Tag Archives: Canada

Hey, It’s Just Business: Canucks kiss up to Colombia’s paralilitaries

By Enzo Di Matteo, originally published in print NOW Toronto | May 3-10, 2001 | VOL 20 NO 3. Found here on web.

“[L]eaders at the [Q]uebec summit of the Americas talked often and loud last week about environmental and social protections being written into any future hemispheric free trade pact. But whatever safeguards politicos are imagining, anti-globalization activists and human rights groups maintain that such measures would do nothing meaningful to improve the lot of people in developing countries.

The track record of transnationals doing business in places like Colombia, where leftist rebels have been fighting a 40-year insurgency against the government, has been particularly brutal.

There, Canadian oil companies, responsible for their share of toxic spills, mass deforestation and the displacement of peasant farmers, are raking in record profits with passing regard for eco standards or human rights.

Take Calgary-based oil and gas giant Enbridge.

The company’s OCENSA pipeline runs for 675 kilometres, from the Cusiana and Cupiagua oil fields in the Andes to the port of Coveñas on the Caribbean coast. It’s the largest in Colombia, transporting some 500,000 barrels of crude a day. Enbridge, whose earnings from the pipeline topped $30 million last year, recently bought up TransCanada Pipelines’ share in OCENSA.

The company’s record profits were front and centre when investors gathered for Enbridge’s annual shareholders meeting in Calgary on Wednesday (May 2).

In 1997, however, the company was linked by Amnesty International to a Colombian military unit being investigated “for complicity in the massacre of 15 unarmed civilians… and with paramilitary organizations responsible for widespread human rights violations.”

OCENSA’s security head had arranged for the company to buy attack helicopters, anti-guerrilla weaponry and ammunition for the military unit, which was hired privately to protect its pipeline in the north.

A director of British Petroleum (BP), part of the OCENSA consortium told a committee of British MPs probing the incident that avoiding contact with the Colombian army is not an option when doing business in Colombia.

He testified that the only military equipment purchased by the company for the Colombian 14th brigade was night-vision goggles.

The OCENSA story, though, goes deeper. The British security firm in the company’s employ until 97 was covertly gathering intelligence on the activities of locals opposed to the pipeline. More alarming for Amnesty is the fact that the company turned this intelligence over to the Colombian military, “who, together with their paramilitary allies, have frequently targeted those considered subversives for extrajudicial execution and disappearance.”

Jim Rennie, Enbridge’s manager of public affairs, offers via e-mail in response to questions from NOW that OCENSA terminated its contract with the employee behind the scheme to sell arms to the Colombian military as soon as it found out about it. (According to testimony before British MPs, the individual in question was transferred to another operation in Venezuela.)

Rennie goes on to say that Enbridge’s relations with communities along the pipeline “have always been positive,” and that “OCENSA is confident in the professionalism of those soldiers assigned to the lawful protection of the pipeline.”

“We disagree with those who argue that non-involvement in countries with problems somehow helps resolve those problems. We believe,” Rennie says, “that safely operated, efficient and environmentally responsible pipeline operations benefit everyone, and that is something Enbridge brings to OCENSA.”

Others would take exception to Rennie’s characterization of OCENSA as “environmentally responsible.”

A joint report penned by, among others, U.S. Environmental Defense, has called OCENSA “an environmental and social disaster,” a project that demonstrates how “the lack of attention to social and environmental concerns results in severe political and economic risk.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long for tensions to blow up, literally, at OCENSA in May 1998. Back then, oil workers went on strike to protest the murders of 11 people by paramilitaries. The strike was soon followed by a leftist guerrilla attack on the pipeline that also wiped out a nearby hamlet, killing 56 people and injuring 100 more.

Since the OCENSA controversy, both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have called on oil companies operating in Colombia to adopt policies requiring military units defending their interests to abide by international human rights laws. Human Rights Watch estimates that half of Colombia’s estimated 120,000 troops are engaged full-time in protecting oil and mining installations.

Says Pablo Leal, a spokesperson for the Canadian Colombian Association, “If you geographically locate where conflicts are taking place on a map, you’ll see an enormous correlation, particularly with oil and mining activity and the movement of paramilitary groups.”

According to Amnesty’s, Keith Rimstead, “We’re not opposed to companies doing business in Colombia, but they have a responsibility to abide by principles set out in international human rights laws. If a company protecting its property hires people who then commit human rights violations, there’s a certain level of responsibility they should accept for that.”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (composed of the world’s most industrialized countries) has drafted its own corporate code of conduct for companies operating abroad. Ditto for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International trade. But they’re only voluntary. In Ottawa, department spokesperson François Lasalle doesn’t foresee that they’ll become mandatory any time soon.

