Tag Archives: Inequality

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………

 

 

 

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Filed under Colombia, English, Transitional Justice/Justicia Transicional

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.

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Colombia-FARC Land Reform; in whose interests?

The third and final part of a series I did critically analyzing the Agrarian Reform agreement that came out of the peace talks in Havana between the FARC-EP and the government of Colombia. This was originally published on Saturday, June 1st over at Colombia Politics. 

I also thought it was important to add on a bit about the Zonas de Reserva Campesina/the Autonomous Peasant Zones, to contrast the deal between the government and the rebels with a peasant perspective.

Colombia FARC land reform; in whose interests?

farm

Colombia´s government and the rebel guerrilla group the FARC last week signed an historic agreement on land reform as part of the peace processs currently underway in Havana, Cuba. Over the last few days I have looked at the detail of this agreement and analysed the historical context of previous violent and failed attempts at land reform in Colombia. This third article looks at the possible interests at work behind this reform.

So whose interests does this reform serve?

Supporters are correct, this reform would never be able to pass in Colombia’s extremely conservative, oligarchic, co-opted, and paramilitarized democracy.

For some, this negotiation represents an opportunity for a social transformation that is as necessary as it is impossible in Colombia’s political system.

Of course the ultimate goal of the talks in Havana is a demobilization of the guerrilla force, but the FARC did not appear out of thin air, and they are the (some would say misguided/arrogant) product of centuries of marginalization of the peasantry.

So will the Agrarian Reform not only reform land, but the power relationships which keep the Colombian peasantry in a state of displacement and exploitation?

Economic Interests

Firstly, the deal says that land will not be taken from those who have acquired their land “legitimately”. But…

Much of the violently expropriated land has the paperwork to prove its legality; the former AUC paramilitary leader Vicente Castaño´s African Palm Oil cultivations, for example.

And the logic of this reform is contradictory. It assumes the “legal” concentration of land (which even before paramilitarism, and even La Violencia, was soaked in violence) is some how ethical or tolerable.

The government will not go after land owners who have gained their wealth “honestly”, but this surely goes against the philosophy of the President’s landmark Victim’s Law which has a reverse onus of proof (the land owner has to prove that the land was acquired through legal means).

Agrarian Reform for me will also have very little impact when we consider the rise of Free Trade Agreements, which appear to be the new economic threat to the Colombian peasantry.  Colombian exports to the US have already decreased, but Colombian imports from the US have increased.

How is the Colombian peasant supposed to compete against heavily subsidized Canadian, American, and European agricultural goods?

How is the Colombian peasant supposed to protect their land from Canadian, American, and British mining corporations?

The answer is that he is “encouraged” to become a part of agribusiness.

The Agrarian Reform promotes a more “productive” countryside and  food security” but it says nothing of food sovereignty which the Colombian peasant movement has been struggling for.

For whom is the countryside supposed to be more “productive”? Who will gain – rural Colombians, the majority of whom live in poverty, or European, American, and Canadian consumers of coffee, roses, bananas, and palm oil?

One of Colombia´s leading political publications La Silla Vacia argues:

“Agribusiness will win because – if one day these accords are implemented – there will finally be a real land market in Colombia, something vital for global competitiveness”.

A reform for the few not the many, but why?

So if the reform instead of being transformative is in fact for the benefit of the business class why was this?

I believe it is a question of democracy, representation and power.

First – the only people who get heard are those at the table.

The FARC leadership is represented by Ivan Marquez, Pablo Catatumbo, and Andres Paris, among others, while the government has brought together the Bogota elite, with former Vice-President, Supreme Court Magistrate, and architect of the 1991 constitution Humberto De La Calle; Sergio Jaramillo, who was Santos’ right-hand man as Defence Minister and is seen as one of the chief planners behind Uribe’s “Democratic Security” counter-terrorism strategy; Oscar Naranjo and Jorge Mora, representing the Police and the Army, respectively; and of course, Luis Carlos Villegas, President of the National Association of Entrepreneurs, who’s daughter had once been kidnapped by the FARC.

So, who is not at the table?

Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, displaced people, people representing victims´ groups, the peasantry, working people, women, refugees, youth/former forced combatants, and most importantly  people representing the communities which still live under the occupation of the FARC guerrillas. In short anyone that either doesn’t represent the Colombian political and economic establishment, the State institutions of violence, or armed rebels.

Santos and the FARC really don’t have any broad support.

Meanwhile the true holders of power when it comes to the land issue is the landed elite represented by the association of cattle-ranchers, FEDEGAN, and their President Jose Felix LaFaurie, and, of course Alvaro Uribe. But Uribe, LaFaurie, and the uribista land-owning class have vehemently opposed the talks, let alone influence the decisions made at the table.

So at the peace table, no one really has any legitimate mandate to say anything on behalf of “Colombians”.

Sure, civil society has been “consulted” within the peace process, having the opportunity to send in proposals to the negotiators online, through forums in the capital, or regional initiatives for peace, but is this anything more than just tokenism?

