Tag Archives: Alvaro Uribe

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

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

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

Some context The Paramilitary Demobilization & Contested Narratives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez “trashes” Democracy in Bogotá, ousts Mayor

plaza-de-bolivar The Bolivar Plaza during one of the mobilizations in support of Petro. Photo credit: http://thellamadiaries.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/petro-and-the-challenges-of-colombian-democracy/

Today the Inspector General of Colombia, Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado, ignored appeals by Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro Urrego to stay his suspension from public office for 15 years.

This is a significant development in Colombian politics – in a politically conservative nation, the progressive former-guerrilla Mayor occupied what is commonly referred to as the most important job in the country after the Presidency. Ordóñez’s destitution now has given a major political blow to Colombia’s divided Left.

Petro must now leave the office of Mayor.

The Inspector General (IG) accused Petro of violating the right to free enterprise and threatening the health of bogotanos by trying to deprivatize the Bogota’s garbage collection services. In December 2012, the reluctance of the elites who own the extremely profitable garbage collection business to help with the Mayor’s project (and some argue, mistakes made by Petro on the procurement of new garbage trucks) effectively left the 8 million people of Bogota without garbage collection services for a few days.

The IG has become a very symbolic figure in Colombian politics; he is a fierce defender of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, a staunch social conservative known for his anti-gay views, a devout Catholic, and a vocal opponent to the government’s peace talks with the FARC in Havana. Ordóñez has been criticized in his role as Inspector General for being soft on politicians close to Uribe or implicated in the ‘parapolitics’ scandal/being accused of having ties to paramilitary groups.

Others have pointed out how Ordóñez’s destitutions are perhaps an example of a flaw by design within Colombia’s institutions, or an overreach of the IG’s mandate. In the last few years, Ordóñez has destituted several mayors and dozens of other politicians, most notable Sammy Moreno (former Mayor of Bogota) for corruption scandals, Alonso Salazar, the former Mayor of Medellin for denouncing his electoral opponents as having ties with paramilitaries, and Piedad Cordoba Ruiz for allegedly having ties to the FARC. Some see these destitutions as cleaning up corruption in Colombian politics. However, in the cases of Salazar, Cordoba, and now Petro many more are arguing that Ordóñez is using his authority of being able to dismiss politicians from their offices for misconduct as a form of Inquisition against progressive and left-leaning leaders.

Petro was a divisive Mayor – during his time, reactionary elements within the city were organizing a petition campaign to re-call him from office. Petro is also a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement.

However, others see him as a progressive force in the capital city. He helped support LGBT rights, set up an office for attention/service to displaced people and victims of the armed conflict, introduced a gun ban leading to Bogota having one of the lowest murder rates in Latin America (comparable to that of Chicago in the states), and made the deprivatization of the garbage services his flagship battle against the city’s economic elite. Petro, originally a member of the Left-wing Polo Democratico, distanced himself from the party after a corruption scandal with Mayor Sammy Moreno Rojas (who is a member of the Polo).

In the debate around Petro’s destitution, the idea (with some reason) has come up that Ordóñez’s destitution of Petro is a plot to oust the left from the Mayor’s office, and to open the job up for Francisco (Pacho) Santos, former Vice-President of Alvaro Uribe.

Petro’s destiution has been received by many Colombians as yet another sign that either by legal means or violence, some reactionary elements within Colombia’s traditional political classes (or within Uribismo/followers of Uribe) will continue to repress any attempts by the Left or seemingly progressive elements to take power in Colombia. This old story of Colombia’s exclusionary, repressive, generally undemocratic and conservative political system sends a very dangerous signal to the FARC: One of the premises of the peace negotiations is a political opening in which the Left (or at least, whatever the FARC thinks they represent) will be given a “fair” shot in the ballot box/the peace talks are predicated on a supposed political transformation (in theory) which would end what the guerrillas see as a need for ‘armed political struggle’. Petro’s destitution throws all of that in the air.

At best, since his destitution in mid-December, and all throughout the holidays, social movements and everyday bogotanos have been filling the Bolivar Plaza (Bogota’s equivalent to Hyde Park where the Supreme Court and Congress are), and he is again calling for a peaceful and popular revolution/uprising/movement against the IG’s decision (although it’s coming to light today that there is no legal recourse for the destituted Mayor). For only tepid supporters, what seems like an attack by the IG Ordóñez on the popular vote of Bogotanos/Bogotan democracy has martyred Petro as a symbol of the reactionary attempts to block democracy in Colombia.