“There is a debate about balancing the moral aspects of trade with the rights of companies to handle business the way they see fit,” says Lasalle. But “this is still an open society where we’re supposed to be able to do the right thing without being forced to by government. It’s a difficult call to make.”

Colombia-watchers, meanwhile, fear that increasing North American reliance on Colombian crude, particularly in the U.S., will continue to h[e]ighten the conflict.

As well, some analysts see the $1.3-billion Plan Colombia military aid package, ostensibly aimed at stopping narco-trafficking, as part of the political calculus to protect American oil interests in Colombia.

Says Asad Ismi, author of Profiting From Repression: Canadian Investment And Trade With Colombia, “What we have to ask is, “Who’s making the money?’ These policies are being pushed by industrialized countries of the North and their extreme greed for resources. They’re literally sucking the life out of these countries.”

enzom@nowtoronto.com

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Canadian Mining, Colombia, Contradictions, English, Uncategorized

Colombia: The Only Risk Is Having To Stay – Canadian Mining in the South of Bolívar and the Release of Jernoc Wobert

On Tuesday, August 27, Jernoc Wobert was freed by Colombian guerrillas. The Canadian geologist and Vice-President of Braeval Mining Co. had been kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (or El Ejército de la Liberación Nacional, ELN). The ELN had kidnapped him seven months ago with 3 other Colombians and 2 Peruvians.  The Latin Americans were released a few weeks after they had all been taken from Norosí in the Serranía de San Lucas in the south of Bolívar, but the Canadian remained.

As a condition to his release, the ELN demanded that the Canadian and Colombian government investigate the company in question for having allegedly taken land illegally from communities in Bolívar. On the other hand, the Colombian government, who has been negotiating a peace deal with the largest rebel group (the FARC), since November, predicated any negotiations with the ELN on his release. The ELN had previously expressed interest in negotiating with the national government, and the FARC had called on the government to also negotiate with the second largest guerrilla group. A few months ago when the eleños tried to enter the peace talks in Havana, they were turned away. Today, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that “everything is ready” for talks with the ELN.

Wobert’s release by the ELN to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, who is a neutral party in most high-profile hostage hand-overs in Colombia), was seen as a “humanitarian gesture” on the part of the rebels in order to demonstrate good faith in what could be a peace process. However, Wobert’s kidnapping (and release) are actually microcosms of much larger dynamics of the Colombian armed conflict, and of the mining investment that largely defines Canada’s relationship to Colombia.

Who are the ELN?

The ELN began in the early 1960s by radical University students who organized peasants. They were inspired by Marxism, the Cuban Revolution, and Liberation Theology. The ELN, unlike the FARC, actually have been slow to get as involved in drug trafficking. Nevertheless like the FARC, they commit crimes against humanity and war crimes such as kidnapping and killing civilians, recruiting minors/practicing forced conscription, planting land mines (which is against the Ottawa Treaty) and forced displacement. However, the ELN are most well known for their attacks against infrastructure (particularly attacking oil pipelines), which have increased this year. They are Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group.

The ELN’s political discourse and military actions against multinational investment in Colombia, particularly in the extractive sector, is part of what scared foreign investment away during much of the 1990s when guerrillas retained significant control over large parts of the country.  Like the FARC, The ELN would charge “revolutionary taxes” on businesses (vacunas), threaten and kidnap large-land owners and company executives, and would carry out infrastructure attacks.

A significant proportion of the counterinsurgency campaign of the paramilitaries and the army directly preceding and during the government of ex-President Alvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) was to “pacify” regions so as to make them safe enough to encourage foreign investment. For example, a main focus of Plan Colombia was securing the Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline which had been attacked on several occasions by the guerrillas.

The ELN is currently in dire straits; it was weakened by the counterinsurgency much more than the FARC and they have currently between 2-3,000 fighters. There are few parts of the national territory  where they are the dominant armed group (oil-rich Arauca, for example), and many see the ELN now as a spent force who is desperate for a negotiated settlement out of the armed conflict.

The Serranía de San Lucas, where Wobert was taken, has been disputed by the ELN, the army, and the paramilitaries for decades given its geostrategic significance.  Over at the Tyee, Colombian journalist Sebastian Salamaca writes:

“[The ELN] decided a good place to start a revolution was the Serranía de San Lucas. Its rugged geography and lack of state presence made it ideal for organizing and gathering strength.