There is talk of the FARC wanting to create a Popular Assembly to ratify any Peace Agreement, while the government says it is committed to holding a referendum, but even this does not give the Colombian people a proper voice. The choice will be a false one. Either support an imposed peace or we´re going back to war.

Colombian peasants however, understand the deep contradictions within the process and are actively struggling to change it.

The agreement seeks to “invigorate” the Zonas de Reserva Campesina, “Peasant Reserve Zones”, areas which peasant lands were to be protected from activities detrimental to the small-scale land economy such as mono-cultives, mining, and the concentration of land. So far there are only 6 in the country, and the Minister of Agriculture Luis Camilo Restrepo has criticized them as “little independent republics”. Under Uribe, they were stigmatized as “zones of subversion”.

The Association representing the zones and 50 peasant organizations across the country, ANZORC, held a national conference with thousands of peasants in San Vicente del Caguan (site of the failed 1998-2002 negotiatons with the FARC), in which they elaborated their visions for their own future concerning mining and energy policy, coca eradication and crop substitution, the financing of their economic plans, and their relationship to international development organizations. They invited government representatives to their policy conference, and tried to connect with Havana through the internet, hoping to be heard at the negotiating table. The FARC were present as unfortunately, these zones are in areas that have traditionally been under guerrilla control. They are also asking for political and cultural recognition of their communities, autonomy so they can manage them, and for a consideration of alternative forms of economic development. ANZORC has also emphasized that they do not want hand-outs/”assistencialism”, but instead they want the power to make decisions over their own development.

An historic agreement after all?

The Agrarian Reform agreement may indeed be historic. It is a positive sign that this time around the FARC are serious about a negotiated settlement.

The true root causes of the conflict – the relationship between the different classes of Colombia to land, and of that tension to armed violence – however, has only been partially addressed.

The voices of those most affected haven’t really been heard at the table.

The government and an echo chamber of journalists, pundits, politicians, and others are claiming that this will be a sustainable solution to the issue at the root of social and political conflict in Colombia.Yet it seems that this agreement is far from transformative – it does not subvert how power works in Colombia, but instead reinforces it.

The government, through the negotiations in Havana, represents those Colombians who apparently are the only ones who have ever mattered in its eyes – those with land or guns.

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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.

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

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

delacalle Chief government negotiator Humberto De La Calle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasons for optimism?

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

Concessions from the FARC?

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

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

Is peace near?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon is the owner of the website The Banana Plutocracy

Photo, El Tiempo

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War, Autocracy, Peace and Revolution – The Legacy of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías in Colombia and Venezuela

Nor Saint, Nor Demon: The Price of a Bolivarian Revolution

“To those who wish me death, I wish long life so that they can witness the progress of the Bolivarian revolution” –Hugo Chávez Frías

“As he went on telling me about his life, I started to discover a character that did not at all correspond with the image of the despot that has been formed by the media. This was another Chávez. Which of the two is real?” – Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This is a two-in-one post; the first analyzes the good, the bad, and the ugly of Chávez regime from my perspective and tries to complicate both his demonization by the powers that be and his romanticization by progressives. The second piece looks at how he has in a paradoxical fashion both exacerbated the armed conflict in Colombia, and towards the end of his life, facilitated it’s forthcoming end.

Yesterday, at 4:25pm PST, (Vice)-President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, announced that after a 20 month struggle with cancer, President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías passed away in a military hospital. Maduro has called on the army, who is arguably more in hands the of Diosdello Cabello than the Venezuelan government, to go into the streets to keep the peace and has called for “unity”. Elections have been confirmed to take place in 30 days, as outlined in the Venezuelan constitution (which Chávez changed). Given ambiguity around whether or not Chávez was officially sworn in as President and whether that matters, some are saying that it should be Cabello and not Maduro, who should be interim President.

This situation is a emotional, and political powderkeg waiting to blow. I think a call to calm is wise; for example a Colombian journalist from RCN, an Colombian establishment news channel was yesterday brutally beaten outside of the military hospital where Chávez died, as she was associated with the opposition. Colombian newspapers such as El Espectador have already published a letter of condolences and adulation from the FARC, Gabriel García Marquez wrote a lengthy profile in hommage to his friend, and statements by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were rejected as “insensitive” by the Venezuelan government.

Arguably, Chávez was one of the most transformative and controversial figures in Latin American politics in the last decade. Other than Uribe, I cannot think of a figure that has more dramatically changed a country in Latin America, for better or for worse, than him.

Before proceeding however, I must acknowledge three things. Firstly, Hugo Chávez was the father of four children.
He was married several times, and is a son. Yesterday, a country with an intense and possibly explosive political situation lost a central figure, and a human being lost his life to cancer at the tender age of 58. Uribista, Caprilista, antichavista, or not, a death is nothing to celebrate.

