redistributed, and in how much time (the law stops after a decade, and the backlog on land claims is enormous). Furthermore, according to one interviewee, the law won’t touch the land of large companies or land-owners who have their paper work in order. In other words, the Victim’s Law is not an agrarian reform to respond to not only the violent, largely paramilitary and narco-trafficker-driven, counter-agrarian reform/displacement crisis of the last 30 years, but it also leaves out the historic question of land inequality in Colombia (rooted in colonialism). Finally, there are questions about whether those displaced by the BACRIM/neo-paras (as these aren’t deemed as political actors in the armed conflict) will be eligible for restitution.

Therefore, the political categorization of Colombia’s armed groups in institutional and political terms shapes conceptualizations of the conflict, and subsequently, divergences between how the state wants to frame the war (or ignore it) and how people experience it in human and material terms (killings of leaders continue, land isn’t given back).

Ideologically, the Colombian state, the international community, and particularly academia, seems to prioritize political violence (as this threatens the state, and is more “sexy”/associated with mass and sensationalized violence). Prioritizing this violence also prioritizes its victims. However, that begs the question – what is an armed conflict, what is political violence, and what does it matter? Arguably, Mexico is currently experiencing a brutal civil war.  Politics also currently colours the mass wave of violence in Venezuela, which in recent years has had some of the highest murder rates in the world.

It makes little senses to create a hierarchy of violences, and of  its’ victims, according to rigid and problematic intellectual definitions of an ‘armed conflict’ needing to have a certain relationship to discourses (groups needing explicit political goals) and to the state (protecting or challenging its monopoly on violence).

Kyle Johnson in a guest piece over at Colombia Reports on the “neo-paras” offers a much more useful conceptualization:

The political at its root is the capacity to make and implement decisions that define, normally limiting, the rules of the game in society by imposing restrictions and permissions on certain actions; it is looking to establish a social hierarchy and decide who resides where in that hierarchy; usually the rules and hierarchy are reinforced through coercion and selected benefits for certain sectors of the population. This definition is far from most arguments about what constitutes political positions, political interests, etc. It is derived from classical political theory and some sociological concepts on political power, and it should be noted that one does not need a clear, well-developed ideological project to have a political side.

…..

Given the incredible historical importance that land has played in establishing the position of people in the regional social hierarchy, and thus the economic, social and political power large landowners have, the threats and violence against those who are reclaiming their stolen land back are effectively defining the place of certain actors in that hierarchy. …

Additionally, these coercive actions indicate that looking to gain stolen land back is not permitted in the areas under Urabeños’ control.

So in the Colombian context (and many others) the contention that is politics is largely rooted in land, and therefore the BACRIM/neoparamilitaries are definitely political actors as they are trying to close political space for actors wanting to claim it, using a language of ‘cleansing’ that harks back to the days of the AUC.   They also  seem to be in favour of business interests and against activists/community leaders and progressive sectors.

By re-defining the nature of politics to be something broader than explicit ideology or threats to the state, and armed political conflict, or by not creating a hierarchy of victims, hopefully this would open more institutional spaces for victim’s to have access to memory, reparations, justice, and restitution on their terms. However, as things currently stand, questions of whether paramilitarism continues in Colombia are seemingly being ignored by the state and some sectors of the media in their language and characterization of paramilitary successor groups as ‘criminal bands’ disconnected from the past paramilitaries. What the thesis of ‘neoparamilitarism’ does is throw a wrench in the the assumptions behind the Land Restitution process, the peace process, and notions of transitional justice in Colombia : the Justice & Peace Law was not just an abject failure in providing justice, but it also provided no peace and no transition. At a local level, conflicts over land continue in the same nature as during the height of the war and paramilitarism/paramilitarism was not stopped by the demobilization.

Validating the official discourse – that paramilitaries are over, land is being given back, and soon, the guerrillas and the war in general will be history, erases not only the current lived experiences of people in regions like Jiguamiando and Curvarado and the Urabá region, but also more structural, historical, and political underpinnings of Colombia’s conflict (land inequality and the brutal repression of peaceful dissidence). It also erases how Colombian democracy was shockingly co-opted by paramilitary groups, and that the alliances between certain businesspeople, politicians, and armed groups who displace and threaten peasants, Afro-Colombians, popular sectors, and indigenous people are something that has been overcome.

In other words, at this course, violence against Colombia’s peasantry will long continue after the FARC give up their arms, but the victim’s of Colombia’s war will be even more invisible; the war will be further denied.
PS – The International Criminal Court is looking at one paramilitary group, the ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’, popularly referred to as “Los Urabeños“.

Further reading: York University Professor Jasmin Hristov’s “Legalizing the Illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘Post-Paramilitary’ Era” is strongly recommended.

For another perspective, InsightAnalysis has a wealth of information on Colombia’s BACRIM.

At a local level, according to Ariel Avila,  it also seems that ‘parapolitics’, or alliances between neoparas/BACRIM are still occurring, reminiscent of the ‘parapolitica’ scandal that touched over a third of Congress, intelligence agencies, the military, and civil cervants.

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Chief predicts Oka Crisis if feds impose Enbridge pipeline

Originally posted on Warrior Publications:

Canadian soldier and warrior face off during 1990 Oka Crisis.

Canadian soldier and warrior face off during 1990 Oka Crisis.

Leader says conflict will continue to escalate until the government decides to negotiate in good faith and honour First Nations rights

Erin Flegg, Vancouver Observer, Feb 26th, 2014

If Canada fails to respond to live up to its obligations to consult First Nations, British Columbia’s Grand Chief Stewart Phillip believes it will almost certainly see another Oka Crisis, referencing a 78-day standoff in 1990 between the Mohawk people, the Quebec police and the Canadian military that broke out when the province tried to build a golf course on a traditional burial site. 

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