Tag Archives: Ecuador

Protecting the State from Refugees: Asylum Policy Towards Colombian claimants

Yesterday marked World Refugee Day.

In light of the observation, I would encourage people to check out the Canadian Council for Refugees and the work that they are doing to promote refugee rights, particularly in response to the ‘Refugee Exclusion Act’ or Bill C-30 and the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Jason Kenney last year.

I also think it’s a good time to reflect on, both in the global and Canadian context, the ever increasing challenges and marginalizations which forced migrants are facing. Therefore, I wanted to share this little piece I wrote a while back about Canadian and Ecuadorean asylum policy and its increasingly restrictive nature. This is by no means an extensive review of the literature, ideas, challenges, or experiences which Colombian asylum seekers face, but just a brief reflection on what are (to me) some key issues. I encourage constructive feedback in the comments section.

A quick note on the numbers: When I wrote this, the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) took the CODHES number on IDPs in Colombia at the time, which was 5.4 million, and now the latest number is actually 5.5 million. The government estimates of IDPs also have since increased.

Protecting the State from Refugees: Canadian and Ecuadorean Asylum Policy Towards Colombian Migrants

Since 1964, my native Colombia has been at war with itself. This near 50-year conflict, and state-sponsored violence both under the auspices of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs created one of the worlds’ largest forced migration crisis. Official figures put the number of displaced Colombians at 3.9 million, making Colombia only second to Sudan in terms of internal displacement; non-government figures however, put the number at 5.4 million or over 10% of the entire population, and making Colombia the world’s leading country in internal displacement (IDMC).

Nevertheless, the violence of forced displacement is not contained to Colombia’s borders. During the height of the war, an estimated 300,000 to no less than one million Colombians are said to have fled due to the armed violence (Gottwald 517). Many of these refugees fled to Ecuador, who has been internationally lauded for its supposedly liberal and humanitarian policies for allowing Colombian refugees in. At the same time, Colombia has for over a decade been one of the top 10 source countries for Canada’s refugee system (Citizenship and Immigration Canada a). However, since 2012 in Ecuador, and since 2011 in Canada, both of these systems have come under  scrutiny for having become more restrictive and trying to defend themselves against refugees instead of trying to protect refugees from the forces which persecute them. Both of these developments are linked to perceived security concerns, and political discourses and narratives which securitize refugee policy and depend on characterizations of refugees as suspicious individuals abusing a generous system, and placing an unfair burden on the resources of the host country. In Ecuador, this is exacerbated by an association of Colombians with violence and drug trafficking, and regional interests in relation to how the Colombian armed conflict needs to be framed. In Canada, these concerns are part of a larger change in legitimating certain kinds of migrants (economic ones) and delegitmating the most vulnerable (asylum claimants, framed by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney as potentially being ‘bogus’ refugees) (Bradimore and Bauder 2011). Therefore, in both Ecuador and Canada, I argue that immigration policy is largely about image management and driven by popular perceptions of immigration, to the detriment of Colombian asylum seekers. Firstly, let me discuss both countries recent changes to their historically open asylum policies that have particularly benefited Colombians (first with Ecuador, then Canada), then a comparison of both, and finally a critique of how both are exacerbating the vulnerability of this already extremely marginalized and threatened population.

Ecuador, although not a ‘traditional’ humanitarian developed liberal democratic state receiving large amounts of immigration like say the United States, Australia, or Canada, is definitely a country that has been recognized as having received an enormous amounts of (forced) migrants. This  country has the largest amount of refugees in the Western hemisphere (Applebaum 2012). Over 98.5% of these are Colombians, most likely displaced by violence from Colombia’s armed conflict (Applebaum 2012). Ecuador is a signatory to both the 1951 Geneva Convention, outlining the traditional Cold War era-focused definition of a refugee, as well as the 1976 Protocol. More importantly, Ecuador is also signatory to the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees; this declaration, although not legally binding, set out a framework for Latin American asylum policy which was more sensitive to the needs at the time where civil wars in both Central and South America were at their height, and with a definition of refugee that was more relevant than the 1951 one. This definition included people who were fleeing ‘massive human rights violations’, ‘generalized violence’ and ‘disturbances to the public order’ (White 1).  From 2000 to 2004, Ecuador accepted 27,000 Colombian refugees, an unprecedented number in that amount of time, far surpassing the rest of Colombia’s neighbours (Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil) who together with Ecuador have over the last decade received the bulk of Colombia’s externally displaced population (Gottwald 532). Many of these refugees were at first accepted prima facie in Ecuador under the definition outlined by the Cartagena Declaration which, true to its purpose, fits quite nicely with the context of people fleeing the Colombian armed conflict (Gottwald 531). For many Colombians fleeing violence from armed groups such as the paramilitaries, the Marxist guerrillas, and the Colombian army in the Pacific, one of the poorest and most conflict-affected areas of Colombia, going to Ecuador is an attractive option. This has raised dramatically the amount of Colombian refugees arriving in Ecuador; in 2000 Ecuador received less than 500 asylum applicants, to 45,000 in 2007 (Riaño and Villa 59). Ecuador is a key actor therefore in the issue of Colombian forced migration.

Given this escalating crisis, the overburdened and under-resourced Ecuadorean refugee system, although relatively liberal and generous compared to the rest of Colombia’s neighbours, the system began to become more restrictive in 2002 when the Cartagena Declaration definition was no longer applied (Gottwald 533). Moreover, Colombians would be arbitrarily denied refugee status because of stigma against them and, although recognized as one of the better options for Colombian refugees, only a third of asylum claimants would be accepted. Ecuadoreans would generally reject Colombians, except for mass displacements resulting from well-known, highly-publicized, and documented massacres (Korovkin 325). Therefore, Ecuadorean asylum policy may not be as ‘humanitarian’ as it may appear.

The most pressing concerns however, are related to recent changes and Ecuador’s political interests in the framing of the Colombian armed conflict. In 2012, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa issued Decree 1182, vastly restricting options for refugees in Ecuador in an effort to consolidate refugee laws and hopefully regulate the estimated thousands of Colombians who migrated, forcibly and voluntarily, and illegally. Decree 1182 cut down the amount of time for asylum claimants to submit their claims by half, and greatly reduced the time for refugees to organize and submit appeals to decisions (Littell 2012). Decree 1182 also begins to speak for the first time of repatriation, which would reduce the burden of hosting Colombian refugees, but would send them potentially back into danger (Litell 2012). The Decree also ignores the relevant Cartagena definition, opting for the Cold War relic of the 1951 Convention Refugee determination, focusing on individual persecution and not generalized violence.

This decree, and its associated problems and effects, are rooted in a very specific discourse around Colombian refugees in Ecuador. Firstly, with tens of thousands of refugees flooding into a relatively small and underdeveloped country, with an under-resourced refugee department and a weak UNHCR presence, the system is overloaded; moreover, it is in the interests of the Ecuadorean government and the Marxist FARC guerrillas, as well as the Colombian government itself, to downplay the transnational nature of an issue like forced migration (Gottwald 527). The Colombian government wants to keep the war a domestic issue that it can deal with within the auspices of its own sovereignty. Also, both Ecuador and the FARC want to downplay the fact that the FARC has been present in Ecuador for over a decade, being that the Ecuadorean government has been either unwilling or unable to remove the FARC from their territory (Gottwald 527). In a similar vein, this is part of a larger securitization of the refugee discourse and a militarization of the Ecuadorean-Colombian border as a result of the armed conflict that is part of a much larger pattern of trying to control the movement of drugs, arms, and people. The previous Ecuadorean  president Lucio Gutierrez and the former President of Colombia Alvaro Uribe Vélez, in an effort to curb illicit movements of people, arms, drugs, and insurgents, required a Paso Juridico, or a criminal record check at the border so that known ‘criminals’ would not be able to cross the border Riaño and Villa 62).