Below is Petro’s op-ed in the New York Times appealing to democracy.

Here is also an instructive (Spanish-language) piece by Daniel Coronell on Diego Bravo, a civil servant in the middle of the controversy (according to Coronell, Petro voted Ordonez’s re-election to do a political favour for Bravo).

Gerson Martínez, a rapper, graffiti artist, social activist and Petro supporter was murdered last week in what some are calling a politically-motivated killing (Martínez’s body was found with a flag of “Bogota Humana”, Petro’s city slogan/branding material).

‘Don’t Trash Colombia’s Democracy

By GUSTAVO PETRO URREGO
Published: December 26, 2013

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — On Dec. 9, I was giving a talk at City Hall on the need to fight corruption when, suddenly, my cellphone alerted me to this message: Colombia’s inspector general had decided to remove me from my job as mayor of the nation’s capital and to bar me from holding office for 15 years.

My alleged sin: bungling a project to bring trash collection — run by an oligopoly of private contractors — under direct city management.

Startled, I told the audience what I had just learned. They were irate; the country’s minister of justice and a United Nations representative in Colombia, seated at the head table with me, both hugged me in a show of solidarity. Tens of thousands of Colombians have rallied in the Plaza de Bolívar, in the heart of the capital, in my support. More protests are planned.

For now, I am the mayor. I am challenging the inspector general’s decision, which I consider arbitrary and politically motivated. (In an interview on Sunday, the nation’s chief prosecutor urged President Juan Manuel Santos to postpone the decision.)

I was elected mayor of this city of eight million in 2011, after two terms in the Chamber of Representatives and one in the Senate. My administration has focused on helping the poor, readying the city for the effects of climate change and strengthening the public sphere.

My political career is not one I could have predicted. In the 1970s, I joined a leftist guerrilla organization, the April 19th Movement, or M-19, and was imprisoned and tortured from 1985 to 1987 for my participation. But by 1990, our movement had laid down its arms and made peace with the government — even though our party’s presidential candidate was assassinated that year. Indeed, in 1991, we helped revise the Constitution to make it more democratic.

The M-19 was never part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with whom the Colombian government is engaged in peace talks, in Cuba, to end nearly a half-century of armed conflict. But the effort to remove me has become inextricably tied up with the issue of whether and how to end the longstanding struggle with the FARC.

Those who support the talks with the FARC have said that removing me would demonstrate that former guerrillas could not safely lay down their arms and be assured a role in a fair and democratic government — a concern shared by Kevin Whitaker, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Colombia.

At a Senate confirmation hearing on Dec. 11, Mr. Whitaker said of the decision to remove me, “There’s a fundamental question that’s raised by this, it seems to me, and that is one of political pluralism,” which he described as the challenge of “how to integrate into the legal, unarmed, democratic process individuals of the left.” He added, “If individuals in Colombia were to conclude, based on this action or any other action, that that space doesn’t exist, then the basic conditions for peace are going to be, in some ways, eroded.”

As a Colombian senator, I supported the appointment of the inspector general, Alejandro Ordóñez, because of my belief in the importance of political pluralism, even though he is a close ally of the right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe (who has criticized his successor, Mr. Santos, for talking with the FARC).

While the inspector general has power, under the Constitution, to remove certain officials, in my case Mr. Ordóñez has overstepped and abused this authority. In attempting to disqualify me from participation in politics on the flimsiest of pretexts, Mr. Ordóñez is trying to end my political career and weaken the political left. He is also trying to deal a blow to the peace process with the FARC.

It is precisely because of this overreach that many in Colombia are calling for a reform of the inspector general’s powers, so as to require judicial review before an elected official can be removed. This would bring our Constitution into line with the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that Colombia has ratified. It provides that elected officials may be removed only after being convicted by a competent judge in criminal proceedings.

The grounds for my removal are preposterous. Last December, I tried to break the oligopoly of private companies that held the contracts for garbage removal. My administration estimated that these companies had overcharged the city some $300 million in the decade before I took office. Those companies, previously concession holders, are now contractors with the city.

I acknowledge that my government made mistakes that are not uncommon when changing the model for provision of a public service as complex as trash collection in a city with millions of residents. But Mr. Ordóñez has accused me of no crime. He says, among other things, that my administration mishandled our effort to bring trash collection under public control, and in so doing attacked the system of “free enterprise.” He also says that the accumulation of several thousand tons of garbage on Dec. 18-20, 2012, threatened public health. He does not demonstrate how this justified the removal of the democratically elected mayor of the nation’s capital.

