Tag Archives: Colonialism

The Ghosts of War & Questions of Peace

I could not sleep last night. I edited this post throughout the day but wrote it in the middle of the night, unable to sleep without first writing something. I was truly struck, dumbfounded, by the news that both the government of Colombia and the self-styled Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia  (FARC) are asking the UN and the CELAC to help monitor a bilateral ceasefire and a definitive end to hostilities. 

 

The news itself is not shocking – the peace process in Havana between the insurgents and the government has resulted in periodical historical breakthroughs (a deal on transitional justice, unprecedented participation of various victims’ groups in a peace process, etc). However, the location of this event within the 51 year history of war between the FARC and the State gave me pause.

 

For the first time in a generation, the dream of peace with Colombia’s most important rebel group is no longer a fantasy, but a tangible, realistic possibility. Many Colombians, including myself, would honestly never thought they would live to see this. Too many have not. Perhaps Colombia is starting to deal with its figurative ghosts.

 

I offer some reflections on the history that is being made here, on the war. For Colombians, one’s social location defines one’s relationship to the armed conflict, and I write this from the relative comfort of the Global North; part of my privilege is that the war is fortunately not a lived reality for me, it’s not an inescapable totality ending or interrupting life but glimpses of a brutal phenomenon in a distant supposed “homeland” to be escaped by merely putting down the book, putting back the letter, clicking past the headline, or turning off the television. Indeed, reflecting on the precarity of other lives in this war is a luxury testifying to my privilege produced by the very same violence.

 

A final caveat – I cannot and hope not to speak to our personal ghosts of this war. The spirits, memories, hauntings, denials, or our personal stories of war, or our connections to victims, perpetrators, and everyone in between must be respected; collective processes of attempting to reconcile with a history of brutality cannot coerce, erase, or appropriate personal narratives. I want to address collective ghosts, if we can speak of such a thing.

 

My thoughts on this moment in – and making – history.

 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez ended his Nobel masterpiece with this:

 

“[Races] condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”.

 

This passage marked me; haunted me. It made me think, uncritically and pessimistically (as One Hundred Years is all about pessimism) that perhaps Colombia was condemned to war. From the genocide of the Indigenous peoples in the Spanish Conquests, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans brought to work in Colombia’s mines, the wars for the word (but not the true condition) of “independence”, and the later conflicts between various ruling parties (depicted in Colombia’s most well-known book) to the conflicts of the present, for the last 500 years, violence has been the norm and peace has been the exception. Peace has been an interruption.

 

Now peace with the most important insurgency in the country is within reach. A momentum is building behind peace that will hopefully make for a significant interruption.

 

It’s hard to say what “peace” is or what it can or will be. It is something that will have to be struggled, defended, questioned, and collectively built. However, it is clear to me what peace with this rebel group will not be.
Peace with the FARC will not mean justice for the over 7 million victims of Colombia’s internal conflict. It will probably not give new opportunities to the young rebels who were raised on waging war. It will not bring back the dead, the disappeared, or return the land to the dispossessed. It will not restore the ties of Afro-descendent/Black and Indigenous peoples to ancestral lands that have been severed by the conflict. It will not heal the injured or the maimed. It will not bring back the years lost for those kidnapped by the rebels. It will not bring truth, or any kind of agreement on what actually took place during the war. It will not mean peace with the other major insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). It will not mean peace with the drug cartels, nor peace with the paramilitaries/private armies of landed elites that displace peasants. It will not mean an end to the “Dirty War” of selective killings of labour union leaders, community leaders, dissidents, or activists; most of the nation will only come to know its  leaders through reports of their deaths, and not engagements with their lives. It will not mean peace with the violences of inequality, economic exploitation, nor land dispossession by the multinationals. It will not end Colombia’s rampant classist, sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic violences. It will not bring true democracy. And despite the undoubted prominence to come of this term if an agreement is reached, it will not bring reconciliation, and we will not all forgive each others’ atrocities.

 

 

A Colombia at peace with the FARC will only be a utopia in the marketing materials of the government to tourists and foreign investors.

 

Peace is not an answer. It may not even be an attainable or definable condition. However, if war has been the permanent answer that Colombia has had to many of its ills, peace can be an interrupting question.

 

Maybe – just maybe – some communities can – for the first time in over half a century – not wake up to another day of the horrors of of a conflict in which both sides wage war against them, and no side fights for them. For some communities, perhaps machine gun fire can abandon the soundscape, letting private whispers demanding justice to be cried out in plazas. Perhaps, for some, sophisticated American smart bombs and crude rebel landmines can stop dismembering bodies and communities. Perhaps womens’ bodies will no longer be soldiers’ spoils of war, objects attached to conquered territory. Perhaps “To Disappear” will be a verb with less currency in the popular lexicon. Perhaps some will no longer have to obey the gaze of the rifles. Perhaps, for some, declared neutrality or suspected partisanship will no longer invite destruction.