This discourse is motivated by a dual-interest in demonizing Colombian refugees. Firstly, already impoverished Colombian refugees are willing to work at lower wages than low-income Ecuadoreans when they arrive, causing resentment amongst locals (Korovkin 326). Furthermore, given the presence of the FARC and the somewhat lawlessness, despite militarization, of the Colombian-Ecuadorean border and of Ecuadorean communities along the border, violent crime such as murder has apparently skyrocketed in these communities (Gottwald 536, Korovkin 328). Many Colombian refugees have a well-founded fear that they will continue to be persecuted once in Ecuador, and that if they apply for asylum in Ecuador and are rejected, they will be deported back to Colombia (Korovkin 328). This coupled with a fear that many refugees do not want to be ‘traced’, and therefore do not want to document their movements into Ecuador, creates a high degree of under-registration, or what Gottwald calls “invisibility” of Colombian refugees (Gottwald 535); for example the Ecuadorean Minister for Foreign Affairs suggested that whereas official numbers of Colombians in Ecuador are around 50,000 (not all refugees, it must be mentioned), he estimates that the actual number maybe 10 times that, and perhaps even 1 million (Korovkin 325). Many Colombians also once upon arriving at Ecuador, do not have proper documentation or do not come into contact with authorities (given that they are coming from remote areas and through what is a jungle border), and therefore never have the opportunity to formally apply for asylum. So, increasing violence, a perception that Colombians are bringing with them their social problems (drug trafficking, the FARC), and abusing of Ecuador’s “generous” refugee system as well as living outside of it, has bred resentment among the local population in Ecuador who does not have direct family ties to Colombia. Indeed, in one survey, 52% of Colombian refugees in Ecuador felt that they had experienced discrimination based on their immigration status (or lack thereof) or there Colombian nationality (White 6).

The Canadian context is not much different in that a negative perception of refugees, that refugees are an issue to be ‘dealt with’ and not human beings entitled to certain rights and protection from the state as asylum claimants, drives immigration policy. In particular to Colombia, although not occupying a large space in the Canadian popular imagination, this nation has been one of the top 10 source countries for refugees for over a decade and has been in the top 5 lamentably since 2005 (Citizenship and Immigration Canada A). In 2006 for example, as a source country for refugees to Canada, Colombia was only second to Afghanistan (Citizenship and Immigration Canada c). Between 1995 and 2005, over half of all Colombians coming to Canada were refugees (Riaño and Villa 279). Interestingly as well, 90% of the Colombian refugees that are part of the Canadian government-assisted resettlement program are people who needed a Third Country after not being able to find adequate safety in Ecuador (White 8). Canada’s refugee program in Colombia, in which one can apply for government-assisted resettlement and asylum from within Colombia is the only program of its kind left in the country (Rico-Martinez 2011). Therefore, Canada and Colombia in regards to asylum policy are symbiotically significant to each other in that one represents a large part of its international humanitarian commitment to asylum seekers, and the other is one of the few viable options for escaping extremely high levels of brutal political and criminal violence.

Nevertheless, Colombia, although in real terms still a large ‘producer’ of refugees is slowly losing priority in terms of representation of ‘legitimate’ needs in Ottawa. In an interview with the Political Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Bogotá, delegates from the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) recount how the Canadian government is taking at face value many claims about security which are part of the official government discourse in Colombia (Rico-Martinez 2011). These points are that in urban areas, particularly the capital, security has greatly improved and the armed conflict is almost non-existent. Other points are that that the Marxist insurgency no longer has a national reach and has been pushed back by an American-supported counterinsurgency of former President Uribe to marginal areas (such as those bordering Ecuador, which still produce regional displacement). And the final narrative which has been accepted is that the demobilization of the paramilitary groups which executed the counterinsurgency in a not-so-covert alliance with the Colombian military was successful, eliminating the threat from the ‘paras’ as well (Rico-Martinez 2011). In other words, options for Colombians fearing armed political violence are to move to the illusion safety of urbanity such as Bogotá, and that the paramilitaries and guerrillas, the main actors in the conflict, are no longer a ‘problem’. However, there is a perception among displaced Colombians, not ridiculous, that the Canadian embassy will share intelligence with the DAS (the Colombian intelligence agency) who has files on 28 million Colombians-the Army in Colombia is also one of the largest perpetrators of abuses, historically working with paramilitary groups to persecute  ‘subversives’ who could possibly be guerrilla sympathizers (Rico-Martinez 2011). Despite this context of extreme vulnerability for many Colombians, Canada has opted to get rid of the ‘Source Country’ class for asylum claimants, even citing Colombia as having low acceptance rates (less than 10%) and a reason for the class’s irrelevance (Citizenship and Immigration Canada b). Therefore, the fact that the Canadian and American governments are on extremely good terms with the current Colombian leadership who is forwarding a narrative that Colombia’s counterinsurgency has brought relative security to the country is perhaps effecting  the framing, if not the implementation of asylum policy towards Colombia.

In the more general context, almost identical to Ecuador, Canadian asylum policy is being forwarded by crises/migrations which happen to the host country, and an official discourse which frames refugees as a ‘problem’. Canadian policy has been arguably influenced, if not driven, by the arrival of Tamil asylum claimants on boats in 2009 (Bradimore and Bauder). Given an exoticization of these ‘boat-people’ in the media, and the discourse around them which used a language of security, and not humanitarian necessity or rights, the asylum claimants were framed in the popular imagination of Canadians as being potentially a security threat at worst, or at best economic migrants who were ‘abusing’ Canada’s ‘generous’ refugee system. This later evoked an essentialized image of the “bogus” refugee who threatened either Canada’s physical security which has much political currency in a post-9/11 world, or who’s place in Canada was illegitimate as the ‘bogus’ refugee is trying to ‘jump the queue’ past ‘legitmate’ immigrants and giving a bad name to ‘legitimate’ refugees. This was the narrative employed by  the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, to justify the restrictionist changes to Canadian asylum policy under the auspices of Bill C-31, the ‘Protecting the Canadian Immigration System Act’ (MacIntosh 2012, Labman 57). Logically, this is somewhat contradictory as the immigration system and the asylum system, although both under Kenney’s mandate, are different. One is about Canadian interests, and the other, although clearly political and subject to the political interests of the governing party, should be about Canada’s humanitarian commitment to the Geneva Convention.