Secondly, I am Colombian. Although growing up we have all been socialized into recognizing Venezuela as our pueblo hermano (our brother people), I do not know what it was like to live under the, some would say dictatorship, of Chávez. Colombians, from ex-Senator, Human Rights activist, and ultra-chavista Piedad Córdoba Ruíz, and archenemies of Chávez such as the Ex-President himself Alvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombians do not speak with one voice about Chávez. I just want to recognize my positionality as an outsider and recognize that I am speaking as myself and not for Colombia, although both countries’ destinies are to a certain extent tied to each other. Given how his personality and controversial statements captivated the attention of the American media, I suspect much of the coverage will be foreign. I would love to hear some Venezuelan voices, both anti-Chávez and pro, particularly in English.

Thirdly, on social networks, the mainstream media, and the blogosphere, particularly in the region, this story will be the ‘flavour’ of the month and eclipse all other news. Chávez’s death is a watershed movement, and a time to reflect on his significance, but although the media’s gaze may exclusively or disproportionately focus on his death, we can’t forget that the daily structural violences and oppressions against many Venezuelans, Colombians, Latin Americans, and people all over the world in a myriad of different contexts. For one instance, the FARC throw 3 bombs at a Police station in Chocó tonight where the governor called on the President to make security an urgent priority.

Chávez In Context

Both for Venezuela and for the region at large, Chavez was an individual with a mixed record, and a very polarizing and divisive one at that. For some he was a Dictator who ran Venezuela into the ground, especially in terms of security. For others, he was a revolutionary figure who represented the beginning of a progressive era, and the end of  the Venezuelan petro-oligarchy. He was, and in my view will always be, remembered as either The Devil for conservative segments of society, or the Saviour for progressives and popular sectors.  The editor of the Colombia Politics,  who is by no stretch of the imagination Pro-Chavez, says it best:

It would be churlish to argue that nothing Chávez did had any merit. It would be churlish too to ignore his popularity in certain sections of Venezuelan society. He won 8 million votes last year – sure not all of them were won openly and fairly, but win them he did.

Yes, Chávez´s Venezuela played host to many of the FARC guerrillas, and the accusations of complicity of his government in acts of terrorism are well documented, but it is an undeniable truth that Chávez´s leadership was key to getting the rebels to the table in Havana.

and another quotable from Greg Gandin over at the Nation

There’s been great work done on the ground by scholars such as Alejandro Velasco, Sujatha Fernandes, Naomi Schiller and George Ciccariello-Maher on these social movements that, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere. One study found that organized Chavistas held to “liberal conceptions of democracy and held pluralistic norms,” believed in peaceful methods of conflict resolution and worked to ensure that their organizations functioned with high levels of “horizontal or non-hierarchical” democracy. What political scientists would criticize as a hyper dependency on a strongman, Venezuelan activists understand as mutual reliance, as well as an acute awareness of the limits and shortcomings of this reliance.

As Grandin continues, Venezuela was an urbanized, socially poor, unequal petro-state which had to submit itself to the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), exacerbating a regional populist sentiment that has its roots in the Cuban revolution, the assasinations of Leftist leaders such as Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Torrijos in Panama, Gaitan in Colombia, and Allende in Chile which forever radicalized the Latin American Left. Chávez, as a military man attempted a coup, failed, was jailed, and became a martyr. In 1998 his Movimiento V República brought him to the Presidency, under which he began implementing his socialism of the 21st century or Bolivarian socialism.

Chávez did not establish a one-party rule, throughout his tenure he faced 13 elections of which we won over 10. He rather used petro-dollars to establish patronage networks instead of dealing with corruption, and arguably like Uribe with his community councils, established a consultative, open, albeit chaotic form of grassroots and citizen-centred democracy that helped create a political space for the lower-classes, something that had been absent during the two-party rule of the oligarchy beforehand.

Nevertheless, Chávez critics are not only discontent plutocrats with a political agenda, but local activists and notably, Human Rights Watch (HRW). Progressives and leftists can sympathize which Chávez raw, outspoken, and colourful criticisms of the United States and the powers that have traditionally governed and owned much of Latin America; nevertheless, just because the man talked a good talk does not excuse him from the same ethical and moral considerations of any other leader. As HRW outlines, the Chávez regime curtailed freedom of the press, stacked the judiciary, and rejected the Inter-American Human Rights system of the OAS:

In 2004, Chávez and his followers in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, adding 12 seats to what had been a 20-seat tribunal, and filling them with government supporters. The packed Supreme Court ceased to function as a check on presidential power. Its justices have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and pledged their commitment to advancing Chávez’s political agenda. This commitment has been reflected in the court’s rulings, which repeatedly validated the government’s disregard for human rights.

After Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, an opposition politician, appeared on Globovisión’s main political talk show in March 2010 and commented on allegations of increased drug trafficking in Venezuela and a Spanish court ruling that referred to possible collaboration between the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas, Basque separatists, and other “terrorist” groups, Chávez responded in a national broadcast that these comments “could not be permitted” and called on other branches of government “to take action.” Two weeks later, Álvarez Paz was arrested on grounds that his “evidently false statements” had caused “an unfounded fear” in the Venezuelan people. Álvarez Paz remained in pretrial detention for almost two months and was then granted conditional liberty during his trial, which culminated in July 2011 with a guilty verdict and a two-year prison sentence. The judge allowed Álvarez Paz to serve his sentence on conditional liberty, but prohibited him from leaving the country without judicial authorization.