It took 20 years for them to control the area. By the 1980s, the ELN dominated the region. Their mixture of Marxism, liberation theology, and community activism helped them win the partial support of the population. They also regularly violated international law by blowing up pipelines and taking hostages.

In the late 1990s the ELN faced a potent foe, as Carlos Castaño, head of the far-right paramilitary forces in Colombia, or AUC, made it his obsession to take back the territory from the guerrillas.

The AUC knew about the strategic importance of the Serranía: whoever controlled it would profit from the massive cocaine traffic to the Caribbean and the huge gold deposits that were being discovered. Moreover, seizing the Serranía would ensure access to the largest watercourse in Colombia, the Magdalena River.”

What is Canada’s history in the South of Bolívar?

The Coastal department of Bolívar

In an earlier post I remarked how the Canadian government, through funding the Canadian Energy Research Institute, helped re-write and liberalize Colombia’s mining code in 2001.

In Francisco Ramírez Cuellar’s “The Profits of Extermination”, he also outlines how in the Serranía de San Lucas in the South of Bolívar, in land that was initially titled to a local elite family, over 90 mining associations started to work the land through artisanal practices. Under Colombian law, if land is unused by the owner but is being used by someone else, technically, artisanal miners for example have up to two years to ask for titles to that land. Around the early 1990s, a Canadian mining company (then called Conquistador mines) became interested in the gold-rich area.

According to Ramírez, they hired a lawyer to negotiate the land with the small-scale miners on behalf of the Illeras-Palacios (the family who claimed the land). This same lawyer, interestingly, helped draft the 2001 mining code with CERI. After a visit from the Minister of mines, the artisanal miners backed away from negotiations and they gave the land to the mining company.

In 1997, the paramilitaries of the Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Córdoba and Urabá or the ACCU, who would later become the AUC, came to the Serranía. Their stated reasons for doing so were to control the mines, to get rid of miners who were “collaborating with the guerrillas”, and “guarantee the entrance of multinationals who would create jobs”. The paramilitary incursion destroyed over 10 towns in the region, massacred over 400 people, raped both men and women, and left several supposed “guerrilla collaborators” dismembered. Until 2008 over 94,000 people were displaced from the region because of the violence.

It is also worth noting that the Congressman representing the region at the time of the deal and the drafting of the new mining code has since been investigated for having ties to paramilitary groups.

Braeval and Conquistador mines are not the only Canadian companies with interests in the south of Bolívar. B2Gold, a Canadian gold company in the region, claims that it can only operate there with guarantees of security from the Colombian army. As mentioned in a report by Interpares and Mining Watch Canada, the Vice-President of B2Gold has said that non-indigenous communities have no right to reject mining projects on their territory, and alarmingly, that FEDEAGROMISBOL had been “contaminated” by guerrillas. As any student of Colombian history will know, these kinds of accusations can lead to violence against FEDEAGROMISBOL by state security and paramilitary forces (which is what has occurred).

What do the locals think? 

This informative report from Colombia Informa which interviewed community members and associations in the south of the Bolívar state gives an idea into what perceptions were on the ground of the kidnapping and the release of the Canadian executive.

The Agro-Mining Federation of the South of Bolívar (FEDEAGROMISBOL) is an umbrella organization which represents 34 associations of small-scale farmers and artisanal miners in the region has for years been stigmatized as being sympathetic to the guerrillas by the army and the paramilitaries (and has consequently suffered violence against its members). Nevertheless, the group actually had put out a communiqué which rejected the kidnappings carried out by the ELN of the miners and emphasized the release of the Colombians who appeared to be members of FEDEAGROMISBOL. They also said that the kidnappings were “a direct consequence of the indiscriminate natural resource exploitation policy  promoted by the Colombian government, affecting the south of Bolívar and of the handing over of our natural resource to large transnational capital”.

The locals they interviewed emphasized how the kidnapping of the Canadian by the ELN made life more difficult in the region as it invited increased repression from the government security forces. Some community members say that they supported the actions of the ELN, as it “halted the [government’s] mining development plans”, and who felt that this development plan is more for the benefit of multinational companies than their communities who have always been marginalized by the national government.

Other community members expressed their opposition to the kidnapping, saying that it furthers the stigmatization of local community organizing as being complicit or supportive of the guerrillas. Others mention how one of the reason two FEDEAGROMISBOL members were kidnapped was because they were helping the foreign miners behind the backs of the community.

Other community members mention how FEDEAGROMISBOL was able to win more than 10,000 hectares of land from the Lleras-Palacios (the local elite family mentioned earlier) through “pure social struggle”, but that speaking out was extremely difficult given the intense military and paramilitary repression to community organizing and dissidence.

