“Ashes On The Water” Unsettles

“Ashes on the Water” was filled with sounds of pain and suffering. It was unsettling. However, for me, it shatters the myth of stability in settler society in a tragic way, in this way, perhaps it was also, unsettling.  


The fact that the fire was started by settlers’ desires to own, domesticate, and have mastery over a land that they effectively stole from Indigenous people, I think is politically very symbolic. ‘Canada’ or this settler society, is one of the most prosperous and wealthy on the planet; the settler standard of life has been predicated on the brutal and ongoing colonization and dispossession of Indigenous people. I think that many Settlers have come to conceive our standard of life (and the relations and history that produce it) as natural, stable, and secure.


However,  in “Ashes on the Water”, settlers are exposed to the destruction of their community by their own appetite for domination. In this case, domination over a land which they then thought that they were entitled to (and this entitlement clearly continues).


My question then is, is “Ashes on the Water” really about the past? Or can we perhaps read a larger premonition, as settler colonialism/the relationships between peoples still continue on today, and will probably continue into the near future?


When we look upon so-called “Vancouver” as we listen to the podplay, we see a space fundamentally organized by capitalism and colonialism. The DTES is simultaneously racialized and constructed as a ‘certain’ space that many settlers have certain expectations about (including about the supposed people who inhabit that space), and a community that is experiencing an onslaught of efforts to re-make it (gentrification) . The space that is now West Vancouver, also referenced in “Ashes”, is also a place with certain cultural and socio-economic connotations. The city itself is made up of ‘rational’, navigable blocks and streets made for cars so as to make the capitalist city ‘work’ efficiently. Unaffordable and garish condo towers, towers for banks, loom like monoliths over the city. The city, in its aesthetic, its space, the cultural meaning given to these, and the unequal social relations that produce it seem stable, fixed, secure, settled.


But, does “Ashes on the Water” not show that this sense of security is an illusion? Obviously, there are certain institutions like State violence and racism/Settler ideologies that seek to protect settler society and this won’t change anytime soon. However, to put it bluntly, are there not certain forces that all the money, soldiers, and racist propaganda in the world cannot stop? Forces like the fatal winds in the podplay that, with the over-zealous deforestation/’clearing’ of the land, catalyzed the apocalyptic fire. It’s fascinating to me that the desire to bend the land to the wills of ‘development, the hunger of settlers’ to express their absolute and total power in fact revealed the finite and limited nature of this power, causing its own destruction. “Ashes On The Water” for me, exposed the fragility and vulnerability of a settler society living in a narcissistic myth of dominance.


The sounds of chaos, suffering, panic, and most of all, the exasperated, desperate breathe of a settler woman trying to save her baby from a relentless fire, crying out for mercy (and receiving mercy from the Indigenous woman in the canoe), really moved me. The settler woman, although obviously living in a patriarchal society, would probably have been a recipient of all kinds of privileges in that society; the economy was meant to nourish settlers, the Army and the Police to protect them and their expansion onto Indigenous lands. Yet, it was her voice that was suffering, and the Indigenous voice that was in a position to protect her. In one moment – and looking at the larger history, it was perhaps just a moment – the relations of power between Indigenous and Settler subjectivities were altered, they were unsettled.
Whether because of an unforeseen crisis or perhaps because of some other change, who is to say that the settler desires for domination won’t backfire in the future, shattering the myth of security and stability of the space, exposing its constructed nature, unsettling things?


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Analysis of Speaking the Language of Spiders

Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak  or Speaking the Language of Spiders is a complex, collaborative Indigenous project in new media that aims to tell stories about, according to the Artist Statement, “the fringes of urban street life” through Indigenous cultural paradigms and the medium of a nascent internet. As the Artist Statement elaborates, this is a project that aims to speak back to the invisibilization of lives (Indigenous life) under “the increasingly neoconservative climate of contemporary Canadian culture”. It is striking to me that this page is from 1996 – both because the technology of the site reflects this; it is rudimentary, simple in its layout, yet extremely complex and layered in its content. Moreover, the statement -almost 20 years old -speaks to a ‘an increasingly neoconservative’ Canadian culture, one that arguably has become more conservative in the last 20 years. The project is therefore political as it is an act, or an attempt, at visibilization and humanization  in the face of invisibilization and dehumanization.