Ironically, Bill C-31 is actually much like Ecuador’s Presidential Decree 1182; the time for filing an asylum claim is reduced to 15 days; Canadian asylum applicants, many fleeing traumatic and chaotic situations in which documenting abuse is difficult, or dealing with literacy and language issues, must find proper documentation for their claim within 30 days. Other similarities with the Ecuadorean changes include a more stringent criteria of appeals (the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment period is shortened) (Canadian Council for Refugees). Also, in direct contravention to the Refugee Convention and further reinforcing the ‘refugees are security threats/criminals’ narrative is the fact that if the Minister of Public Safety deems that a refugees arrival is “irregular” (such as the boat incidents with the Sri Lankan migrants), the migrants can be detained.

Kenney’s extremely problematic discourse is politically useful. By framing refugees as a burden on a generous system, as having dubious legitimacy on whether or not to be in Canada and enjoy services while they await a decision on their claim, it becomes less politically costly to ‘deal’ with refugees in ways that are convenient for Canada (detaining them, deporting them, not paying for their healthcare temporarily) but violate the rights of an extremely vulnerable population who has few to no options to keep the government they are dependent on accountable. This discourse essentially absolves the Canadian government of its humanitarian duties and presents it instead as responsible, prudent, and looking out for the best interest of Canada when it violates the rights of refugees.

Colombians, although not having a particularly significant purchase on the Canadian perception of refugees in general, unfortunately fit well into this narrative as Colombia is generally constructed within popular imaginaries as a suspicious place of chaos which exports drugs, refugees, violence, and other social problems. Therefore, the Canadian government, through Jason Kenney and evidenced by the words of representatives of the Embassy sets up two contradictory narratives which are both at the service of a restrictionist immigration policy. One is that, potentially, many asylum claimants to Canada are so-called ‘bogus refugees’ who are really ‘just’ economic migrants or (in the case of Colombia) drug traffickers or FARC terrorists; the other is that the situation in Colombia has improved to a point where, although things may be bad, Colombia no longer needs to be a ‘Source Country of Origin’ and is perhaps even an example of why that entire special class of countries with respect to asylum policy is no longer relevant.

Minister Jason Kenney

It is difficult to prioritize one policy over the other, as both are extremely similar in their origins, interests, supporting narratives (refugees/Colombians are dangerous or freeloaders), and outcomes (restrictionism). However, purely in technical terms, Canada’s refugee system is somewhat, perhaps even negligibly, better than Ecuador’s.  Canada’s system still has a more equitable appeal system than Ecuador’s, which only allows for a few days for gathering appeals. Additionally, although the contexts are very different (Canada largely receives Colombians at ports of entry, most Colombians are ‘invisible’ to the Ecuadorean state), Canada does have a less chaotic, and more rights-guaranteeing asylum system then Ecuador, although this system is slowly being eroded. Ironically though, Ecuador has much more to win from restrictionism than Canada, and Colombians have much more to lose. As a frontier zone bordering guerrilla strongholds, Ecuador is a first-stop for Colombians fleeing coca fumigation, forced displacement, massacres, sexual violence, and many other kinds of depredations by armed actors. Canada, although economically and socially a much more attractive option than Ecuador , is not a viable choice for many refugees given the waning concern on the part of Ottawa for the humanitarian situation in Colombia  and the geographic distance. Nevertheless given the uncontrolled influx of an unknown number of refugees into what are already poor communities in Ecuador, Ecuadoreans bear the brunt of the refugee crisis in the Americas. A restrictionist policy, and popular support for it, are more politically viable in Ecuador. The millions of dollars that Canada in the long-run will ‘save’ on its humanitarian commitment (something that perhaps should not be the first place to look for budget cuts), are relatively insignificant, given what Canada spends on asylum. However, given the construction of refugees as an issue, and the hypervisibilization of ‘suspicious’ appearing refugees given the two boat incidents off the coast of British Columbia, politically, there is much to gain for the Canadian government from adopting restrictionist measures, although not necessarily the host society like Ecuador would.

This disturbing pattern of restrictionist asylum policies, against the spirit and even sometimes the letter of the 1951 Convention, closes a literal humanitarian space of potential safety for the millions of Colombians who have been, and continue to be, victimized by violence. Colombians will no longer just have a hard time finding refuge in Canada and Ecuador (two of the few countries who ever received many Colombians in the first place), but if they arrive there their situations will be more precarious, with less support from the state and a greater likelihood to be deported back to the civil war they fled.

The architects and executors of both Ecuadorean and Canadian immigration policy need to critically reflect on whose interests they are actually advancing by restricting the possibilities for Colombian asylum seekers. Ecuador needs to get rid of Decree 1182, and most urgently, needs to recognize refugees using the Cartagena Declaration definition, and not just the 1951 definition; ‘formalizing’ the tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Colombian forced migrants living in the shadows in Ecuador needs to a process of humanitarian inclusion, and not convenient exclusion. In both Canada and Ecuador, asylum claimants should be given more time and resources to make their asylum claims, and there needs to be less of an emphasis on receiving forced migrants and their claims on the terms of government bureaucracies (an emphasis on documentation) and more on the migrants needs (for example, in Colombia some of the most affected by displacement fleeing to Ecuador are indigenous people who often may not have a working knowledge of Spanish, let alone French or English, to say nothing of being able to document the anarchic and traumatic nature of events like displacement). Canada needs to stop detaining refugees and understand that to arbitrarily deem some arrivals as “irregular” is problematic. Forced migration is an experience of literal and figurative displacement in which one’s place in the world is traumatically ruptured and survival is the key focus; there is little that is typically ‘regular’ about this for thousands of Colombians.

Most importantly however, given that both Ecuador and Canada are democracies in which public opinion (or what leaders perceive it to be, or help to make) heavily influences policy. In both countries, restrictionist immigration policy that would be otherwise controversial is supported if not driven by narratives and perceptions of (Colombian) refugees as being suspect, dangerous, and freeloading. The best thing that Canada and Ecuador can do for Colombian refugees is to hand them the microphone and let their respective publics understand them and the complexities of forced migrations on the Colombians’ own terms, and not on those of the governments who would rather protect themselves from them.

References

Appelbaum, Adina. “Challenges to Refugee Protection in Ecuador: Reflections from World Refugee Day.”

Challenges to Refugee Protection in Ecuador: Reflections from World Refugee Day. Georgetown

Public Policy Review, 26 June 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

<http://gppreview.com/2012/06/26/challenges-to-refugee-

protection-in-ecuador-reflections-from-world-refugee-day/>.

Canadian Council for Refugees. “Concerns about Changes to the Refugee Determination System.”

 

Concerns about Changes to the Refugee Determination System. Canadian Council for Refugees,

Dec. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2013. <http://ccrweb.ca/en/concerns-changes-refugee-determination-

system>.

a.Citizenship and Immigration Canada. “Canada – Total Entries of Refugee Claimants by Top Source

Countries.” Facts and Figures 2010 – Immigration Overview: Permanent and Temporary

 

Residents. Government of Canada, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

<http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/statistics/facts2010/temporary/25.asp&gt;.

b.Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Media Relations. News Release — Government to Refocus

 

Resettlement Efforts. News Release — Government to Refocus Resettlement Efforts. Citizenship

and Immigration Canada, 18 Mar. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.

<http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/department/media/releases/2011/2011-03-18c.asp&gt;.

c. Citizenship and Immigraiton Canada. “Backgrounder – Refugees and Canada’s Refugee System.”