Why was Wobert kidnapped and why does it matter?

Whereas the Colombians and the Peruvians were let free relatively soon, Wobert was kept by the ELN until Tuesday (he had been kidnapped since January), because he could have been a bargaining chip at any eventual peace talks (or even, the key to starting a dialogue). At the same time, the ELN rejects the presence of foreign extractive companies in Colombia, who they see as imperialists, and therefore wanted to retain Wobert until Braeval gave up its mining titles in the region.

Braeval actually has since renounced its four titles in the region; the company’s press release however did not mention the kidnapping.

The ruthless paramilitary expansion in the early 2000s in the region left many with the impression that the region had effectively been pacified, and that although in the most remote areas the ELN remained, the Serranía was perceived to be relatively safe for investment.

Despite the fact that a Colombian government report study which says that industrial mining should not occur in zones of armed conflict (such as the Serranía) junior-based mining companies (who are often Canadian, and are the most likely to take on very risky projects) continue to explore Colombian communities that exist in a context of extreme physical and social vulnerability.

The Canadian government, with its naming of Colombia as a priority for CIDA aid, and the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), is keen on having a stable (or “pacified”) Colombian countryside in which our companies can extract resources without being threatened. By the same token, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has made resource extraction a pillar of his national economic development strategy. Wobert’s kidnapping is  a reminder that despite the strength of the paramilitaries and the Washington-funded Colombian army, the guerrillas, despite their losses, can still be a threat to multinational investment, and that Colombia is not as “safe” or “open” for business as it might seem. Kidnappings did not end with Uribe’s “Democratic Security”, and they probably won’t end with Santos.

The logical inverse of this premise (that the guerrillas are still a threat to investment), is that more pacification/repression of the guerrillas is necessary. Indeed, when Wobert was kidnapped, the Colombian government responded by sending 600 troops to the region. Wobert’s kidnapping reminds us that the steps of foreigners in Colombia’s most fragile and violent parts may provoke actions and counter-reactions by armed groups looking to show their dominance in any given region. And more of then than not, these struggles will take place on the backs of civilians (and sometimes in the name or interest of investment). As this Semana report notes, they allege that some companies have signed security/protection deals with the Colombian army, and that artisanal mining opponents to the investment of multinationals, particularly members of FEDEAGROMISBOL, have been systematically murdered.

Therefore, in this context, it must be asked whether Canadian mining investment in Colombia is worth the risk both that it poses to the Canadians who go to Colombia in search of resource riches, but more importantly, to the Colombians who call those communities home and ultimately have to live with the consequences of the instability and repression that mining investment might provoke.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canada, Canadian Mining, Colombia, English, The Peace Talks

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Canada, Contradictions, English, Refugee Policy

Making A Killing: Colombia and the Canadian Military Industrial Complex

John Baird

A few months ago, I wrote to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, John Baird about Canada’s decision to allow Canadian weapons manufacturers to sell arms to Colombia. Baird had put Colombia on the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL),  a list of now 34 countries to which Canadians can get export permits for weapons. The weapons which Canadian businesses would now be able to export to Colombia, actually aren’t even legal in Canada (see below).

In a brief and polite response, Baird informed me there had been “broad consultation” with the Canadian public and  and different government departments which had informed the decision. Apparently, the consultation touched on “multiple issues” including human rights, peace, stability, the risk of diversion, and interestingly, “commercial opportunities for Canadian business” (emphasis mine).

To Baird’s credit, he did mention that each export permit is assessed individually, with particular emphasis on what the “end-use” of the weapons will be, and if they are in accordance with Canadian foreign and  defense policy, law, and “including the potential impact of export on human rights and armed conflicts”.

At the end of his correspondence, Baird listed off a myriad of highly problematic initiatives as part of Canada’s relationship to Colombia, perhaps trying to show some sort of misguided intentions to “help” Colombia; in particular Baird lauded the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and how Colombia has received benefits from DFAIT’s “Counter-Terrorism and Anti-Crime Capacity Building” programs.

 

Clearly all of these policies, but particularly for now the AFCCL, are very concerning and merit their own analysis. The larger point here is, despite Baird taking the time to reply, the decision of what will be a “risky” sale of weapons of mass destruction (automatic weapons)  to a country experiencing armed conflict and endemic levels of violence will be decided in Ottawa, with “commercial” interests in mind. This is all working under the militarist assumption that a country having a militarized society, or an extremely powerful military (especially with an ongoing civil war) is a desirable thing.