In a similar vein, Chávez regime was characterized by rising inflation, food shortages, and one of the most extreme deteriorations of security in the region. After Chávez, Venezuela became much more dangerous than Colombia and Caracas had one of the highest murder rates in the world.

InSight Crime analysis, a think tank focusing on violence and organized crime in the region, argues that the security crisis in Venezuela is due to a complex of factors, but is mostly driven by the international drug trade (read= a transit point for Colombia cocaine), the fact that local elites on the Venezuelan and Colombian borders have taken control  of the border, which is de-facto run by (neo)paramilitaries, cartels, and the FARC and the ELN guerrillas.

As The Economist points out, Chávez could be considered an ‘elected autocracy’; he had his own militia of 125,000 soldiers.Although a centre-right and neoliberal-oriented paper who’s political bias needs to take in consideration, The Economist also provides some food for thought in juxtaposition to Grandin’s analysis:

Foreign leftist academics claimed that all this added up to an empowering “direct democracy”, superior to the incipient welfare state set up by Latin America’s social democratic governments. But to others, it looked like a top-down charade of participation, in which all power lay with the president.

Behind the propaganda, the Bolivarian revolution was a corrupt, mismanaged affair. The economy became ever more dependent on oil and imports. State takeovers of farms cut agricultural output. Controls of prices and foreign exchange could not prevent persistent inflation and engendered shortages of staple goods. Infrastructure crumbled: most of the country has suffered frequent power cuts for years. Hospitals rotted: even many of the missions languished. Crime soared: Caracas is one of the world’s most violent capitals. Venezuela has become a conduit for the drug trade, with the involvement of segments of the security forces.

Mr Chávez’s supreme political achievement was that many ordinary Venezuelans credited him with the handouts and did not blame him for the blemishes. They saw him as one of them, as being on their side. His supporters, especially women, would say: “This man was sent by God to help the poor”. He had llanero wit and charm, and an instinctive sense of political opportunity.

The paper has also argued that Chávez disdain for the private sector has contributed to the growing inflation and food shortages in Venezuela. At the same time, Venezuela’s oil money  helped finance social programs that reduced inequality and poverty in the country. For example, in 2011 the UN Economic Comission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated  that Venezuela has the third lowest poverty rate in Latin America, at 27% compared to Colombia’s 45% (this was using Colombia’s old poverty measurement scheme which has since been changed in 2012). Extreme poverty  during Chávez’ ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ was reduced from 22% to 10%.

Although in places like Colombia, Central America, South Africa, which have both some of the highest GINI coefficients and murder rates in the world, there is assumed to be a correlation between inequality and violence. In Bolivarian Venezuela, there is the paradox of plummeting inequality and poverty with skyrocketing violence. 


Indeed, it seemed as though Chávez completed his goal of creating a more inclusive and equal Venezuela, but at the price of letting security deteriorate. Another important point to emphasize is that, especially during the elections, many Venezuelans were more concerned with what as termed as many in the media as the  ‘Colombianization’ of the Venezuelan security situation than with the political repression that is emphasized by northern Human rights groups. Others, such as self-identified member of the Venezuelan oligarchy Vanessa Neumann, argue that the social gains are typical of an oil boom, and that if anything, Chávez’ bold Bolivarian socialism has exacerbated the economic crises faced by Venezuelans.

Chávez was, indeed, loved by his people. In 2002, when the oligarchy tried to overthrow him through an illegal coup/golpe de estado, it was his supporters from the barrios who poured out into the streets of Caracas who arguably saved his government. Nevertheless, Chávez opponents also came from the grassroots, and not just the elite. When he refused to renew the license of one of the last independent TV stations in Venezuela, Radio Caracas/RCTV, University students very cleverly staged protests which arguably led to one of Chávez’s few electoral defeats; at one point the regime even tried to buy the students out, and threatened their families, but they would not cave. A must-read account of this is Will Dobson’s  account of the Caracas student movement.

Opponents of Chávez, particularly within the Latin American oligarchies and in Canada and the United States, need to check themselves and recognize how dangerously parallel some of their language is to the blatantly ideological and McCarthy-esque discourse of Western governments towards progressive movements in Latin America that threaten the investment climate. Chávez did close democratic space, but he is not Stalin, and to make equivalent comparisons is to impose on Venezuela a a false narrative reminiscent of the Cold War which is employed within the Western media for very particular purposes. If opponents to Chávez in the West, in my view, truly wanted to create a productive and constructive criticism of him, they may have done better to question his support of the Colombian guerrillas.