Mr. Ordóñez’s background shows a pattern of intolerance. As a student in the northern city of Bucaramanga more than 30 years ago, he participated in the mass burning of books considered “impious” from a public library. These included Protestant translations of the Bible (Mr. Ordóñez is an ultraconservative Catholic) and works by Gabriel García Márquez. As inspector general, Mr. Ordóñez interfered with the construction of a women’s clinic in Medellín, on the theory that abortions might be performed there. He also threatened to remove judges and notaries who performed same-sex marriages, even though the country’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that same-sex couples could join in “solemn union.”

President Santos now faces a choice: He can back Mr. Ordóñez, which I believe would violate democratic principles and international law and defy the will of the voters of Bogotá, while also setting back the peace process, or he can pursue a democratic resolution to this situation, one that respects our nation’s longing for peace, democracy and human rights.

Respect for the popular vote must be the basis of democracy.

Gustavo Petro Urrego is the mayor of Bogotá. This article was translated by Charles H. Roberts from the Spanish.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 28, 2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Don’t Trash Colombia’s Democracy.

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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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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 historic march for Peace – its political motivations, the price of peace, and who was excluded

Foto: EFE

NB: Please check the original posted on Tuesday in Spanish for links.

Until there are no longer first and second class citizens of any nation…there will be war” – Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia

On Tuesday on the streets of Bogota bodies million Colombians took to the streets, saying they do not want more threats to the integrity and security of the same bodies. These bodies, after 49 years of murders, massacres, injuries, landmines, forced disappearances, forced recruitment, forced displacement, rape, torture, kidnappings, bombings, and threats, they want to bring to reality the dream of peace in Colombia in instead of a war against the rebels.

The mass mobilization occurred on the symbolic date of April 9, the second annual National Day for Memory and Solidarity with Victims, and the anniversary of the 1948 assasination of populist Jorge Eliecer Gaitán Ayala. His murder unclenched the civil war from 1948-58 known as “La Violencia”.

Some in the media are talking that tens of thousands attended the mach just in the Bolivar Plaza (in front of Congress, Colombia’s version of Hyde Park). Others, especially on social media networks (and later reports in the media) report 900,000 to one and a quarter million marching just in the capital.

In a sense, Tuesday’s march can be considered historic in that it demonstrates a complete change in the political tone of mass mobilizations. Just 5 years ago on February 4th, there was also the “historic” march which Barranquillero Engineering studenet Oscar Morales organized through Facebook called “One Million Voices Against the FARC”, which mobilized for the first time in years, millions of Colombians against this armed group. Nevertheless, this march was strongly criticized for its partiality (forgetting the crimes of the paramilitaries and the Armed Froces) and for validating the anti-guerrillero and war-mongering discourse of the political establishment and its counterinsurgency. It’s worth mentioning that former President Alvaro Uribe supported officially endorsed the march.

Now what we see is a peaceful march against war and for peace, organized by some entities which are by no means non-controversial (ex Senator Cordoba and the Marcha Patriótica have been accused by the Defence Minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón of having ties to the marxist insurgency).  Nevertheless, the nation in this occasion seemed to have been unified by a diverse march, without taking much notice of the social and political differences of the participants. This contrasts the march 5 years ago against the FARC-EP which was heavily supported by the middle and upper classes, and was explicitly linked to certain political interests.

Even though the march was organized by people who still have an ambiguous and controversial position in the public imaginary, the march and its gesture for peace wre well received by many sectors of mainstream opinion – the President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos himself invited Colombians to march. The U Party was also in favour of the march (breaking away from Uribe’s opposition to it), and the Mayor of Bogotá and former M-19 guerrilla, Gustavo Petro also had passionately called on Colombians to unite in this gesture of solidarity towards the ‘victims’.

Basically, the marchers of the MP, who came from all parts of the country, many from rural areas/the Other Colombia, invited the urban and middle/upper class Colombia to temporarily forget their differences and march for a common peace. And the invitation, surprisingly, was accepted by the urbanity which only a few years ago was marching in pro of the counterinsurgency.