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Communications Branch. Government of Canada 20 June

2007. Web. 01 Apr. 2013.

<http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/department/media/backgrounders/2007/2007-06-20.asp&gt;.

Gottwald, Martin. “Protecting Colombian Refugees in the Andean Region: The Fight Against Invisibility.”

International Journal of Refugee Law 16.4 (2004): 517-46. Print.

IDMC. “Country Page: Colombia.” Country Page: Colombia. International Displacement Monitoring

Centre (IDMC), Dec. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://www.internal-

displacement.org/countries/colombia>.

Korovkin, Tanya. “The Colombian War and “Invisible” Refugees in Ecuador.” Peace Review: A Journal of

 

Social Justice 20.3 (2008): 321-29. Taylor & Francis. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.

<http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10402650802330154&gt;.

Labman, Shauna. “Queue the Rhetoric: Refugees, Resettlement and Reform.” University of New

 

Brunswick Law Journal 62 (2011): 55. LexisNexis. Web. 1 April 2013.

http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/?verb=sr&csi=366868&sr=HLEAD%28Queue+the+rhetoric%29+and+date+is+2011

Littell, Nicole. “Situation of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Ecuador.” The Human Rights Brief. Center

for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, 5 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

<http://hrbrief.org/2012/11/situation-of-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-in-ecuador/&gt;.

MacIntosh, Constance. “Insecure Refugees: The Narrowing of Asylum-Seeker Rights to Freedom of

Movement and Claims Determination Post 9/11 in Canada.” Review of Constitutional Studies

16.2 (2012): 181. Web. Hein Online

http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/revicos16&div=14&g_sent=1&collection=journals

Riaño, Pilar, and Marta Ines Villa, eds. Poniendo Tierra De Por Medio: Migración Forzada De

Colombianos En Colombia, Ecuador Y Canadá (Putting Land in Between: Forced Migration of

Colombians in Colombia, Ecuador, and Canada). Medellín: Corporación Region, 2008. Print.

Rico Martinez, Francisco. The Future of Colombian Refugees in Canada – Are We Being Equitable? Rep.

N.p.: Canadian Council for Refugees, 2011. Print.

White, Anna G. “In the shows of refugees: Providing Protection and Solutions for Displaced

Colombians in Ecuador”. News Issues In Refugee Research. Research Paper No. 217. UNHCR.

Policy Development and Evaluation Service. Web. Accessed March 29 2013. http://www.unhcr.org/4e4bd6c19.html

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War is Development by Other Means: What the latest displacement numbers aren’t telling you

“If the war is a continuation of economics by other means…[then] in Colombia, arms, independent of who wields them, serve the promotion of a social logic of development…” -  Carlos Rosero

This week Colombia was back in the headlines, as a fact that was known nationally for a while now finally made it into the Anglophone mainstream. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre gave the South American nation the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s largest population of internally displaced people, at 5.5 million in its annual report in displacement. Another notable is clearly Syria, who has the fastest growing population of uprooted people, 3 million of the nations 22 million people, and the conflict in the eastern Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo which also displaced 2.4 million after an increase in violence last year that continues today.

The 5.5 million number comes from one of Colombia’s most respected national NGOs, The Consultory for Human Rights and Displacement known by its Spanish acronym CODHES. For decades, the government has claimed that the displaced population in Colombia figures between 3.5-4.9 million, and CODHES has claimed that this number is a gross underestimate, often citing the IDP population at 5.4 million since 2011. Nevertheless, the UNHCR and the Colombian government have slowly started to recognize the value of CODHES methodology, and in so doing their estimates of the IDP population have consequently increased.

These numbers speak volumes to the fact that forced displacement in Colombia, as one of the main forms of violence used by armed actors (and, to a certain extent, one of the few survival strategies of communities) is central to the Colombian conflict and cannot be seen as a consequence/collateral damage of a political issue (the war) but a political, social, and humanitarian issue in and of itself. The numbers also evidence the centrality of controlling territory to the strategies of armed actors (more on that below).

In their annual report, which has been picked up by some media, ‘Columbia’ receives a scant 6 pages despite having the largest population. However, IDMC does recognize challenges with the Victim’s Law (which is trying to provide land restitution to IDPs), and that 230,000 people were displaced last year/although far  from its peak of millions a decade ago, displacement continues to be a very real and present issue.

There is quite a lot that the numbers and supposedly expert analysis from the IDMC and the Norwegian Refugee Council aren’t telling you though.

Firstly, the numbers are somewhat meaningless in an international sense. There is no point in having a sensational “Displacement Olympics” in which Colombia is the gold medal winner and Syria is a rising contender. Although the country’s international image which in terms of security is largely constructed around drug trafficking and kidnapping makes displacement an invisible crisis, comparisons are a bit dangerous. For many years, Colombia was cited as having “the world’s 3rd largest” IDP population after Sudan and Iraq, and then the second only after Sudan, and now Colombia is the undisputed champion. In the early 2000s, when violence was at its height, being the nth country on the list in comparison to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sudan would have been cold comfort to the millions of people who were violently being uprooted every year from their homes.

Any displacement is too much displacement and we have to think about the way we talk about nations in the Global South. If ‘just’ 50,000 were displaced by war next year in Canada, that would give a lot of people pause. Why are millions of displaced in countries/regions associated with war seen as somehow natural or different?

Secondly, the oft-cited 3.5, 3.9, 4.5, 5.4, and now 5.5 million figures when it comes to displacement in Colombia actually only begin counting from 1985 to the present day. This manifestation of war began in 1964. Therefore, there are literally 20 years of war whose effects on displacement we really don’t know about.

Thirdly, Colombia’s large (and sensationally constructed) displaced population often obscures the fact that between 500,00-1 million Colombians left the country as refugees mostly to Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain, the US, and Canada. If you count these, the number of people who have left their homes due to violence in Colombia is closer to 6.5 million.

Fourth, there is a much larger point about how we conceptualize and consequently prioritize certain kinds of violence. Countless not only Colombians, but Latin Americans, Africans, and many others are currently being displaced by the development of large extractive/mining projects and mega-infrastructure projects. Furthermore, the large amount of violence currently occurring in Mexico and Central America which has displaced thousands is considered criminal, and not political/not related to war. The neo-paramilitary groups, known by the Colombian government as “BACRIM”/criminal bands, are (in my view incorrectly) being framed as criminal actors, and not stakeholders in the political and social armed conflict, and therefore their victims are not entitled to the same reparations which people dispalced by the FARC-EP, ELN, or the Army are.  For example, all actors in Colombia’s conflict are involved, in different ways and proportions, to drug trafficking and mining.

So we have to ask ourselves, why are we being so narrow as to focus on “displacement caused by war”, as if we can define when political violence ends, and criminal and economic violence begins, and as if one is more pressing than another. Therefore, the numbers presented by IDMC represent only a very particular type, and fraction, of the general problem of powerful actors creating insecurity and fear leading to forced migration. Although they nod to the displacement created by these neo-paramilitary groups with an ambiguous political status, the media has framed these as displacements due to traditional understandings of what constitutes war or political violence.

IDMC’s analysis also features the gendered, racialized, classist, and anti-peasant dimensions of forced displacement. Displacement in Colombia disproportionately affects Afro-Colombians and  indigenous peoples (who live in rural areas, typically rich in resources and coveted by armed groups), people who are lower-class (94% of IDPs are poor, although many are impoverished due to displacement), people who are peasants or live in rural areas (although intra-urban displacement is becoming a growing phenomenon). Displaced people are disproportionately single women with children.