My final reflection on Chávez’ impact on Venezuela is that yes, the fact that he was so unapologetic and boldly socialist and anti-imperalist did led to a satanization of him within the Western media. There is little that Hugo Chávez had done that can’t be found in a nations that the West/countries like the United States and Canada call ‘allies’ (Saudi Arabia, Israel, even Colombia just to start). However, just because Chávez was demonized and his political language was a useful and bold critique for the Latin American Left against imperialism, I would caution progressives not to romanticize him. I, like many Colombians, agree with several of the FARC’s criticisms of neoliberalism and its effects on Colombian culture, the news media, the oligarchy, the crimes against humanity committed by the state, and the government itself (parapolitica). Like many self-identified progressives, I think that Chávez sensational yet poignant critiques of US imperialism, militarism, market economics, the banana, oil, coca, and mineral plutocracy that became Latin America, and his efforts to make Venezuela a more inclusive and more equal society in a region that has in many ways not changed much since the colonial era, are extremely interesting if not useful. Yet, something in my gut tells me that I just cannot call myself a chavista or a guerrillero. True criticism of the powers that be need to  whole heartedly reject both state power and militarism; you cannot destroy the master’s house with his tools. Chávez lack of leadership, autocracy, tolerance of the FARC, repression of political opposition does not make him a dictator, but it shows that the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ came at a high, high price for many Venezuelans.

Creating Crisis, Building Trust, Leaving Uncertainty: The Impact of Hugo Chávez on the Civil War and Peace Process in Colombia

Colombia proposes to go before the International Criminal Court and denounce Hugo Chávez for the financing and support of genocidal armed groups” –Ex-President Alvaro Uribe

The best thing that Colombia can do to honour Chávez’s legacy is to see the success of the peace talks” – Current President Juan Manuel Santos

Uribe and Chávez pretending to play nice.

Chávez’s mark on Colombia can be neatly summarized by some of the most highly mediatized events in recent history in the region. Firstly, the acuerdo humanitario (or humanitarian exchange). This was a deal under which the FARC-EP would hand over kidnapped Colombian police officers, military servicemen, politicians, civilians, journalists etc. in exchange for the release of FARC-EP members imprisoned by the Colombian government (who they considered “political prisoners”). The second is the 2008 and 2010 Andean Political Crisises in which Venezuela and Colombia almost went to war, and the third, and in my view, most important, is the current peace talks in Havana between the government and the FARC-EP.

To give a bit of context: From 2002-2010, Alvaro Uribe was President of Colombia. Uribe is accused of having ties to right-wing paramilitaries and very clearly represents the land-owning elite and a socially conservative and neoliberal segment of the regional elite who has deep distaste for the guerrillas and Lefty populism, and a tolerance, at times promotion of anti-insurgent violence. Uribe, who was a personal friend and close ally of George W. Bush, re-built the Colombian army with funds from Clinton’s Plan Colombia, and opened the country to foreign investment. Clearly, not Chávez’s favourite Colombian president.

Humanitarian Exchange and Chávez’s cozy relationship with the FARC

Nevertheless, for the humanitarian cause of ‘rescuing’ or ‘liberating’ abducted people in the hands of the guerrillas, Uribe recognized that Chávez, and ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba (a human rights defender or a guerrilla sympathizer, again, depending on who you ask) had the trust of the guerrillas. Córdoba, one of the most forceful critics of the Uribe government, proposed to Chávez to mediate the liberations between Uribe and the FARC. In a rare instance of cross-partisan and ideological cooperation, Chávez, Córdoba and Uribe cooperated in coordinating liberations with the FARC. Of course, no matter what your political stripe or intention is, images of  ‘innocent’ soldiers and civilians being liberated from the hands of ‘terrorists’ wins everyone political points.

The concept of  ‘humanitarian exchange’ was nothing new, and it was an idea actually proposed by the guerrillas and not the government, who throughout the 90s had kidnapped civilians en masse in an effort to both rock the Colombian establishment, and to build political bargaining chips to liberate some of their troops in Colombian jails.

However, due to politics, miscommunications, only Clara Rojas, a former Vice-Presidential candidate kidnapped in 2002 was freed in 2007. Around the same time, Uribe called off mediaton with Chávez, beginning the souring of relations between the two.

Often in his speeches, Chávez has supported the FARC’s ideology, but he has also called on them to turn to the ballot over the bullet for their revolution. When Alfonso Cano became the Chief of the FARC Secretariat, he called on him to release all abductees. However, when Manuel Marulanda Vélez, alias “Sure Shot”, the historical leader of the FARC was killed, a statue of him was erected in the main Plaza in Caracas, causing outrage in Colombia. Chávez, as the Colombian government has often pointed out with satellite evidence, has for a long time been willingly providing a safe haven for the FARC and ELN guerrillas in Venezuela. Chávez has also made contradictory statements about the FARC, saying he does not support their armed struggled, but that one of the key FARC commanders, Raul Reyes, spent a night at the Venezuelan Presidential Palace on his invitation, and that they ended up talking “for an entire night”.

The Andean Political Crisis – Chasing ‘Terrorists’, Violating Sovereignty

In 2008, Uribe had had enough of the FARC enjoying a sanctuary in the neighbouring country, and along with the then Defence Minister and now President Juan Manuel Santos, decided to blatantly violate Ecuadorean sovereignty by bombing a FARC camp 1800 metres deep into the Ecuadorean side of the border. The Ecuadoreans had been given no notice of the operation, or that Colombia had reasons to suspect that the FARC were in Ecuador (although this was somewhat of an open secret in both Quito and Venezuela). 17-22 ‘terrorists’ were killed in addition to one of the top leaders of the FARC, Raul Reyes, as well as 4 Mexican university students and an Ecuadorean who were being held hostage in the camp.