I think that the reflections of the editor of the popular Semana weekly (one of the most read publications in Colombia) best describes the political moment that occurred on Tuesday:

In this sense, perhaps the main lesson of April 9th is not just that the government achieved an important popular support in the street for its political negotiation [with the FARC], but that Colombians from very different sides, including oppositional ones, were able to coincide on one day in complete calm around a common objective. After the march, of course, this differences will continue. But, there are very few precedents of an alliance that goes beyond the most engrained of the establishment and the most ‘hardcore’ of the Left in favour of peace and a negotiated solution. Even the FARC and the ELN gave their support to the march.

Nevertheless, the pece march, ironically, despite its unifying character, also surfaced deep social and political divisions that the peace process has accentuated. Oponents of the march included the rare combination of the Democratic Alternative Pole (el PDA or El Polo, one of Colombia’s few progressive/left-wing parties that grew out of the demobilization of the M-19 guerillas), even though Polo congressmen and Mayor Ivan Cepeda and Gustavo Petro atended, and of course ex-President and his Puro Centro Democratico/Pure Democratic Centre, Alvaro Uribe. The Leftists, for their part, did not want to legitimize a politicization of the peace process used by the President for his re-election. The Uribistas/right-wingers, considered that negotiating with an armed group would be to legitimize it and that the President is negotiating “issues of nation” with a group of “narcoterrorists”. In particular, the Ex-President through his online commentary on Twitter said that the march was “disrespectful” to the victims of the insurgents.

The march nevertheless has many political interests behind it – first of all, it legitimized, partially, the Marcha Patriotica and the ex-Senator. Also, just because Santos did not march to the Bolivar Plaza (as the editor of Semana recounts, there was ‘no photo with the President and Piedad Cordoba’), it is easy to see how the march gave the President a big help in achieving the ‘popular mandate’ for the peace talks. Ex-President Andres Pastrana and several others had been criticizing the President for a negotiation seemingly without any popular support being carried out in secrecy in a far-off capital in the Caribbean. This march gave Santos an answer to those critics.-

In Colombia, like in any part of the world, there is no free lunch. Peace in Colombia should be created a plurality of actors, and it should be for all Colombians no matter who they are, as was the march on Tuesday. Peace should not belong to any one political party or leader, but as the Democratic Alternative Pole has argued, this is not the case.

In the same sense, we must ask ourselves, this march and this peace, its for whom, and by whom? Those who currently have a seat at the negotiating table in Havana, discussing the beginning of the end of a long and blood-soaked conflict are generals, government representatives who are almost exclusively from Bogota. They are not a broad representation of those who have the most interest in a  demobilization of the FARC-EP – those living in the communities under their control. On the other hand, it is not the thousands of forced combattants/child soldiers that are representing the FARC-EP at the table, nor their victims, but Ivan Marquez, the no. 2 in this guerrilla organization and the leader of the Caribbean Block, who is wanted for several counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Interpol and the Colombian justice system.

In other words, what is being negotiated in Havana is a peace between murderers. The government as much as the guerrillas claim that they are the victims and that neither has committed to recognizing their complicity or facing their victims.

This lack of recognition of their crimes (from both parties), and this discourse in PRO of peace (which was the official government line at the march) was very different to the many placards from victim’s groups marching on the streets of Bogota that demanded memory, justice, and truth.

Not to say that the good should the be the enemy of hte perfect, but it must be recognized that like everything in Colombia, this process is experiencing a centralization and a bureaucratization which is taking away power and a place to speak for the communities that continue to live in Colombia’s multiple war zones. As analysts of the CINEP have argued, a durable and legitimate peace needs to be regionalized/come from the rural areas.

The government emphasis on prudence (which the guerrillas have also respected) towards the talks makes much sense given the chaotic nature of the previous attempt in the Caguán. Some have talked of submitting the accord to a Constituent/popularly elected Assembly or putting it to a referendum as was done in Guatemala (which could be coopted and defeated by the right-wing). Nevertheless, it would be a shame if this peace, like the incomplete peace of 58 which ended the era of “La Violencia” but began the era of the FARC, would be like the war in Colombia – imposed by the powerful on ‘The Other Colombia’ without consulting nor giving space for the voices who live there.

Uribe and his ‘Pure Democratic Centre’ movement say that they are not opposed to peace per se, but that they are against ‘peace with impunity’. The diversity in the march Tuesday perhaps showed that the majority of Colombians want to put their differences aside and take advantage of this rare opportunity for a viable accord with the guerrilla force that just a few years ago was labeled ‘narcoterrorist’ and just a few decades ago was thought invincible. Nevertheless, just because the Uribistas have not gone out into the streets marching does not mean that they do not have support, nor that all victims are in favour of the process.