It goes without saying that the current Canadian government is accepting the Colombian government’s narrative that Colombia is a democratic, improving, stabilizing, and human-rights respecting country that is ready for foreign (Canadian) investment in order to “develop”. It’s important to note that, as Human Rights Watch has stated, the paramilitaries or “right-wing death squads” as others have called them, who are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, operate like a “sixth branch of the Army”, and the Colombian army itself is often responsible for extremely egregious violations of human rights (forced disappearances, massacres, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, etc), particularly to the civilian population it is supposedly defending. This is to whom the Canadian government thinks it is a good idea to sell guns to…..

It’s been long known that Canadian business and the Canadian government have at best been negligent to the humanitarian catastrophe of mass violence in Colombia, choosing to focus instead on promoting ‘economic growth’ through trade (which is often not unassociated). However, it now seems that, after Baird’s decision, the Canadian Military Industrial Complex will be able to directly make bank off of one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in the Western Hemisphere.

For some key points on armed violence in Colombia, check out my initial oversimplified letter below (which perhaps was a bit too charitable with the Minister). For more information on the Canadian Military Industrial Complex and how it is profiting from and exacerbating human rights violations the world over, check out this piece by Richard Sanders.

January 3, 2013

“Dear Prime Minister Harper, Minister Ablonczy, Minister Baird, and Mr. Hiebert,

I hope this message finds you all well after the holidays.

…I am an extremely concerned Canadian voter. This morning, it came to my attention that the Honourable Minister Baird, by amending the “Automatic Firearms Country Control” list, has removed the export bans on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons to my native Colombia. These same kinds of weapons are banned in Canada, as they are considered too dangerous to be on our streets. Moreover, these same kind of weapons are the ones which were used to murder over 26 innocent Americans in the Newton massacre last month.

Colombia, although much safer and less violent than in the last a decade ago, is still one of the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rate hovers at around 30-38 per 100,000, making at among the world’s 15 most violent countries. Approximately hundreds of thousands are displaced every year due to violence. Although the government is currently in promising peace talks with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC, they continue to fight and terrorize local communities. This armed conflict is compounded by extremely high levels of urban violence, the ELN rebels, narcotrafficking groups, and the paramilitary successor groups or BACRIM/criminal bands which account for around a disproportionate amount of the violence in Colombia.

Colombia over the last decade has had over 200,000 murders. 75% of homicides in Colombia are committed by firearms. There are over 14,000 child soldiers in Colombia who are arguably forced to operate these kind of high-powered weapons. As per the Colombian army, it is estimated that from 2002-2006, over 3,000 young, mostly impoverished, male civilians were killed and made to look as insurgents by the Colombian army so as to increase kill counts. In Medellin a few days ago, an 11 year old girl lost her life to a stray bullet. She was only one of over 300 victims of stray bullets last year. Although Colombia is making great improvements in overcoming our violent legacy, human rights and violence are still clearly very important concerns.

I understand that in order for arms exporters to be issued a permit to export weapons under ACCFL, the government must review each case with ‘strict controls’. I also understand that Canada has been extremely generous with Colombia by making it a priority country for bilateral aid, and donating millions to support both the nascent peace process and the Land restitution law to bring growth and reconciliation to a country that has been too long plagued by violence.

However, given that Canada and Colombia’s relationship is, supposedly mutually beneficial, I fail to see the benefit that Colombia would attain from buying more arms during a peace process in which Colombian society is trying to turn away from guns. Gun bans have proven extremely effective in Colombia; earlier this year Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro banned handguns in the capital city, leading to the murder rate dropping to its lowest point in 27 years. Bogota is now safer than many American inner cities.

I am therefore extremely curious as to how exactly, beyond ‘market opportunities’ for Canadian arms dealer, your government has considered that allowing the export of extremely dangerous and deadly firearms into a very violent country like Colombia, will be consistent with your policy of creating a mutually beneficial relationship with both countries.

I would be very appreciative if I could please be informed as to your government’s rationale for adding Colombia to the AFCCL.

Please do not conflate ‘market opportunities’ for Canadians with the re-militarization of Colombian society; if this is not the case, then please inform me otherwise.”

1 Comment

Filed under Canada, English

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

ebd61d86121e65c696bbb967a5e204d5

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?

Leave a comment

Filed under English

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under English

The Genocide of Bojayá: 11 years of impunity

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

bojaya

Photo: Mauricio Moreno, El Tiempo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Comments

Filed under English

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.

2 Comments

Filed under English