 

Perhaps the magnitude of risking one’s life will no longer be a spectre on the minutiae of necessary daily movements. Perhaps emptying territories of soldiers and rebels will allow communities to create ‘geographies without terror’. Perhaps some of the calm felt in the cities’ shopping malls and country clubs can leap through the social chasm to ‘The Other Colombia’, to the overexploited ruralities who have experienced the waves of massacres, bombings, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, militarized sexual violences forgotten or denied by the urban elite. Perhaps the urban elite can stop ‘discovering’ their own national geography by news of the most recent massacre in an otherwise forgotten and nameless small rural town. Perhaps we can begin to not only remember, but begin to know  these places by their names and complexities beyond the abjectivity of their tragedies. Perhaps comforting national narratives can be shaken by the impossibility of writing this history of war, perhaps – appropriately – history can become difficult to tell.

 

Maybe – just maybe – the entire country can follow the lead of many courageous movements and communities in the interminable work of demanding justice, of speaking of and to the unspeakable horrors, of confronting the incredibly present spectres of a past haunted by violence. Perhaps we can begin to engage our national ghosts. We may never exorcise all of them completely – nor should we; as memory can be act of resistance, and amnesia can dehumanize. But perhaps we can begin to learn how to live with our national ghosts, how to allow them to live with us. It will never be complete.

 

The armed conflict is irreducible to narratives, it is an extremely complex condition, however, these help motivate it. The war has not only produced hauntings, it has been produced by them.

 

Slavoj Zizek says that all revolutions attempt to redeem the ghosts of past failed revolutions.

 

The Marxist FARC insurgency has been haunted by the ghosts of dispossessed peasants and a repressed Left in the 40s. This spirit has been nourished by later State repression. The rebels’ religion of a people’s revolution against the owners and exploiters would be corrupted by the demons of drug trafficking, kidnapping,  human rights abuses, becoming more arrogant, and turning against the population they claimed to represent.

 

The State’s counter-insurgency is also motivated by spectres from Colombia, and from other lands. For Colombia’s patron, the United States, the spectre of another Cuban or Sandinista Revolution in “its backyard” is terrifying, abhorrent, unacceptable and impermissible. This spectre has gripped Bogota and Washington into a deep obsession: the aspirations of alternatives to their social orders were systematically disciplined by attacking the bodies who hold them. Rallying cries for change were muted by the roar of repression, imposing silences of terror. These suspicions continue today.

 

The peace process is trying to purge Colombia of these spirits. However, if they remain on the land, hungry enough, being able to feed on something, they may still haunt the future.

 

Therefore, perhaps this peace is an illusion; a disguise for a new war which is not yet visible. Maybe the foundational violences of colonialism and/or the social stratification of Colombian society will produce new militarized social, political or criminal conflicts. It could be that certain ghosts are not ready to be laid to rest. Perhaps Marquez is right about our condemnation to history.

 

As the great American street poet Tupac Shakur once said:

 

“We can’t have peace until we all get a piece”.

 

As they say, only time will tell. Hopefully the future will answer some of the questions of the past…(or better yet, question some of its answers).

 

Let me end by coming full circle with Gabo Marquez: One of the turning points in One Hundred Years of Solitude is the Banana Workers Massacre. This was an actual massacre that was perpetrated against a labour action by workers of the United Fruit Company in Colombia and between 3 and 3,000 people were killed in 1929. It is emblematic of a larger history  in Colombia of repressing organized labour through murder for the interests and designs of (usually foreign) capital. In Marquez’ fiction, only one member of the community knows about the massacre – everyone else in Macondo is told by the authorities that nothing happened. No one believes the survivor. Marquez himself has said that “perhaps only 3 or 4 people died”. Was it 3, or 3,000? Again, Marquez’s genius has much to teach the Colombian peace process. If war is a contest of soldiers, peace will be a contest of surviving memories. We may never have answers for our ghosts.

 

And like the silence in Macondo of the massacre, perhaps some stories will remain too true to tell………

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Colombia, English, Transitional Justice/Justicia Transicional

Government officials shook over Straight’s “sabotage” article

In British Columbia (which is on unceded indigenous territory), a conflict is stirring up about the nature of the Canadian economy, colonialism, the addiction of the world to oil, climate change, and who has what right over what land.