Laptops retrieved from the camps would later reveal that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Chávez had, to put it politely, cozy relations with the FARC (the guerrillas were treated as diplomats in both capitals). Quito and Caracas would later claim that this was to advance negotiations for peace and the humanitarian exchange. Some of the documents which point towards ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba as a guerrilla supporter have been questioned by Colombian legal authorities, as many of them were on Word Documents that ‘anyone’ (the Colombian authorities) could edit. Later there would even be questions about Chávez, either by omission or comission, facilitating the arming of the FARC, including giving them Venezuelan rocket launchers.

This crisis led to the breaking of diplomatic relations between the three countries, a war of words between Uribe, Chávez and Correa. Then, Hugo Chávez, on state television over the phone, claiming a need to defend Venezuela’s sovereignty against the ‘paramilitary’ Uribe, ordered 10 batallions to the Colombian-Venezuelan border as if he was ordering take-out. For many Colombians, yours truly included,  we knew of many Colombians who did business in Venezuela that quickly had to leave (After the US, Venezuela is Colombia’s largest trading partner), and it looked like Venezuela and Colombia were going to war.

The Colombian Defence Minister would later apologize for violating Ecuador’s sovereignty.

The crisis ended symbolically at the Río Summit in the Dominican Republic a short time afterwards, in which the President of the DR asked Chávez, Correa and Uribe to shake hands in a gesture of Andean fraternity. Afterwards, Chávez retreated his troops from the border and declared the crisis over.

This would not be the last crisis between Venezuela and Colombia. During the last days of Uribe’s tenure in the summer 2010, during a summit of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Colombian Ambassador to the OAS, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, gave a presentation, visuals and all, in which he affirmed that Colombia could prove the presence of the FARC and ELN in both Venezuela and Ecuador. Venezuela again cut off diplomatic relations. Uribe would later say that he was fully intending on “intervening militarily” against the FARC in the bordering nation. Thankfully though, after some clever diplomacy by Brazil, and the fact that Uribe’s term would be up in a few weeks, this episode didn’t escalate like in 2008.

The Peace Process in Havana – An Uncertain Future

Since taking office, Juan Manuel Santos has re-established diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and tried to create a more conciliatory and less combative personal relationship with Chávez. For example, Santos gave to Venezuela Reyes’ laptops. This dramatic change in Colombian policy towards Venezuela provoked Uribe to call Santos a traitor. Nevertheless, this could have been seen as a pragmatic move by Santos to reverse the regional isolation Colombia experienced under Uribe, and to establish a rapport with Caracas that would be necessary for the eventual peace negotiations with the FARC.

Among with Chile, Cuba, and Norway, Venezuela is one of the “guarantor” countries for the process, and Chávez, given his close relationship with the FARC, played a key role in convincing the FARC to trust the government in preliminary talks. For example, former Colombian President and client of the Rodriguez-Orejuela/The Cali Cartel, Ernesto Samper says that Colombia has much to thank to Chávez for helping brokering peace. The Colombian state also has a mixed record on how it treats demobilized armed groups, from letting some exercise political office, to perpetrating genocide against others. The main role of Venezuela, and especially Chávez given his personal rapport with the FARC leadership, would have been to guarantee  the trust and respect of both parties in an eventual demobilization i.e. convince the FARC that they would not be slaughtered after putting down their arms, as the wounds of previous campaigns against left-wing politicians are still very fresh.

(L) Commander of the Caribbean Bloc of the FARC and delegate to the peace talks, Iván Marquez, (centre), President Chávez, (R) Former Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba

Santos was elected as on the credentials of the (perceived) success of Uribe’s counterinsurgency ‘Democratic Security’ policy. He was supposed to be a continuation of (militarily) ending the FARC. However, Santos chose to walk through his own path by reconciling Colombia with Venezuela and choosing to talk peace with the FARC. Politically, Santos cannot afford to be perceived by the Uribista segments of Colombian society (who are still very powerful in the business sector, the media, shaping public opinion) as ‘soft’ on terror. Therefore, even before and during the peace talks, Santos had to keep the FARC’s feet to the fire and kept the intensity of the military campaign; the government has refused to enter into a ceasefire with the guerrillas, even when they declared a unilateral truce. By the same token, last year, when the preliminary talks were still being negotiated in secret from the entire country, Santos took the extremely difficult decision of giving the order to kill Guillermo Leon Saenz (or Alfonso Cano) the then de-facto head of the FARC. Even after having their main leader killed, the FARC’s trust in the peace process, and in the government, did not falter, showing a very different change in attitude and a deep willingness to have the process succeed this time around. Chávez role both in public and in private in mediating these extremely difficult situations between two parties that who’s relationship has been based on mutual distrust of almost five decades, exacerbated by the ‘War on Terror’-esque policies  and demonization of Alvaro Uribe, cannot be understated.

