Monthly Archives: May 2013

Towards Peace and A New Colombian Countryside – But by whom and for whom?

The first in a three part series I wrote about the latest agreement on Agrarian Reform in Havana between the FARC and the Colombian government as part of the Peace talks. This was originally published as a contribution to Colombia Politics.

delacalle Chief government negotiator Humberto De La Calle.

Sunday was another historic day in Colombia’s 49-year war, as it marked the first substantive policy agreement reached by the oldest and strongest guerrilla force in the Western hemisphere, the agrarian and Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-The People’s Army (The FARC-EP or FARC) and the national Government.

The agreement, on land reform, was the first point out of five on the agenda of peace talks currently taking place in Havana. The government and the FARC press release said that this reform is leading towards a “new Colombian countryside”. Over the course of three articles I will look in detail at what this means, what we can learn from history and whose interests are at work.

“What we have achieved with this agreement will begin radical, equitable, and democratic changes in the rural and agrarian reality of Colombia.  It´s centred around the people, the small producer, access and distribution of land, the fight against poverty, the stimulation of agricultural production and the rejuvenation of the countryside’s economy” – FARC and Government negotiators.

So what actually was agreed?  The text isn’t public, and nothing is final until all of the points/the entire process has been agreed upon. However, according to the President’s press office, the agreement is centred around four main pillars:

1. Increase use of, and access to land by the creation of a Land Fund which will give land to peasants who either have none or “too little”. Land for the fund will come from land that has been “acquired illegally”, and that the vast majority of people in the countryside “should not fear” their land being touched if it was acquired legitimately.

Santos said that he hopes to create judicial guarantees to defend the land rights of the smallest and most “defenseless” peasants.

In a press conference, the FARC added two additional points here that they would like to see:

1) That land for the fund should not only come from properties which were the site of displacement and violence, but also land that is related to drug money, state properties, and large unproductive estates, with “priority” being given to peasants and women.

2) That social and environmental limits be placed on the production of hydrocarbons, agribusiness products, open-pit mining, biofuels and the creation of hydro energy projects.

2. Create specialized development programs in the regions where they are most needed.

3. Promote social programs and infrastructure in all of “rural” Colombia. By this, the Colombian head of state meant for national plans that would “radically reduce poverty and extreme poverty” such as irrigation, health, education, roads, potable water, housing, and social protections.

4. Increase food security. The government said that this will focus “on the most poor” and making the countryside “more productive”.

The President noted that a comprehensive land reform is necessary in order to prevent further conflicts. In a point that may generate much controversy among the landed elites is that the agreement will seek to “limit the agricultural frontier” (delimitar la frontera agricola).

The agreement also nodded at other points on the agenda, particularly the rights of victims to effective reparation, as it “seeks to reverse the effects of the conflict and to restitute the victims of forced removal and displacement.” For a more substantive breakdown of the sub-points, policies, and mechanisms of the agreement, please check out Dr. Virigina Bouvier’s recent thoughts.

It also bears mentioning that the agreement seeks a mass formalization/legalization of rural property in Colombia, given the immense amount of informal ownership among the peasantry, reaching 49% generally.

Reasons for optimism?

From a purely humanitarian perspective, the  fact that the FARC and the government seem to have agreed on what has historically been one of the most contentious issues between Leftist/armed popular movements in Colombia and the Establishment makes me confident to say that this time around, if everything stays the course, the FARC will probably demobilize.

Concessions from the FARC?

Even though the FARC´s rhetoric is to ask for more than they will get, the insurgents have clearly moderated their demands, a first in decades.

In their 1982 Congress, the increasingly strong FARC-EP passed their “Law 01″ in which they explicitly ask for the abolishment and expropriation (by them) of all large land estates, land used for mining, bananas, wood, by multinationals etc. Until Sunday, a socialist/anti-capitalist agrarian reform has been their main policy position in previous negotiations.

Is peace near?

We should not confuse the government discourse about “peace” with the demobilization of the FARC.  Even without these marxist rebels there are still the neo-paramilitaries, drug cartels, the ELN, to say nothing of the absurdly high levels of violence related to “common” crime.

However, disarming Latin America’s oldest and strongest insurgency would put a significant break on the violence. No matter what one thinks of the talks, the prospect of a Colombia without the FARC is something that would be worth many concessions (and the government seems to agree).

There has been much celebration in the Colombia and abroad, both in the media and among politicians and civil society. Semana, one of the country’s most influential news magazines, called the reform “an agreement which could settle the State’s debt to the countryside” and American Vice-President Joe Biden also lauded Colombia for the seemingly historic agreement.