In #Canada, (like in #Colombia, although in a very different way), indigenous people are trying to defend their ancestral territories from the expansion of resource extraction projects. These projects are cornerstones of the national government’s energy strategies (to export Tar sands oil to Asian markets); they will also exacerbate climate change, and are a demonstration that displacement as development, and conflicts over land use and settler colonialism are also alive and well in the Global North.

The most acute conflict now is concerning Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline (among many others). A Joint Review Panel (JRP), which was criticized for having members stacked in favour of business, heard from thousands in various communities affected by the project, overwhelmingly in opposition to it. Nevertheless, the panel last month gave a tacit approval for the project, with 209 recommendations. The federal government now has to respond to the panel’s recommendation – however there is no doubting what Ottawa will decide as the government has been pushing for this project for a while now, a  part of a strategy to extract $250 billion worth of natural resources in the coming years. The vast majority of these resources are on the ancestral territory of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, who often see little wealth from these projects, but have their lands and traditional way of lives destroyed even further by their environmental effects (for example, not being able to hunt or fish).

The JRP’s report didn’t mention the constitutional land rights of First Nations, which will undoubtedly be the new site of conflict over this project. First Nations have a right to free, prior, and informed consent to projects on their lands or projects which will affect them and in British Columbia (where the pipeline will pass through), indigenous nations never ceded, sold, or gave up any of their territory to the Canadian state or any other government. Seeing as the government is bent on further shifting the Canadian economy to oil and natural resource exports, and diversifying the export market from the US, and First Nations groups are fully within their sovereign rights to reject this project, in the coming months the conflict over pipelines will no doubt escalate.

 

Warrior Publications

Government officials are clearly shook over the recent article published by Vancouver’s Georgia Straight concerning potential sabotage against the Enbridge pipeline.   That article, reposted on Warrior Publications, was entitled “Activists plot how to block new pipelines in BC.”   Although there have been many calls made for civil disobedience, this is one of the first major public discussions about the potential for sabotage actions against pipeline construction. 

View original post 683 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

FARC agreement: Colombia´s history of violence and failed agrarian reform

This is part two of three looking at last week’s so-called “historic” Agrarian Reform agreement between the FARC-EP and the Colombian  government as part of Peace talks in Havana. Here, I take a look at Colombia’s history of failed agrarian reforms. This was originally published on May 30, 2013 over at Colombia Politics.  If you want to know more, I strongly recommend that you check out this an analysis of land concentration in Colombia by Ana Maria Ibanez and Juan Carlos Munoz from the University of the Andes.

FARC agreement: Colombia´s history of violence and failed agrarian reform

Soldados de la Fuerza Tarea Omega patrullan y revisan hoy 6 de agosto del 2009 en las selvas de Vista Hermosa  Meta , uno de los campamentos del frente 27 de las FARC, en medio de la ofensiva del Ejercito Nacional por la captura del Mono Jojoy, miembro del secretariado de las FARC. FOTO MAURICIO MORENO EL TIEMPO

Colombia´s government has signed an agreement with FARC guerrillas for agrarian or rural reform as part of the peace process currently underway in Havana.

On Tuesday I looked at the detail behind this accord, today I turn to history for the lessons we can learn from failed attempts at land reform in Colombia.

Colombia´s land; in the hands of the few, not the many

Like in many other Latin American countries, or post-colonial oligarchies/plutocracies, the wealth that comes from the land has been violently concentrated through different processes (genocide of indigenous peoples, colonialism, the encomienda system, agrarian reforms gone awry, free trade agreements/neoliberalism, and of course armed counter-agrarian reform/socio-political violence) for the last 500 years or so.

For historical reasons and due to the armed violence, however, Colombian rural inequality is particularly stark. 

An astounding 52% of the land is owned by 1.15% of the population. The rural GINI coefficient (the standard measure for inequality among economists) is 0.85 (where a 1 means complete inequality/where one person owns everything). Only a fifth of the potentially productive land is actually being put to use.

Colombia is by no means a naturally unequal place. So, how did we get to to this point?

I don’t want to give a history lesson, but I think Sunday’s agreement between the FARC and the Santos Government is not just a deal within it itself, but represents a significant shift in a process of popular (often armed) mobilization for agrarian reform, and counter-mobilization and concentration by the elite.

This process refers not only to Colombia´s current violence (the 49 year long war and humanitarian disaster) but also a defining aspect of the entire way the nation has been organized since the encomienda.

The history of land concentration

Initially, land was organized around the idea of owning the land that one worked (or had workers on). Later, Spanish colonial government allowed private buyers to purchase government estates, and in 1821, the government allowed the direct transfer of public land into private hands.