However, the report does not mention how many indigenous people are displaced to other indigenous communities, or in areas so remote, that their experiences are often not captured by official records. Moreover, the report, although recognizing that forced migration effects indigenous and Afro-Colombians in particularly, it does not mention the unique relationships of these groups’ respective identity to the territory in the rural context and how displacement from the rural land to the city is often also a process of cultural and social alienation, exacerbating the sense of loss in terms of identity, territory, autonomy, and culture. Furthermore, many Afro-Colombian intellectuals and activists have considered displacement not as a part of war, but as another manifestation of the violence of colonialism which displaced them from Africa, enslaved them in the Americas, and is now again displacing them for their territory in Colombia.

The number also isn’t telling you about how individuals who we have dehumanized under the decontextualizing, technical, and sanitized label of “internally displaced person” or “IDP” (desplazado in Colombia) are subjects with agencies and individual stories. Many Colombians have never been displaced. Many more have been displaced multiple times in their lives. For many, the word “IDP” or “displaced” leads to a stigma of being not only a victim, but associated with the war. In Colombia there is the very ugly prejudice that if someone was displaced, “it must have not been for no reason”. Many communities and people who are displaced, like all of us, have strong ties to their neighbours, friends, territory and social world in which they inhabited, all which are violently unmade by  displacement. Forced migration has to be understood as a very human process of displacement in which one’s social relationship  to geographic space and others is traumatically broken.

But the label is also dehumanizing in that it only sees the displaced person as an object to be effected by armed groups, an obstacle in the crossfire. Nevertheless, people in Colombia (and elsewhere) are subjects and many of them after being displaced actively advocate for their rights and demand justice. However, the demand for restitution of land by survivor’s groups coupled with the Colombian state’s denial of the continuation of paramilitarism has resulted in leaders and representatives of displaced communities being among the primary targets for selected assassination and threats by armed groups. Again, displacement is therefore an issue central, and not collateral, to violence. The IDMC report does mention that in 2004, the Constitutional Court considered the murder of these advocates to be ‘crimes against humanity’.

The final, and in my view, most important thing that forced displacement is about how the Colombian conflict is intimately tied to, some would even say caused, by a need to control land and the political and economic opportunity which it represents.

The report cites “internal armed conflict” and “criminal violence” as causing displacement, as if these do not intertwine and as if these exist in a vacuum isolated from the social world of politics, economic development, the interests of the plutocracy, social movements, and other factors.

Although forced displacement due to armed conflict becomes hypervisible to us in the West and Global North given its humanitarian (and sensational) nature, the root causes of much of this violence becomes invisible because it enables our economic development. The Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) invests in mining companies who are allied with neo-paramilitary groups who displace. Therefore, displacement is not a side-effect of a war which we seldom understand and only see glimpses of through our television screen in Canada, but it is actually necessary for our way of life.

As Colombian-American Anthropologist Arturo Escobar says, displacement is constitutive of capitalist economic development. More land is perpetually needed to fuel growth, and the people living on that land are an obstacle to that development if they are not aligned with it. It bears mentioning here that one of the “economic engines” of President Juan Manuel Santos’ development plan is mining, which has been very much tied to paramilitary displacement. Multinational corporations in the form of mining and agribusiness, drug traffickers, and cattle ranchers, all have a vested stake in having the Colombian land without the people on it.

Many rural displacements, which occur in ‘The Other Colombia’ where a lack of state presence led to the incursion of the insurgency, and then the counterinsurgency, are in areas where the state has only recently appeared, and now sees the riches which the land offer for ‘development’. Livelihoods and ways of being which are counter to the nation-building economic project, which perhaps benefits more Urban Colombia than Rural Colombia, such as fishing, subsistence agriculture, artisanal mining, are displaced to make way for large-scale mega-projects that fit within the logic and supposed rationality of extractive capitalism. Displacement needs to occur to let the nation-state develop since Colombia for a long time was an unconsolidated state; displacement is the violent resolution of the tension created by the different social philosophies of Urban Colombia and Rural Colombia.

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War, Autocracy, Peace and Revolution – The Legacy of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías in Colombia and Venezuela

Nor Saint, Nor Demon: The Price of a Bolivarian Revolution

“To those who wish me death, I wish long life so that they can witness the progress of the Bolivarian revolution” -Hugo Chávez Frías

“As he went on telling me about his life, I started to discover a character that did not at all correspond with the image of the despot that has been formed by the media. This was another Chávez. Which of the two is real?” – Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This is a two-in-one post; the first analyzes the good, the bad, and the ugly of Chávez regime from my perspective and tries to complicate both his demonization by the powers that be and his romanticization by progressives. The second piece looks at how he has in a paradoxical fashion both exacerbated the armed conflict in Colombia, and towards the end of his life, facilitated it’s forthcoming end.

Yesterday, at 4:25pm PST, (Vice)-President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, announced that after a 20 month struggle with cancer, President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías passed away in a military hospital. Maduro has called on the army, who is arguably more in hands the of Diosdello Cabello than the Venezuelan government, to go into the streets to keep the peace and has called for “unity”. Elections have been confirmed to take place in 30 days, as outlined in the Venezuelan constitution (which Chávez changed). Given ambiguity around whether or not Chávez was officially sworn in as President and whether that matters, some are saying that it should be Cabello and not Maduro, who should be interim President.

This situation is a emotional, and political powderkeg waiting to blow. I think a call to calm is wise; for example a Colombian journalist from RCN, an Colombian establishment news channel was yesterday brutally beaten outside of the military hospital where Chávez died, as she was associated with the opposition. Colombian newspapers such as El Espectador have already published a letter of condolences and adulation from the FARC, Gabriel García Marquez wrote a lengthy profile in hommage to his friend, and statements by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were rejected as “insensitive” by the Venezuelan government.

Arguably, Chávez was one of the most transformative and controversial figures in Latin American politics in the last decade. Other than Uribe, I cannot think of a figure that has more dramatically changed a country in Latin America, for better or for worse, than him.

Before proceeding however, I must acknowledge three things. Firstly, Hugo Chávez was the father of four children.
He was married several times, and is a son. Yesterday, a country with an intense and possibly explosive political situation lost a central figure, and a human being lost his life to cancer at the tender age of 58. Uribista, Caprilista, antichavista, or not, a death is nothing to celebrate.

Secondly, I am Colombian. Although growing up we have all been socialized into recognizing Venezuela as our pueblo hermano (our brother people), I do not know what it was like to live under the, some would say dictatorship, of Chávez. Colombians, from ex-Senator, Human Rights activist, and ultra-chavista Piedad Córdoba Ruíz, and archenemies of Chávez such as the Ex-President himself Alvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombians do not speak with one voice about Chávez. I just want to recognize my positionality as an outsider and recognize that I am speaking as myself and not for Colombia, although both countries’ destinies are to a certain extent tied to each other. Given how his personality and controversial statements captivated the attention of the American media, I suspect much of the coverage will be foreign. I would love to hear some Venezuelan voices, both anti-Chávez and pro, particularly in English.