It must be noted where this protracted negotiation leaves the peace process, as the clock is ticking. The first point on the agenda was was the most substantive, probably the most divisive only after the question of amnesty, and really the heart of not just Colombia’s armed conflict, but of inequality more generally.

This was no accident as the rationale was to get the most difficult point out of the way, and then sail through the other four (political participation, disarmament/’the end of the conflict’, drug trafficking, and reparations for victims),   which were set out in the pre-agreement/terms of negotiations last summer.

Although peace is not built in a day, the talks are already six months old, and the government has repeatedly said that it will get up from the table in November of this year. Many see this as putting the pressure on the insurgents to show some true commitment and adding dynamism to the process, in contrast to the four-year long fiasco of the Caguan negotiations.

Others argue that the deadline is related to the electoral calendar as Presidential elections will occur in 2014, and if they succeed in a timely manner, would allow Santos to use peace with the FARC for his re-election. It bears mentioning that for their part, the FARC have recognized the slow pace of the talks and have requested for more time.

Tomorrow I’ll look at the agreement from a historical perspective.

Simon is the owner of the website The Banana Plutocracy

Photo, El Tiempo

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Bojayá: Forgotten by Urbanity, Remembered by the community.

The final part of the three part series on the 11th anniversary of the massacre/Genocide of Bojayá published at Colombia Politics. 

Other interesting links worth checking out is this documentary on the experience of people displaced from Bellavista by the violence, this photo-report on the bellavisteños who were displaced and are trying to make a new life in Quibdó. I’d also like to again emphasize that much of my research for this post came from the Commission of Historical Memory of Colombia and their report on Bojayá, “The Massacre of Bojayá: The War Without Limits“. I would also encourage bilingual readers to check out these series of radio interviews with survivors of the genocide who are memorializing in their own words.

Bojayá, Chocó: The forgotten Colombia

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The communities of Bojayá, in Chocó, and Afro-descendent and indigenous peoples more generally, still face serious challenges and oppressions by the Colombian state, armed actors, and multinational corporations.

Chocó continues to be a FARC, ELN, and (neo-)paramilitary stronghold where groups fight over gold, land for agribusiness, drug trafficking routes, and the obedience of the population living on the rich land.

It is still a central point for the conflict, and produces a disproportionate amount of displacements; most displaced chocoanos end up in Quibdó, or in Medellín where they experience the additional issue of systematic racism and discrimination against people who are rural, chocoano, or displaced.

Chocó is ironically one of the richest areas of Colombia in terms of resources and since the 80s has been the apple of the eye of forestry, agribusiness, but especially mining companies.  Conflict between the communities and multinationals like AngloGold Ashanti has encouraged President Santos to rethink the mining codes.

Chocó also has some of Colombia´s worst indicators in terms of development. Literacy rates a relatively poor, and poverty is over 60%. In the Atrato region, 95% of the population has basic unsatisfied needs, according to government figures.

All these challenges are taken on by the organizations which promote the rights of the indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and displaced populations of Chocó.

These groups include  the “Association of the Displaced People of the 2nd of May (ADOM)”, the “Diocesis of Quibdó” which works through the Comission for Life, Justice, and Peace, “The Regional Organization for the Emberá-Wounaan or OREWA, the “Association of the Indigenous Chiefs of Emberá, Wounaan, Katió, Chamí and Tule” or ASOREWA, and the “Major Community Council of the Integral Peasant Association of the Atrato” or COCOMACIA who have their roots in the struggles for protecting the land against large forestry companies in the 1980s.

These groups do their work despite threats by armed groups.

What does Bojayá mean for Colombia?

We talk of Bojayá as if it were our crisis and the FARC were our terrorists who we must defeat.

And although the story of Bojayá is similar to that of much of Colombia in which local communities and their ways of life are disturbed and uprooted by national dynamics – who are not interested in them but only in what their suffering can get them-  we must understand that although we are all Colombian or even human, there are significant racial, class, rural/urban, and cultural divisions which means that we cannot appropriate the voice or the suffering of the people of Bojayá.

The people of Bojayá have been mistreated and exploited through a process of objectification and silencing since colonization – first they were under the thumb of the colonizers, then the national government who only wishes to extract their riches or speak for their community as part of its counterinsurgency or reparations plans, and now it is menaced by armed groups and multinationals.

The question is whether, when we commemorate the massacre (as we did last week), we allow the community space in which it can be heard on its own terms – or whether the urban, modern Colombia is forced to remember the other, rural (and largely ignored) Colombia only on important anniversaries, when a show can be made?