Perhaps Chávez, after Uribe’s presidency, recognized that the FARC was a spent force and the best way to save face his support for them would be to play the role of peace broker. Perhaps he was genuinely convinced that democracy, and not  ‘la lucha armada’/the armed struggle was the only legitimate way for progressives to take power in neighbouring Colombia. Only time will tell if Chávez will be remembered/understood/constructed in Colombia as the man who helped bring peace instead of continuing to support the ‘export’ of the socialist project, or if his support for the rebels will continue to be what defines his image in the brother republic.

As the dynamic and independent journalists of the progressive and alternative news media, La Silla Vacia/The Empty Seat said, three possible impacts of this death have been identified by Colombian analysts. One, Maduro wins the upcoming elections and the peace process moves forward as planned. Two, the divisions within the Chavista regime harden, and Maduro pressures the FARC to sign a peace deal in order to quickly get rid one of the Venezuelan government’s priorities and focus on consolidating his power or in turn, Maduro puts consolidating his power first and Venezuela becomes less active in the process or three,  the most unlikely yet not unplausible scenario of the opposition winning the upcoming elections, and the hard-liner Chavistas looking towards the FARC as a form of armed resistance within Venezuela. It’s also important to note that for the Leftist governments of Correa and Venezuela, the FARC were somewhat of a liability as they served as pre-text for an ongoing American military presence on their borders; no more FARC would mean no more Plan Colombia.

Although every diagnosis of the peace process has a political agenda behind it, it seems that generally the talks in Havana are on a steady path to bringing the beginning of the end of 49 years of relentless suffering due to armed violence. Nevertheless, it is unclear what Maduro’s role will be in supporting the talks. Moreover, if elections are to occur in 30 days in Venezuela, the charismatic and centre-right Henrique Capriles Radonski becoming President is unlikely but completely possible. What would an anti-leftist, and undoubtedly Anti-FARC Venezuela mean for a peace process brokered by the rapport Chávez had with both Bogotá and the armed Marxists? If Chávez death brings anything to Colombia, it is an aura of uncertainty to the peace process.

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“It’s Colombia, Not Columbia” Viral Campaign – Positivity as propaganda?

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I recently noticed that a viral campaign called “It’s Colombia, Not Columbia”, started by a digital social media firm Zemoga and its Vice-President Carlos Pardo,  has taken the Colombian community on Facebook and Twitter by storm.  The campaign received a nod over at the Huffington Post, recognition by CNN,  has been endorsed by ultra-famous Colombian investigative Journalist Guillermo Prieto better known as “Pirry”, and has already come out with it’s own line of T-shirts.

It’s a positive development not only that our non-Colombian friends will be aware of the spelling mistake which irks all Colombians everywhere, but that young, dynamic, and social media savvy Colombians are trying to reject the negative and ignorant stereotypes that have far too-long defined the country internationally.

Much of what the campaign is espousing is true – both in terms of security and poverty reduction, Colombia has made huge gains in the last 20 or so years. The heart of the campaign has an extremely noble intention – showing the “good” side of Colombia, so that we can be known for our wonderful singers, artists, writers, and people trying to build peace instead of our drug traffickers and warlords. And (painfully) slowly, Colombia is indeed overcoming it’s negative legacy. The Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s had over half of its people in poverty (or at least how the government measures it), that number has gone down to a third today. In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) considered Colombia the world’s most violent country and it was spoke of in diplomatic circles as a “failed state” in the same breath as Somalia and the DRC are today. 2012, by contrast, saw one of the lowest murder rates in almost 30 years.  Also worth nothing, as Pardo himself mentions, Medellín, the 2nd largest city, went from being the murder capital of the world in 1993  to last year being voted one of the most “innovative” cities in the world.

The campaign is humble, and sensitive to the fact that far too many of us, and our family members, have very fresh wounds from the peaks of violence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Pardo says that he does not want to “deny Colombia’s reality or its past but we do want to concentrate on the good things.”

Problemas – Who gets to represent Colombia? Who is responsible for the “recovery”?

However, Colombia, although a beautiful country with a resilient people and many, indeed “positive” things worth highlighting, is still a racist, violent, and extremely unequal society. Therefore, the need to be critical is manifest: What are the “positive” things that are being mentioned? What images and whose bodies are excluded? Not surprisingly,a long scroll through the campaign will only show the usual images of a “modernized” and “advanced” Colombia of mostly White and light-skinned Mestizo bodies, who are seemingly a part of the global and cosmopolitan urban middle-class, smart phones and all.

Colombia’s actual population, in contrast to what many within the country would like to project, is a bit more diverse. According to some estimates by the UNDP, Colombia is up to a 1/3 rural, and according to Afro-Colombian organizations such as El Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), up to 20% Afro-descendant. Colombia also has a small yet not insignificant indigenous population, which is 3-5% of the population, and a population of Arab descent in the Caribbean coast, to say nothing of other ethnic and social groups that are not a part of dominant national myths; the 35% of Colombians who live in poverty, the estimated 4.6 million who live in extreme poverty (under $2/day). Where is the place of that Colombia, Colombia in its whole, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in that campaign? Is a Colombia where we show only “positive” things also a Colombia without ethnic minorities, rural people, people living in poverty?