Peace, like everything, will come with a price. the FARC-EP have repeatedly said that they will not go to jail under any circumstances as part of an agreement. They consider themselves the victim of state and paramilitary violence; they want to do politics with guarantees of security and they do not want to address their victims, to say nothing of paying jail time for their crimes.

So, one could say that in a way, Alvaro Uribe is right. Undoubtedly, there must be a trade-off between ‘peace’ and ‘justice’. Many on the Left, with  good reason, were very critical of the demobilization process with the AUC paramilitaries. Nevertheless, it is very strange that the voice which is asking for justice for the FARC-EP for their crimes is the counterinsurgency ex-President, and that other commentators who criticized the deal with the paras are mute on this point. In any event, it has to be said that that balance between peace and justice is a very delicate and controversial issue; within the mainstream media, politicians, and the majority of analysts I have read who are in favour of the process, there is a language of forgiveness and reconciliation used which presupposes that the victims of the FARC-EP owe the guerrillas forgiveness because they all owe the country reconciliation. However, the trade-off between how much peace and how much justice is not something that can be imposed from Havana or Bogota. The peace in 58 was a peace between murderers, powerful interests, and it was imposed, leaving open and unhealed the wounds that would leave the soil of Colombia fertile for the bloodshed of the next half-century.

 

Finally, the war in Colombia in many ways is and is not against the FARC-EP. These guerrillas continue to displace, kill, threaten, forcibly recruit, and commit all kinds of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the violence of new paramilitary groups is much more of a threat to public security than are the guerrillas, as reported by the conflict think tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. This is not to say that the human suffering of the victims of the FARC-EP should be given less priority because the violence of the emerging paramilitaries is greater, but it is to say that a peace accord with the FARC-EP (and even with the ELN) will not put an end to war and violence in Colombia in a holistic way.

In fact, on Tuesday morning before the march Presidenet Santos on his Twitter account recognized the unfortunate murder of Ever Antonio Cordero Oviedo, a human rights activist working towards land restitution who was killed in Valencia, Cordoba. This man was but one of thousands of Colombians who continue to be victimized by this new manifestation of paramilitarism, for whom the government discourse that these groups are ‘merely criminal gangs’ reduces them to being outside of the ‘armed conflict’ and into the realm of ‘general delinquency’. In other words, for these thousands of victims, there was no mass march. In these thousands are also ADOM in Chocó and the women of the Enchanted Valley in Cordoba.

In Colombia, economic development of certain sectors is tied to war. The war in Colombia is a kind of institution in and of itself. Disarming this institution (literally), whose roots are have nexuses with so many other institutions such as the political and economic power of the nation, as well as the military industrial complex, will come at a high price. The war in Colombia is a very profitable business, and to end it there has to be a fundamental change in Colombian society.

This peace process must therefore be transformative for Colombian society. It can not only be reconciliation between victims and perpetrators (two identities which often intersect), but also a new social contract that begins to break down that wall which divides The Two Colombias. The peace with the FARC-EP must be a process that not only begins other peaces with the ELN and the neoparamilitary groups, but also that begins a wider conversation about the structural violences of poverty, patriarchy, racism, inequality, state violence, and above all classism which produced the guerrillas in the first place

Will the country have this conversation? Who knows. 10 years ago it was impossible to imagine a negotiation with the ‘narcoterrorists’ and now it is something which receives general support. It took a decade of counterinsurgency, displacement, murders, cooptation by the state by paramilitarism, and Total War, but at least this march showed that Colombians can change their opinion and leave aside warmongering and hate against the guerrillas in favour fo a supposedly common good (a national peace). However this change, as what will come after it, will also have its price.

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’Because We Really Care’: Dissolution of CIDA, how it challenges myths about Canada, its impact on Colombia

“Charity…is the opium of the privileged” – Chinua Achebe, Rest In Peace.

I wanted to give a quick reaction to the news that the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, the body of the Federal government in charge of administering Canadian overseas development aid, is going to be folded into the Department for Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).

There have been a mix of reactions in the Canadian foreign policy Twitter and blogospheres; Director of Partnership Africa-Canada Ian Smillie says that this is a further step away from Canada’s legacy of being a leader among giving assistance to ‘poor countries’; whereas another Canadian foreign policy heavyweight, Roland Paris from the UOttawa, argues that a merger may not in and of itself be a bad thing. Surprisingly some CIDA officials are lamenting the merger, whereas Lloyd Axworthy is welcoming it.