Through several motifs of historical periods, the piece presents several poems/stories/texts of street life. Many of the pieces show a (by today’s standards) simple, unglamorous page with texts, that are sometimes accompanied by a narration of the pieces. The meaning of the poems/pieces, and other stories, are not not obviously clear, and to my mind, remain open to a variety of interpretations. Nevertheless, a dominant theme is the tension, as I read it,  between recuperating Indigenous epistemologies and the settler world’s ignorance of these. For example in “Mithoskumin – Break Up Season”, “natural law” and the wisdom of the snake is juxtaposed with the ignorance of a “city engineer”. The pieces also deal with some key political issues faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada; “Long Gone Walking Doll”, for example, in a subtle way alludes to the catastrophic and unjust crisis of missing Indigenous women.
The poems are layered and deep in their meaning. A key theme, as I see it, is nature and affect/emotions. The poems combine statements about nature, landscape, non-human animals and geography with certain emotions and experiences about urban street life. The poems demand the senses to feel; they do not have full ‘pictures’ or scenes per se, but they are full of descriptions of sounds, smells, anxieties, dreams, and much more.  There is therefore a powerful and evocative element of testimony to each poem. Not necessarily through visible images or the description of visible scenarios through text, but through a textured description of emotions, nature, feelings, the poems visibilize certain facts or experiences or situations of street life that are often actively invisibilized by the wider settler society. The work is also a careful and thoughtful condemnation of Canada’s racism towards Indigenous peoples; a recurring description is that of ‘brown skin’. In “Ice-boy”, one particular character is ‘confined’ to a space where “natural born color defines your place in the food chain”, undoubtedly referring to there is an unjust racial hierarchy in Canada which privileges some and marginalizes others.


“Long Gone Walking Doll”.  Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak (Speaking the Language of Spiders). N.D. 1996. Accessed Oct 25, 2015. http://www.spiderlanguage.net/walkingdoll.html

Maskegon-Iskwew, Ahasiw. “Artist Statement”. Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak (Speaking the Language of Spiders). 11 December 1996. Web. Accessed Oct 25 2015. http://www.spiderlanguage.net/ahasiw-statement.html 

“Mithoskumin – Break Up Season”. Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak (Speaking the Language of Spiders). N.D. 1996. Web. Accessed Oct 25, 2015. http://www.spiderlanguage.net/breakuptable.html


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The Medium Is The Message ?

Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message argues that ‘electronic circuity’ -or  a new age of mass communication technologies – has, is, and will, radically transform social and political relations in unpredictable and profound ways (McLuhan, 8). McLuhan’s seminal work contends that society is miserably unprepared for these seemingly rapid transformations.

McLuhan adopts an insightful definition of ‘technology’, arguing that every medium which produces meaning – such as alphabets or books – are an intense extension of human senses (McLuhan, 26). He parallels his predictions for the telecommunications revolution to the transformative consequences on human relations to the advent of the printing press; McLuhan argues that the mass production of the written word led to the establishment of fundamental institutions in Western society such as Armies and bureaucracies (McLuhan pp. 48-50). For McLuhan, media ‘works’ our senses to the extreme so that how we perceive the world through certain media becomes more significant than the content that is supposedly being perceived (McLuhan, 26). Furthermore, the basis of rationality in Western institutions  and ‘men’ are, according to him, liable to change as the ‘ratio’ of our senses to their engineered/technological amplification of changes (McLuhan, pp. 41, 45). McLuhan argues that the sensory amplification provided by new electronic technologies are bringing human consumption of information back to a kind of pre-alphabet acoustic ‘State of Nature’ in which time and space are no longer salient categories (McLuhan, 48).

In terms of transforming social relations, McLuhan argues that electronic technologies such as television create ‘masses’ or passive recipients of information, and which captivate publics in common experiences and creates a ‘Global Village’ (McLuhan pp. 22, 63, 68).

McLuhan’s warnings of these times of radical change in some ways seem to not be borne out by history, but, in my view, many also speak to current concerns over telecommunications in the 21st century. For example, he asks “When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?” perhaps alluding to the concern that increased technology and mechanization will displace human labour (McLuhan 20). It is curious that McLuhan did not predict the rise of the Public Relations Industry which help the powers that be (political parties, multinationals, the corporate media etc) to harness the power of telecommunications for their own interests. However, his remarks on  “tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance” and that “one big gossip column” of “computerized dossier banks” (McLuhan, 12) which threaten privacy rights could easily fit into contemporary debates over mass surveillance of the internet.

McLuhan seems to be claiming that the telecommunications revolution may lead to upheavals in the broader social order. Here is the principal concern with The Medium is The Message. It seems that McLuhan’s prescriptions for the potentially transformative (or disruptive) power of new communications technologies are akin to the early hopes that the Internet could be a force for radical democratization of information. I wonder if McLuhan’s predictions for radical transformations may be perhaps a bit exaggerated. Like the internet, various forms of telecommunications have become tools for social movements, multinational corporations, States, armies, and other social actors. However, it is not at all clear to me that the ideologies of these actors, their respective hegemonic or marginal influences, or the balance of power between them has been radically altered by the technologies themselves. McLuhan’s main point that our comprehension of these technologies’ revolutionary impacts on our perceptions are painfully limited still stands; the medium is no doubt the message. Inversely though, is the message always the medium? The main tenets of the global social, economic, and political order (and the social meanings which these are founded on and produce) of McLuhan’s time (forces such as settler colonialism, militarism, or market capitalism) still seem to be intact.


McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Message. Corte Madera: Gingko Press, 2001. Print.

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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.

“(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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