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The Bojayá massacre, Uribe, and Plan Colombia

The second instalment of three about the massacre of Bojayá and the lack of attention its’ anniversary has received this year, which was graciously published over at Colombia Politics.

For more context on the massacre of Bojayá, check out the first post.

Bojayá massacre, Uribe and Plan Colombia

IMAGEN-11677964-1 Photo: El Tiempo

The massacre of Bojayá represented a low point in war in terms of mistreatment of the civilian population in Colombia, but its horror marks an important moment in the nation´s recent political history ocurring at a turning point in the battle against the FARC guerrillas.

Plan Colombia and elections

The genocide occurred in May 2002, while in February the then President, Andrés Pastrana Arango had called off the four year long peace talks with the FARC, citing a lack of political will on behalf of the guerrillas,

The tragic events in Bojayá occurred during an election campaign in which a fringe-candidate with a “mano dura”/hardline law-and-order agenda, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, emerged on the national stage. The massacre served as political fodder for the then candidate to further paint the FARC as genocidal narcoterrorists needing to be militarily defeated.

Uribe later won the 2002 elections in the first round/without needing a run-off, an historic first in Colombian politics. As President, Uribe (and Pastrana as well beforehand) used the genocide as part of a campaign to get the FARC on “terrorist” lists in the European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries so as to legitimate a military rather than a political solution to end the armed conflict.

Meanwhile, in 1999 Andrés Pastrana had negotiated with Bill Clinton a multi-billion dollar aid package which, although partially focusing on economic development, was mostly military aid. The deal, which was at first framed around fighting narcotrafficking and the War on Drugs was known as “Plan Colombia” and made Colombia the no. 2 recipient of US military aid in the world, behind Turkey.

Following the attacks of September 11th 2001, and after the genocide and the election of Uribe in 2002, the Plan Colombia money was used also to fight the FARC and was seen as a strange convergence between the interests of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Plan Colombia funcs were used to professionalize the army, leading to an historic high in military spending, known domestically as “Plan Patriota”/the Patriot Plan. This plan expanded the presence of the Army into the most marginal and peripheral areas of Colombia in order to fight the guerrillas. The knock on effect of this expansion was to  increase – rather than reduce – violence in the Chocó region in subsequent years.

As Plan Colombia was rolled out, concern grew within the State Department and the US Congress about links between the Colombian Army and the Paramilitary AUC who fought against the FARC.

Survivors´ voices ignored, or forgotten?

Uribe had been warned of the US distaste, and in response, as part of a “reparations” package, constructed ‘The New Bellavista’ (a new church and housing development). All this was done to a more modern and western style, totally foreign to the Afro-Colombian tradition of the local population. And strangely when inaugurating the “New Bellavista”, President Uribe gave his speech exclusively in English.

Many community members (whose language is of course Spanish), felt that the government was using Bellavista – as a community and a project to “show off” as part of its reparations agenda. An affront then, that it seemed as though the government was directing its initiatives to improving its international image and not the people who had actually been affected by the massacre.

Worse still, many of the economic aid projects established by the government and the NGOs were seen as unsustainable; creating dependency rather than development. All of the initiatives in ‘New Bellavista’ were considered by the displaced population in Quibdó to ignore their needs.

Last year, as the 10th anniversary of the massacre was marked, much attention was given to how the community still lacks a medical centre and other basic needs. This, despite the Constitutional Court having declared the community entitled to such investment as part of the reparation package. So, 11 years on and the community stills appears forgotten, the victims of the war not properly attended to, or represented.

There is, too, very little comfort to be taken from the way in which justice has been dealt. 36 members of the FARC-EP, including members of the Secretariat, have been involved in judicial processes concerning the massacre, but only 8 have been convicted. No charges have been brought before the AUC paramilitaries, and least of all now given the legal benefits afforded to them as part of their 2003-2006 demobilization.

Part three of this report will look at the challenges the community still faces, and offer a view for the future.

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The Genocide of Bojayá: 11 years of impunity

This was a guest-post I did for Colombia Politics on the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá. The first in a three part series. The majority of my research for it came from the amazing work on Historical Memory dune by the Grupo de Memoria Histórica and their report, “La Massacre de Bojayá: La Guerra Sin Límites”/”The Massacre of Bojayá: The War Without Limits”. The initiatives by the BMH this year attempted to create a space where the community is heard in their own words, and I strongly encourage you to check it out if you understand Spanish.