Furthermore, this campaign is nothing new. Pardo recognizes the history of previous social media campaigns trying to restore the republic’s damaged reputation, such as One Million Voices Against The FARC (Un millón de voces contra las FARC) (OMVAF).

A bit of history on the movement:  In 2008, Barranquillero Engineering student Oscar Morales started the OMVAF campaign – a Facebook movement that organized protests against the Marxist insurgency who has been at war with the government since 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – The People’s Army (FARC-EP), asking or an ending to kidnappings. Morales’ campaign was insanely successful with literally millions of Colombians of all walks of life out in the streets (protests in Colombia, aside from victim’s movements, are largely frowned upon by the upper and middle-classes). Morales, as documented by David Kirkpatrick’s must-read about Facebook, “The Facebook Effect”, became a key part of Mark Zuckerburg’s narrative of how Facebook’s openness can bring peace and social change to the world. What Pardo and Zuckerburg neglect, however, is that a campaign against one warlord is not a campaign for peace. OMVAF fight quite nicely into the ‘War on/of Terror’ dissident demonization discourse of former President Alvaro Uribe Vélez’s American-supported counterinsurgency campaign, in which any possible negotiation with the guerrillas was shut down in favour of a military solution to the conflict. OMVAF was also extremely useful for the state as it was silent on the crimes of the Colombian Army and the right-wing paramilitaries who have been often associated with the state’s pursuit of the guerrillas.

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In a similar vein, “It’s Colombia, Not Columbia” could be interpreted as basically free publicity for the Colombian government’s agenda. Within Colombia, it’s common knowledge that the government has hired a professional PR firm to create a Colombia “brand” in order to market the country as a viable option for tourism and investment, and trying to move out of the shadow of the FARC and Pablo Escobar.

The exchange below from the Huffington Post interview I think is telling

There are some people who’d say that Colombia may not be the paradise that the campaign paints it out to be. For example, despite the current peace talks, violence still exists by the FARC and ELN rebel groups and Colombia remains the largest supplier of cocaine in the world. So what exactly are the changes that you want the world to see in Colombia?
We want people to understand that Colombia is much more than what they see in the media. We want to balance out the message and tell the positive side. Today Colombia has a solid economy and investors are looking towards Latin America, especially Colombia because during the current global financial crisis Colombia has shown sustainable growth rates. I think Zemoga is an example of these changes, people think Colombia is a coffee exporter and it is but it also exports digital services to clients like Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Sea World.”

Again, Pardo is not necessarily wrong – Colombia can confidently claim to have one of the strongest economies in Latin America, if not the world, in this current Great Recession. What Pardo fails to mention is that, in line with the current President Juan Manuel Santos’ development plan for Colombia, natural resource extraction, not the knowledge and digital economy,  will be the engine of economic growth. With economic liberalization through Free Trade Agreements, and the (largely violent) ‘re-establishment’ of the state in formerly ‘marginal’ and guerilla-controlled,yet resource-rich, rural areas  thanks to the counterinsurgency, Colombia is for the last decade has become “open for business”. Indeed, during former President Uribe’s two terms, foreign direct investment in Colombia tripled.

My other wonderful country, Canada, has already begun investing heavily in Colombia’s mining sector, and a Canadian bank has now taken control over one of Colombia’s most important financial institutions. Allegations of connections between the mining industry, and large agro-business and neo-paramilitary groups are countless. I also have to mention how Drummond, an American multinational, has recently been responsible for a huge fossil fuel spill off of the Caribbean coast, and the workers of Cerrejon mine, the largest open-pit coal mine in the world which is located in one of Colombia’s ‘most indigenous’ and 2nd poorest state, La Guajira, have gone on strike asking for better pay. On the other hand, poverty has been reduced by 15% in a decade, although the GINI coefficient, measuring inequality for Colombia, has barely budged from a high of o.57 to a current level of 0.55, making Colombia the most unequal country in Latin America after Haiti and Bolivia, and one of the most unequal in the world.

To say the least, the foreign direct investment which this seemingly urban-produced branding campaign invites, is not without controversy. Arguably, it is taking the most, and giving the least, to those who are invisible and have been historically invisibilized in Colombian society – Indigenous people, poor people, Afro-Colombians, displaced people, and people living in the countryside or in “peripheral” regions.

In conclusion, as peace with the FARC approaches, Colombians must indeed re-conceptualize what “Colombia” is (and how its want to be perceived) so that we can move past (but never forget) the nation’s hyper-violent legacy. Will we create a new social deal, recognize the crimes of the powerful, and try and move towards a new, more diverse, and inclusive Colombia which does not reproduce the systems of inequality that fed the violence in the first place? Or will we continue to sustain the same narratives and power structures in which some are heard, many are silenced, and the country’s riches are sold off to the highest bidder with little consent from the communities who live on them, but where we criticize foreigners when they dare point out our shortcomings, and even worse, misspell “Colombia”?

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