Thirdly, on social networks, the mainstream media, and the blogosphere, particularly in the region, this story will be the ‘flavour’ of the month and eclipse all other news. Chávez’s death is a watershed movement, and a time to reflect on his significance, but although the media’s gaze may exclusively or disproportionately focus on his death, we can’t forget that the daily structural violences and oppressions against many Venezuelans, Colombians, Latin Americans, and people all over the world in a myriad of different contexts. For one instance, the FARC throw 3 bombs at a Police station in Chocó tonight where the governor called on the President to make security an urgent priority.

Chávez In Context

Both for Venezuela and for the region at large, Chavez was an individual with a mixed record, and a very polarizing and divisive one at that. For some he was a Dictator who ran Venezuela into the ground, especially in terms of security. For others, he was a revolutionary figure who represented the beginning of a progressive era, and the end of  the Venezuelan petro-oligarchy. He was, and in my view will always be, remembered as either The Devil for conservative segments of society, or the Saviour for progressives and popular sectors.  The editor of the Colombia Politics,  who is by no stretch of the imagination Pro-Chavez, says it best:

It would be churlish to argue that nothing Chávez did had any merit. It would be churlish too to ignore his popularity in certain sections of Venezuelan society. He won 8 million votes last year – sure not all of them were won openly and fairly, but win them he did.

Yes, Chávez´s Venezuela played host to many of the FARC guerrillas, and the accusations of complicity of his government in acts of terrorism are well documented, but it is an undeniable truth that Chávez´s leadership was key to getting the rebels to the table in Havana.

and another quotable from Greg Gandin over at the Nation

There’s been great work done on the ground by scholars such as Alejandro Velasco, Sujatha Fernandes, Naomi Schiller and George Ciccariello-Maher on these social movements that, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere. One study found that organized Chavistas held to “liberal conceptions of democracy and held pluralistic norms,” believed in peaceful methods of conflict resolution and worked to ensure that their organizations functioned with high levels of “horizontal or non-hierarchical” democracy. What political scientists would criticize as a hyper dependency on a strongman, Venezuelan activists understand as mutual reliance, as well as an acute awareness of the limits and shortcomings of this reliance.

As Grandin continues, Venezuela was an urbanized, socially poor, unequal petro-state which had to submit itself to the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), exacerbating a regional populist sentiment that has its roots in the Cuban revolution, the assasinations of Leftist leaders such as Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Torrijos in Panama, Gaitan in Colombia, and Allende in Chile which forever radicalized the Latin American Left. Chávez, as a military man attempted a coup, failed, was jailed, and became a martyr. In 1998 his Movimiento V República brought him to the Presidency, under which he began implementing his socialism of the 21st century or Bolivarian socialism.

Chávez did not establish a one-party rule, throughout his tenure he faced 13 elections of which we won over 10. He rather used petro-dollars to establish patronage networks instead of dealing with corruption, and arguably like Uribe with his community councils, established a consultative, open, albeit chaotic form of grassroots and citizen-centred democracy that helped create a political space for the lower-classes, something that had been absent during the two-party rule of the oligarchy beforehand.

Nevertheless, Chávez critics are not only discontent plutocrats with a political agenda, but local activists and notably, Human Rights Watch (HRW). Progressives and leftists can sympathize which Chávez raw, outspoken, and colourful criticisms of the United States and the powers that have traditionally governed and owned much of Latin America; nevertheless, just because the man talked a good talk does not excuse him from the same ethical and moral considerations of any other leader. As HRW outlines, the Chávez regime curtailed freedom of the press, stacked the judiciary, and rejected the Inter-American Human Rights system of the OAS:

In 2004, Chávez and his followers in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, adding 12 seats to what had been a 20-seat tribunal, and filling them with government supporters. The packed Supreme Court ceased to function as a check on presidential power. Its justices have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and pledged their commitment to advancing Chávez’s political agenda. This commitment has been reflected in the court’s rulings, which repeatedly validated the government’s disregard for human rights.

After Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, an opposition politician, appeared on Globovisión’s main political talk show in March 2010 and commented on allegations of increased drug trafficking in Venezuela and a Spanish court ruling that referred to possible collaboration between the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas, Basque separatists, and other “terrorist” groups, Chávez responded in a national broadcast that these comments “could not be permitted” and called on other branches of government “to take action.” Two weeks later, Álvarez Paz was arrested on grounds that his “evidently false statements” had caused “an unfounded fear” in the Venezuelan people. Álvarez Paz remained in pretrial detention for almost two months and was then granted conditional liberty during his trial, which culminated in July 2011 with a guilty verdict and a two-year prison sentence. The judge allowed Álvarez Paz to serve his sentence on conditional liberty, but prohibited him from leaving the country without judicial authorization.

In a similar vein, Chávez regime was characterized by rising inflation, food shortages, and one of the most extreme deteriorations of security in the region. After Chávez, Venezuela became much more dangerous than Colombia and Caracas had one of the highest murder rates in the world.

InSight Crime analysis, a think tank focusing on violence and organized crime in the region, argues that the security crisis in Venezuela is due to a complex of factors, but is mostly driven by the international drug trade (read= a transit point for Colombia cocaine), the fact that local elites on the Venezuelan and Colombian borders have taken control  of the border, which is de-facto run by (neo)paramilitaries, cartels, and the FARC and the ELN guerrillas.

As The Economist points out, Chávez could be considered an ‘elected autocracy’; he had his own militia of 125,000 soldiers.Although a centre-right and neoliberal-oriented paper who’s political bias needs to take in consideration, The Economist also provides some food for thought in juxtaposition to Grandin’s analysis:

Foreign leftist academics claimed that all this added up to an empowering “direct democracy”, superior to the incipient welfare state set up by Latin America’s social democratic governments. But to others, it looked like a top-down charade of participation, in which all power lay with the president.

Behind the propaganda, the Bolivarian revolution was a corrupt, mismanaged affair. The economy became ever more dependent on oil and imports. State takeovers of farms cut agricultural output. Controls of prices and foreign exchange could not prevent persistent inflation and engendered shortages of staple goods. Infrastructure crumbled: most of the country has suffered frequent power cuts for years. Hospitals rotted: even many of the missions languished. Crime soared: Caracas is one of the world’s most violent capitals. Venezuela has become a conduit for the drug trade, with the involvement of segments of the security forces.

Mr Chávez’s supreme political achievement was that many ordinary Venezuelans credited him with the handouts and did not blame him for the blemishes. They saw him as one of them, as being on their side. His supporters, especially women, would say: “This man was sent by God to help the poor”. He had llanero wit and charm, and an instinctive sense of political opportunity.

The paper has also argued that Chávez disdain for the private sector has contributed to the growing inflation and food shortages in Venezuela. At the same time, Venezuela’s oil money  helped finance social programs that reduced inequality and poverty in the country. For example, in 2011 the UN Economic Comission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated  that Venezuela has the third lowest poverty rate in Latin America, at 27% compared to Colombia’s 45% (this was using Colombia’s old poverty measurement scheme which has since been changed in 2012). Extreme poverty  during Chávez’ ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ was reduced from 22% to 10%.

Although in places like Colombia, Central America, South Africa, which have both some of the highest GINI coefficients and murder rates in the world, there is assumed to be a correlation between inequality and violence. In Bolivarian Venezuela, there is the paradox of plummeting inequality and poverty with skyrocketing violence. 