Under the colonial regime, land belonging to the Church or to indigenous communities was nominally protected from colonization. However, these rights were abolished for indigenous reserves in 1810, and for the Church later on.

The legalization/formalization of uncultivated public land (baldios) was handled by a government who was (much like today’s Colombia) run exclusively by the elite, leading to the creation of even more large estates for the wealthy.

Land, as a way of avoiding taxes, fighting inflation, and building credit, made it an asset which was more valuable than just what it was able to produce, making it (like in most places) one of the most coveted assets by the elites, leaving little for the landless/popular classes.

The colonization of the Colombian territory saw small-scale peasant farmers pushed off their land, forced to move into more marginal areas which they would then make productive. The landed elites would then (often forcibly) push them off of this land, and in the process expanding their territory and further consolidating its ownership.

The peasants, now landless, would move deeper into the jungle/territory/mountains looking for land. This process to a certain extent still occurs today.

A peasants´ revolt?

By the 1920s, peasants organized themselves and went on the offensive. The elites in turn responded with more displacement. This social conflict resulted in the Agrarian Reform of 1936, which because of faulty implementation (and Colombia being a Plutocracy), resulted in the formalization of property again benefiting the elites.

The Landed Oligarchy, sick of having to deal with subversive peasants, also looked for ways of making the land productive by having more capital than labour, leading to the rise of cattle-ranching.

The class warfare was only exacerbated by La Violencia  the civil war between the two political factions representing different sectors of the elite (the Liberals and the Conservatives). Forced displacement became an extremely common practice, and the standard method for resolving disputes over land given the general absence of the state in many rural or peripheral areas of the national territory.

In response to this crisis, in 1961 President Carlos Lleras Restrepo attempted a land reform through Law 135. Nevertheless, again, formalization and the granting of public land led to more concentration.

Only 1 per cent of the land was expropriated from the elite, and most of what was expropriated was poor or low-quality land. Ironically, as the government was promoting land reform, it was simultaneously giving large land owners the benefit of subsidies and tax incentives to increase production, increasing the value of their land, and making expropriation more difficult.

Rise of the narco-bourgeousie

From the 1970s to 1984, the rise of the “narco-bourgeousie” and their desire for land led to the decomposition of large estates, and the consolidation of medium-sized ones.

But while the armed counter-agrarian reform of the expansion of paramilitarism, as well as the booming cocaine industry which laundered much of its wealth in large estates reversed this trend, it also introduced drug trafficking into the historical trend of violent conflict between peasants and landed oligarchs.

In 1994, President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo tried another land reform with Law 160. Instead of focusing on formalization or expropriating land from the elite and redistributing it to the peasantry, however, it worked on the transfer of property through market mechanisms, where by the government would supposedly subsidize 70% of land bought by peasants from land owners.

However, as is evidenced by the case of the women of the Enchanted Valley, a group of displaced women who tried to purchase some land through this scheme and are now not only menaced by armed groups but also by debt collectors, the deal was only real in the halls of power in Bogota.

Paramilitarism resulted in the violent expropriation of 1.8 million hectares of land, or 2.5 times more land that had been re-distributed through the latest agrarian reform.

How different will the FARC, Santos Government reform be? 

The Agrarian Reform thrashed out in Havana runs the risk of not being very different from previous failures. This is particularly true of  how the process of “formalizing” land title (as the current agreement with the FARC seeks to do) usually is used by rural elites for their favour, and not for landless peasants.

But this reform forms part of a larger peace deal which is suppose to be transformative for Colombian society, and so the stakes are higher.

Have Paramilitaries entered where the state hasn´t bothered to go? 

Sure the “New Colombian Countryside” deal sounds promising, but will it run the same risk as the 2011 Victim’s Law (Law 1488)?

Countless courageous community leaders in places like El Choco and Cordoba have been threatened or murdered by neo-paramilitary groups simply for advocating for their land rights.

In Cordoba, there is even a neo-paramilitary group that has deemed itself the “Anti-Restitution Army“.

This resurgence of armed agrarian counter-reform (or perhaps, a consolidation that already took place during the height of the AUC paramilitaries), shows that when it comes to land in “The Other Colombia”, not much has changed in 100 or even 200 years.

The government´s apparently noble policy of trying to help the most disenfranchised in Colombian society is fine, but both the fact that the State is co-opted by the elite, and that the state has no little to no legitimate presence beyond the military in “The Other Colombia”, means it has neither the mandate, authority, or capacity to carry out these reforms.

The State can’t re-distribute land in places it has never bothered to show up for.

Leave a comment

Filed under English, The Peace Talks