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Photo: Mauricio Moreno, El Tiempo

Thursday marked the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá in Chocó, Colombia. Anywhere from 79 people, the majority of whom were minors, were killed when the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), the Marxist guerrillas, launched an explosive into a church in the community of Bellavista where 300 people were seeking protection from a battle between the revolutionaries and the paramilitaries.

Every year, chocoano communities commemorate the massacre, and use it as a space to advocate for their rights facing current challenges of poverty and marginalization. For the tenth anniversary of the massacre, it was all over the media, yet this year, there is scant word from any of the nation’s major newspapers including El Tiempo, El Espectador, Semana, etc.

This massacre had huge implications in national politics, Colombia’s image abroad, its relationship with the United States, and most importantly, it evidences the huge gap between ‘The Two Colombias’, and how one promises reparation, and the other is still waiting for it 11 years after one of the country’s worst tragedies.

The massacre bears not only memorializing, but also understanding as it is a microcosm for state abandonment, and the interests and dynamics of how paramilitarism and the guerrillas work within peripheral, marginalized, underdeveloped, and overexploited regions of Colombia like Chocó.

bojaya2The FARC shot the cylinder-bomb which exploded in the church, allegedly, because the counter-revolutionary paramilitaries were using the church as a human shield during the combat. Many of the civilians fled into the church given that it was the only concrete structure in the town where people could be protected during the armed confrontations between different armed groups. Apparently, the order to shoot the cylinder-bomb came from as high as members of the Secretariat (who some analysts now say they would like to see in Congress instead of continuing in the armed struggle), and the decision to use this illegal and non-conventional weapon was made despite the fact that the weapon is made for static objects, and the paramilitaries were moving.

In other words, it was quite clear to many powerful leaders within the FARC the tremendous danger that using this weapon posed for the civilians caught in the crossfire.

Despite many early warnings by the UN, and a variety of NGOs, it seems that the Colombian Army was complicit in allowing the incursion of paramilitaries in the territory that set off a several day long armed confrontation in the Middle Atrato region of Chocó which eventually culminated in the massacre.

The Colombian government refused to acknowledge its responsibility. The FARC-EP say that it was an “unfortunate accident” and it blamed the paras for using the civilian population as a human shield. The government and the paras said that this proves the ‘barbarity’ of the ‘narcoterrorists’.

The use of the improvised explosive, or pipeta in Spanish, constitutes the use of irregular weapons by the FARC and is therefore a war crime and potentially a crime against humanity. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international NGOs as well as Colombian ones have condemned the FARC’s use of the weapon as such.

The massacre, and combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries which had begun in late April of that year, are part of a much larger trend in which Chocó has become a focal point for the armed conflict since 1997.

The war over the Middle Atrato can be considered as a continuation of the war for Urabá. After the federation of paramilitary groups into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC) in 1997, paramilitary groups tried to take the Atrato region of Chocó as it was a key corridor for moving drugs, arms, and people from the Urabá region and the Caribbean coast (which by the 90s had become a paramilitary stronghold) into the Pacific region of the country.

Previous expansions of the counterinsurgency in the territory such as the Cacarica and Genesis Operations in 1997 have been linked to the expansion of agribusinesses such as the mono-cultivation of African Palm Oil.

At the same time, the strategic corridor and lack of state presence in Chocó also makes it a very coveted territory by the guerrillas.

The massacre can be seen as part of a much larger pattern of the insurgents taking over the territory, then the counterinsurgents, then the insurgents…

This left, and continues to leave, the people of chocoano communities in a state of vulnerability as the presence of one armed group or the army provokes reprisals and suspicions from the other side.

However, the communities in Chocó were anything but passive objects in the crossfire; since 1999, communities such as Bellavista, have declared themselves ‘Peace Communities’ (Comunidades de Paz) and they have rejected the presence of all armed groups, including even at times the Colombian Army itself.

The massacre led to mass displacements of 5,700 people, and consequently a cultural alienation for the predominantly Afro-Colombian communities affected, who had to leave their traditional territory.

Many of the survivors had to flee the town of Bellavista immediately after the bomb exploded. Many have yet to return to the community, some only returned 8-10 years later. Many of the community’s practices of saying farewell to the dead were unable to occur, leaving a lack of spiritual closure.

Survivors of the massacre however, are not victims. 11 years on and that the community continues to wait for the reparations it is entitled to, and justice in terms of recognizing the complicity of ALL armed actors. The community has, though, organized in several civil-society groups and continues to demand this justice, reparation, and memory.

Many members in the community see the massacre as genocide and a continuation of their historical  displacement from Africa; many consider the battles over their territories as ongoing colonialism.

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