Indeed, it seemed as though Chávez completed his goal of creating a more inclusive and equal Venezuela, but at the price of letting security deteriorate. Another important point to emphasize is that, especially during the elections, many Venezuelans were more concerned with what as termed as many in the media as the  ‘Colombianization’ of the Venezuelan security situation than with the political repression that is emphasized by northern Human rights groups. Others, such as self-identified member of the Venezuelan oligarchy Vanessa Neumann, argue that the social gains are typical of an oil boom, and that if anything, Chávez’ bold Bolivarian socialism has exacerbated the economic crises faced by Venezuelans.

Chávez was, indeed, loved by his people. In 2002, when the oligarchy tried to overthrow him through an illegal coup/golpe de estado, it was his supporters from the barrios who poured out into the streets of Caracas who arguably saved his government. Nevertheless, Chávez opponents also came from the grassroots, and not just the elite. When he refused to renew the license of one of the last independent TV stations in Venezuela, Radio Caracas/RCTV, University students very cleverly staged protests which arguably led to one of Chávez’s few electoral defeats; at one point the regime even tried to buy the students out, and threatened their families, but they would not cave. A must-read account of this is Will Dobson’s  account of the Caracas student movement.

Opponents of Chávez, particularly within the Latin American oligarchies and in Canada and the United States, need to check themselves and recognize how dangerously parallel some of their language is to the blatantly ideological and McCarthy-esque discourse of Western governments towards progressive movements in Latin America that threaten the investment climate. Chávez did close democratic space, but he is not Stalin, and to make equivalent comparisons is to impose on Venezuela a a false narrative reminiscent of the Cold War which is employed within the Western media for very particular purposes. If opponents to Chávez in the West, in my view, truly wanted to create a productive and constructive criticism of him, they may have done better to question his support of the Colombian guerrillas.

My final reflection on Chávez’ impact on Venezuela is that yes, the fact that he was so unapologetic and boldly socialist and anti-imperalist did led to a satanization of him within the Western media. There is little that Hugo Chávez had done that can’t be found in a nations that the West/countries like the United States and Canada call ‘allies’ (Saudi Arabia, Israel, even Colombia just to start). However, just because Chávez was demonized and his political language was a useful and bold critique for the Latin American Left against imperialism, I would caution progressives not to romanticize him. I, like many Colombians, agree with several of the FARC’s criticisms of neoliberalism and its effects on Colombian culture, the news media, the oligarchy, the crimes against humanity committed by the state, and the government itself (parapolitica). Like many self-identified progressives, I think that Chávez sensational yet poignant critiques of US imperialism, militarism, market economics, the banana, oil, coca, and mineral plutocracy that became Latin America, and his efforts to make Venezuela a more inclusive and more equal society in a region that has in many ways not changed much since the colonial era, are extremely interesting if not useful. Yet, something in my gut tells me that I just cannot call myself a chavista or a guerrillero. True criticism of the powers that be need to  whole heartedly reject both state power and militarism; you cannot destroy the master’s house with his tools. Chávez lack of leadership, autocracy, tolerance of the FARC, repression of political opposition does not make him a dictator, but it shows that the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ came at a high, high price for many Venezuelans.

Creating Crisis, Building Trust, Leaving Uncertainty: The Impact of Hugo Chávez on the Civil War and Peace Process in Colombia

Colombia proposes to go before the International Criminal Court and denounce Hugo Chávez for the financing and support of genocidal armed groups” -Ex-President Alvaro Uribe

The best thing that Colombia can do to honour Chávez’s legacy is to see the success of the peace talks” – Current President Juan Manuel Santos

Uribe and Chávez pretending to play nice.

Chávez’s mark on Colombia can be neatly summarized by some of the most highly mediatized events in recent history in the region. Firstly, the acuerdo humanitario (or humanitarian exchange). This was a deal under which the FARC-EP would hand over kidnapped Colombian police officers, military servicemen, politicians, civilians, journalists etc. in exchange for the release of FARC-EP members imprisoned by the Colombian government (who they considered “political prisoners”). The second is the 2008 and 2010 Andean Political Crisises in which Venezuela and Colombia almost went to war, and the third, and in my view, most important, is the current peace talks in Havana between the government and the FARC-EP.

To give a bit of context: From 2002-2010, Alvaro Uribe was President of Colombia. Uribe is accused of having ties to right-wing paramilitaries and very clearly represents the land-owning elite and a socially conservative and neoliberal segment of the regional elite who has deep distaste for the guerrillas and Lefty populism, and a tolerance, at times promotion of anti-insurgent violence. Uribe, who was a personal friend and close ally of George W. Bush, re-built the Colombian army with funds from Clinton’s Plan Colombia, and opened the country to foreign investment. Clearly, not Chávez’s favourite Colombian president.

Humanitarian Exchange and Chávez’s cozy relationship with the FARC

Nevertheless, for the humanitarian cause of ‘rescuing’ or ‘liberating’ abducted people in the hands of the guerrillas, Uribe recognized that Chávez, and ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba (a human rights defender or a guerrilla sympathizer, again, depending on who you ask) had the trust of the guerrillas. Córdoba, one of the most forceful critics of the Uribe government, proposed to Chávez to mediate the liberations between Uribe and the FARC. In a rare instance of cross-partisan and ideological cooperation, Chávez, Córdoba and Uribe cooperated in coordinating liberations with the FARC. Of course, no matter what your political stripe or intention is, images of  ‘innocent’ soldiers and civilians being liberated from the hands of ‘terrorists’ wins everyone political points.

The concept of  ‘humanitarian exchange’ was nothing new, and it was an idea actually proposed by the guerrillas and not the government, who throughout the 90s had kidnapped civilians en masse in an effort to both rock the Colombian establishment, and to build political bargaining chips to liberate some of their troops in Colombian jails.

However, due to politics, miscommunications, only Clara Rojas, a former Vice-Presidential candidate kidnapped in 2002 was freed in 2007. Around the same time, Uribe called off mediaton with Chávez, beginning the souring of relations between the two.

Often in his speeches, Chávez has supported the FARC’s ideology, but he has also called on them to turn to the ballot over the bullet for their revolution. When Alfonso Cano became the Chief of the FARC Secretariat, he called on him to release all abductees. However, when Manuel Marulanda Vélez, alias “Sure Shot”, the historical leader of the FARC was killed, a statue of him was erected in the main Plaza in Caracas, causing outrage in Colombia. Chávez, as the Colombian government has often pointed out with satellite evidence, has for a long time been willingly providing a safe haven for the FARC and ELN guerrillas in Venezuela. Chávez has also made contradictory statements about the FARC, saying he does not support their armed struggled, but that one of the key FARC commanders, Raul Reyes, spent a night at the Venezuelan Presidential Palace on his invitation, and that they ended up talking “for an entire night”.