The rationale of the merger being presented by the government is to put development on “equal footing” with trade and diplomacy, and to have a more unified, consistent Canadian voice promoting Canadian ‘values and interests’ abroad.

Overseas Development Assistance, or ODA, in Canada is the legacy of Liberal governments trying to create a very particular image of Canada internally and externally. One of the founding moments for ODA was the Ceylon Conference in which CIDA’s predecessor was established by Nobel laureate Lester B. Pearson. Under Liberal Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, Canada’s was quite firmly committed to ODA in Sub-Saharan Africa. Canada, with it’s lack of colonial baggage and bilingual capacity/ties to the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, was always in a ‘good’ position to bolster ties with Francophone and Anglophone African countries through ODA. With the War on/of Terror and Canada’s participation in the NATO mission, Afghanistan also became a development priority. We Canadians framed ourselves as honest and disinterested brokers wanting to do what Americans couldn’t – be the benign and benevolent Westerners who wanted to promote growth, peace, and equality without any  vested interests.

This construction of an innocent and humanitarian Canadian foreign policy has been part and parcel of the discussion surrounding CIDA’s end. Take for example, this interesting commentary from the CBC piece (this is not an editorial or an opinion piece, I might add):

“A confidential draft document obtained by CBC News last fall outlined the broad strokes of a foreign policy shift toward focusing Canada’s international efforts primarily on one goal: forging new trade deals and business opportunities in the rapidly expanding markets of Asia and South America.

The document made scant mention of Canada’s traditional roles as peacemakers in war zones like Afghanistan or foreign aid providers in disasters such as Haiti. It also did not mention using trade deals to pressure countries such as China on human rights and other matters of democratic principle.”

The allusion to “peacekeeping” and “democratic principles” are not an accident. Perhaps the author of this article at the supposedly objective CBC is, like Smillie and Axworthy, in my opinion, a believer in the old form of Canadian aid and it’s ties to our national identity as somehow being altruistic abroad. However, whether Liberal or Conservative, it’s quite clear that this has never been the case, and Canada’s ODA has always come with conditions, and has always been influenced or driven by the extractive sector. During Chretien’s time this was painfully obvious during the First and Second Congo Wars, and the multiple blunders of Canadian industry, DFAIT, and other actors in the DRC. 

In other words, many of those, like Smillie, lamenting this change as a further erosion of Canada’s legacy of “leadership” in Africa with respect to ODA, are romanticizing an era which never really was in reality, but was integral to our identity as a country of people ‘who really care’.

This development ideology stands in stark contrast to the one of the Harper Conservatives. They have confidently, some would say aggressively, shifted Canada’s development interests away from “the poorest of the poor”, to use that extremely problematic language, to aligning Canadian development and diplomatic interests closer to commercial ones. The CIDA merger, I believe, is a significant moment as part of a larger pattern. CIDA, for the Conservatives, was perhaps a Liberal relic that really had no place in their vision for ODA.

Throughout the last few years, this change in ideology in Canada’s ODA has manifested itself in a variety of scandals and controversies, as the Conservatives were perhaps considered to be ruining something that Liberals and progressives saw as a dear part of Canadian national life (helping poor people in far away places). Moments of note include how former Minister for International Co-Operation (the head of CIDA) Bev Oda wrote in a “NOT” for a grant to KAIROS, a well respected NGO who had been doing advocacy around the Israel-Palestine conflict, a strict no-no among new CIDA guidelines for Canadian NGOs.Under Oda, there was also a slight creeping of social conservatism into the development agenda, such as when Canada refused to fund abortions as part of a G8 Maternal Health initiative.

Current Minister of International Cooperation, Julian Fantino (L), and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, John Baird (R).

Current Minister Julian Fantino, for his part, drew a lot of heat for freezing assistance to Haiti, a longtime charity ‘darling’ for Canada, due to a lack of ‘results’, and for CIDA giving funds to NGOs that are associated with the anti-Queer movement in Uganda/on their webpage describe homosexuality as a kind of deviance.  

The most significant change, for me however, is the cozying up of Canadian commercial interests with Canadian ‘humanitarian’ and development initiatives, and the leaving of a Liberal policy of helping “the poorest” in Africa to assisting countries that we need to get resources from in Latin America. Obviously, the Liberals’ development agenda, as mentioned above, wasn’t much better, but the Conservatives is definitely more blatant in what it’s after.