The Andean Political Crisis – Chasing ‘Terrorists’, Violating Sovereignty

In 2008, Uribe had had enough of the FARC enjoying a sanctuary in the neighbouring country, and along with the then Defence Minister and now President Juan Manuel Santos, decided to blatantly violate Ecuadorean sovereignty by bombing a FARC camp 1800 metres deep into the Ecuadorean side of the border. The Ecuadoreans had been given no notice of the operation, or that Colombia had reasons to suspect that the FARC were in Ecuador (although this was somewhat of an open secret in both Quito and Venezuela). 17-22 ‘terrorists’ were killed in addition to one of the top leaders of the FARC, Raul Reyes, as well as 4 Mexican university students and an Ecuadorean who were being held hostage in the camp.

Laptops retrieved from the camps would later reveal that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Chávez had, to put it politely, cozy relations with the FARC (the guerrillas were treated as diplomats in both capitals). Quito and Caracas would later claim that this was to advance negotiations for peace and the humanitarian exchange. Some of the documents which point towards ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba as a guerrilla supporter have been questioned by Colombian legal authorities, as many of them were on Word Documents that ‘anyone’ (the Colombian authorities) could edit. Later there would even be questions about Chávez, either by omission or comission, facilitating the arming of the FARC, including giving them Venezuelan rocket launchers.

This crisis led to the breaking of diplomatic relations between the three countries, a war of words between Uribe, Chávez and Correa. Then, Hugo Chávez, on state television over the phone, claiming a need to defend Venezuela’s sovereignty against the ‘paramilitary’ Uribe, ordered 10 batallions to the Colombian-Venezuelan border as if he was ordering take-out. For many Colombians, yours truly included,  we knew of many Colombians who did business in Venezuela that quickly had to leave (After the US, Venezuela is Colombia’s largest trading partner), and it looked like Venezuela and Colombia were going to war.

The Colombian Defence Minister would later apologize for violating Ecuador’s sovereignty.

The crisis ended symbolically at the Río Summit in the Dominican Republic a short time afterwards, in which the President of the DR asked Chávez, Correa and Uribe to shake hands in a gesture of Andean fraternity. Afterwards, Chávez retreated his troops from the border and declared the crisis over.

This would not be the last crisis between Venezuela and Colombia. During the last days of Uribe’s tenure in the summer 2010, during a summit of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Colombian Ambassador to the OAS, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, gave a presentation, visuals and all, in which he affirmed that Colombia could prove the presence of the FARC and ELN in both Venezuela and Ecuador. Venezuela again cut off diplomatic relations. Uribe would later say that he was fully intending on “intervening militarily” against the FARC in the bordering nation. Thankfully though, after some clever diplomacy by Brazil, and the fact that Uribe’s term would be up in a few weeks, this episode didn’t escalate like in 2008.

The Peace Process in Havana – An Uncertain Future

Since taking office, Juan Manuel Santos has re-established diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and tried to create a more conciliatory and less combative personal relationship with Chávez. For example, Santos gave to Venezuela Reyes’ laptops. This dramatic change in Colombian policy towards Venezuela provoked Uribe to call Santos a traitor. Nevertheless, this could have been seen as a pragmatic move by Santos to reverse the regional isolation Colombia experienced under Uribe, and to establish a rapport with Caracas that would be necessary for the eventual peace negotiations with the FARC.

Among with Chile, Cuba, and Norway, Venezuela is one of the “guarantor” countries for the process, and Chávez, given his close relationship with the FARC, played a key role in convincing the FARC to trust the government in preliminary talks. For example, former Colombian President and client of the Rodriguez-Orejuela/The Cali Cartel, Ernesto Samper says that Colombia has much to thank to Chávez for helping brokering peace. The Colombian state also has a mixed record on how it treats demobilized armed groups, from letting some exercise political office, to perpetrating genocide against others. The main role of Venezuela, and especially Chávez given his personal rapport with the FARC leadership, would have been to guarantee  the trust and respect of both parties in an eventual demobilization i.e. convince the FARC that they would not be slaughtered after putting down their arms, as the wounds of previous campaigns against left-wing politicians are still very fresh.

(L) Commander of the Caribbean Bloc of the FARC and delegate to the peace talks, Iván Marquez, (centre), President Chávez, (R) Former Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba

Santos was elected as on the credentials of the (perceived) success of Uribe’s counterinsurgency ‘Democratic Security’ policy. He was supposed to be a continuation of (militarily) ending the FARC. However, Santos chose to walk through his own path by reconciling Colombia with Venezuela and choosing to talk peace with the FARC. Politically, Santos cannot afford to be perceived by the Uribista segments of Colombian society (who are still very powerful in the business sector, the media, shaping public opinion) as ‘soft’ on terror. Therefore, even before and during the peace talks, Santos had to keep the FARC’s feet to the fire and kept the intensity of the military campaign; the government has refused to enter into a ceasefire with the guerrillas, even when they declared a unilateral truce. By the same token, last year, when the preliminary talks were still being negotiated in secret from the entire country, Santos took the extremely difficult decision of giving the order to kill Guillermo Leon Saenz (or Alfonso Cano) the then de-facto head of the FARC. Even after having their main leader killed, the FARC’s trust in the peace process, and in the government, did not falter, showing a very different change in attitude and a deep willingness to have the process succeed this time around. Chávez role both in public and in private in mediating these extremely difficult situations between two parties that who’s relationship has been based on mutual distrust of almost five decades, exacerbated by the ‘War on Terror’-esque policies  and demonization of Alvaro Uribe, cannot be understated.

Perhaps Chávez, after Uribe’s presidency, recognized that the FARC was a spent force and the best way to save face his support for them would be to play the role of peace broker. Perhaps he was genuinely convinced that democracy, and not  ‘la lucha armada’/the armed struggle was the only legitimate way for progressives to take power in neighbouring Colombia. Only time will tell if Chávez will be remembered/understood/constructed in Colombia as the man who helped bring peace instead of continuing to support the ‘export’ of the socialist project, or if his support for the rebels will continue to be what defines his image in the brother republic.

As the dynamic and independent journalists of the progressive and alternative news media, La Silla Vacia/The Empty Seat said, three possible impacts of this death have been identified by Colombian analysts. One, Maduro wins the upcoming elections and the peace process moves forward as planned. Two, the divisions within the Chavista regime harden, and Maduro pressures the FARC to sign a peace deal in order to quickly get rid one of the Venezuelan government’s priorities and focus on consolidating his power or in turn, Maduro puts consolidating his power first and Venezuela becomes less active in the process or three,  the most unlikely yet not unplausible scenario of the opposition winning the upcoming elections, and the hard-liner Chavistas looking towards the FARC as a form of armed resistance within Venezuela. It’s also important to note that for the Leftist governments of Correa and Venezuela, the FARC were somewhat of a liability as they served as pre-text for an ongoing American military presence on their borders; no more FARC would mean no more Plan Colombia.

Although every diagnosis of the peace process has a political agenda behind it, it seems that generally the talks in Havana are on a steady path to bringing the beginning of the end of 49 years of relentless suffering due to armed violence. Nevertheless, it is unclear what Maduro’s role will be in supporting the talks. Moreover, if elections are to occur in 30 days in Venezuela, the charismatic and centre-right Henrique Capriles Radonski becoming President is unlikely but completely possible. What would an anti-leftist, and undoubtedly Anti-FARC Venezuela mean for a peace process brokered by the rapport Chávez had with both Bogotá and the armed Marxists? If Chávez death brings anything to Colombia, it is an aura of uncertainty to the peace process.

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