This has really taken shape in two key developments. Firstly, the dropping of many impoverished lower-income African nations such as the DRC from CIDA’s list of priority countries, to a slim list of 20 ‘countries of focus’ for bilateral assistance which will collectively receive 80% of Canadian aid.  The list includes many extremely unequal upper/middle-income Latin American countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. This was again, moving away from the Liberal CIDA policy of having smaller aid projects sprinkled around every corner of the earth (so everyone would know how amazing Canadians are, clearly) to consolidating development into a few key areas (of course, aligned with broader Canadian interests).

Well, what exactly are those other Canadian interests? This leads to the second shift, which is probably the most telling and controversial out of all the changes – that CIDA would be subsidizing public-private-NGO partnership pilot projects in South America and Africa. In other words, CIDA would be basically disbursing aid money through the CSR branches of Canadian mining companies along with NGOs.

Colombia, as usual, being one of the most unequal, poor, and violent countries in the region fit beautifully into this scheme. With the apertura economica or “economic opening” of Colombia under former President Alvaro Uribe and the beating back of the rebels from formerly marginal areas in the countryside rich in minerals/the “pacification” (read: counterinsurgency campaign) of the countryside, Colombia’s resources were ready for Canadian extraction. To make a very very long story short, Canada signed a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, Colombia made the list of the top 20 “priority” countries for CIDA, and the largest producer of gold in Colombia is a Canadian corporation, Gran Colombia Gold, which has been accused of having ties to paramilitaries. I leave it to you to make what you will of those four things and how related or not they are to each other.

CIDA has also been accused of tinkering with Colombia’s mining code, and industrializing and handing over to foreigners a gold and mining industry that has historically been run by low-income artisanal miners.

Here is a little gem from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)’s report on the Canadian extractive sector in Colombia:

The report cites reliable sources that link ten Canadian companies in Colombia to the genocide of indigenous Colombians, to complicity in eight murders and one attempted murder, to other significant military/paramilitary repression, to large-scale displacement, and to environmental destruction on a massive scale, as well as to union-busting, strike-breaking, and worker exploitation.

… Never before have Canadian companies in Colombia been denounced as so destructive. They are now open to criminal charges of genocide, murder, complicity in murder, environmental damage, displacement of indigenous populations, and the violation of labour rights.

So what does this CIDA merger mean for Colombia? Probably what it will mean for other countries who also have, for better or for worse, a growing Canadian presence – aid will be more explicitly in the service of the Canadian extractive sector, and all of its alleged associated abuses, and not the ‘people’, to put it bluntly. However, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that aid was ever about ‘the people’. Until 2008, most of Canadian food aid was tied. Afghanistan was an aid priority because we invaded and occupied it. The extractive sector has had huge influence historically over Canadian interests in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Aid has always been a political tool for furthering Canada’s political and economic interests and making us look good with respect to sensational issues such as extreme poverty and war. To romanticize the era of Liberal peacekeeping and a ‘poorest of the poor’-centred CIDA is to deny that, to a certain extent.

CIDA under the Liberals was arguably just as bad as under the Tories, the question is one of representation and symbols. Under Harper, CIDA is no more because what CIDA stood for made no sense to him; aid to him should be about explicitly furthering Canadian economic/political interests. Under the Liberals, this was mostly the same except it was couched in a sinister and self-congratulating discourse of humanitarianism, benevolence, and how kind and wonderful Canadians are. However, many countries which CIDA focuses on, don’t need aid. Colombia is rich in resource and has one of the strongest economies in Latin America; however it’s rural communities exist in an almost feudal state of exploitation by mining companies, local and national oligarchs, guerrillas, neo-paramilitary groups, the army, and drug cartels. Whether it’s CIDA or the FARC, many communities in Colombia are just told about how they should be run, and never given true self-determination. What these communities and nations need, in my view, is a fundamental structural change in power relationships; that would be a discussion that really gets at the heart of poverty in somewhere like Colombia. But this has been absent from the debate about CIDA’s merger, which you would think would have something to do with poverty. The discussion is about what CIDA means to Canada. The discussion is about how some of us are not comfortable with what the Tories are doing which is being explicit about something that, actually has always been quite Canadian – making our charity all about what benefits us, and not those who we give it to.

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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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