Colombian Government’s Counteroffensive

Vicente Otero was once the elected mayor of the small Colombian town of Caldono in the department of Cauca. He was instrumental in the Nasa indigenous movement’s recent referendum against the Free Trade Agreement, in which record numbers participated and in which the FTA was unanimously rejected. He has long been an important leader in the indigenous movement for autonomy and peace. On the morning of May 19 at 6am, Colombian police and secret agents raided his house. He was not home. The only people home during the read were Otero’s 11-year old son and his mentally ill younger brother. They entered, took his literature on the FTA and his computer and planted a radio, a rocket, and a grenade. They are now claiming that he had an ‘arsenal’ in his home. The idea that Otero had an arsenal in his house is preposterous on every level. A lifelong pacifist, well-known political organizer and leader in the indigenous movement, Otero is well-versed in indigenous methods of solving problems and works intimately with the ‘guardia indigena’, the unarmed ‘indigenous guards’ who ensure security throughout the region with only the prestige symbolized in the batons they carry. Today Otero is in hiding, awaiting guarantees of his security, an apology, and the clearing of his name by those agencies who have planted false evidence in order to implicate him.

Otero would not be the first person from the indigenous communities of Northern Cauca to be framed in this way. Twenty-one others have been detained and taken off to Cali (Colombia’s second largest city), all community members from the town of Jambalo, over the past several days (12 on May 9 and 9 more on May 10). Four days later the Army’s Third Brigade announced that they had already ‘judged’ the community members for their ‘links’ to FARC.

This is an established pattern of government repression in indigenous territory. In January 2004, 8 people from Toribio – mine workers, farmers, craftspeople – were pointed out by someone wearing a ski mask and taken to Popayan (the site of Cauca’s biggest prison) by a group of heavily armed police and military personnel. They were later shown on television with weapons none of them had ever seen before. They army claimed they had captured high-level guerrilla commanders. The community knew better, but the prisoners rotted in jail with no rights to face their accusers, no rights to see the evidence against them, and no rights to a jury trial.

The pattern is escalating. DAS (Colombia’s secret police) officers announced to the press on May 19 that 200 other indigenous people from northern Cauca will be arrested this weekend (May 21-22) for ‘supposed links to FARC’. The idea that the secret police could announce an exact number – one could call it a quota – of Indians it is planning on arresting in advance of the arrest, and have the figure published in the papers, makes an utter mockery of any notion of a justice system in which evidence, charges, or law matters. The language of the article describing the announcement, published in ‘El Tiempo’ on May 19, betrays the racism: ‘Agents from DAS, the Army, and the Attorney-General’s office raided various houses in Caldono looking for Indians and war materials,’ the leading paragraph proclaimed, placing the region’s people and various inanimate objects in the same category.

Added to frame-ups by the government are death threats from paramilitaries. On May 16, Hollman Morris, a television journalist who is well-known in Colombia for his documentaries, received a bouquet of funeral flowers at his office, accompanied by a note announcing his death. Another journalist, Carlos Lozano, received the same death threat that day. Hollman Morris’s most recent work has been on – the indigenous movement in Northern Cauca, the march against the FTA, and the recent military attacks and campaigns taking place there. Prior to his stories on Cauca, Hollman did a special on the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado.

The ‘Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective’ is based in the department of Antioquia, the same department as the community of San Jose de Apartado. Its lawyers document and organize around human rights abuses. About a week ago the president of the collective, Soraya Gutierrez, received a dismembered doll in the mail with a death threat against her family. The lawyer’s collective has been one of the loudest voices bringing to light information about the most recent army/paramilitary massacre against San Jose de Apartado, in which 8 people were brutally murdered on February 21, bringing the total of murders against the people of Apartado to 150 over the past 8 years. Apartado’s members have decided that they want no part of the armed conflict and have a declared stance of ‘active neutrality’ in it. For that, they have been savagely attacked over years. As in Northern Cauca, the military attacks against civilians were accompanied by vicious and slanderous accusations against the very community that had suffered the massacres: President Uribe himself accused the Peace Community of collaborating with guerrillas. As in Northern Cauca, the slanders were followed up with paramilitary action against outside supporters of the community (Hollman Morris in Cauca, and Soraya Gutierrez in Antioquia).

Hollman Morris was threatened for his coverage of the quickly evolving military and political situation in Apartado and also in Northern Cauca. On April 14, 2005, Colombia’s main guerrilla group, the FARC, attacked various towns in Northern Cauca, a department in the South west of the country. The government counterattacked immediately, but the FARC were not dislodged. Militarily, the attack was a demonstration of power. The Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe Velez, had assumed power in 2002 on a platform of eradicating the guerrillas and abandoning peace dialogues or agreements. His principal military policy was called ‘Plan Patriota’, and consisted of a major military offensive in the south of the country. The offensive was barely contested by FARC, and both Uribe and the Colombian military became smug. Then FARC launched a number of spectacular attacks last month, announcing that they had not, in fact, been eliminated, and they could take, and even hold, parts of the national territory, against the Colombian army.

But parallel to the military campaigns and deeper than them is the real Colombian war: the war against the civilian population of the country, its organizations and its leaders. FARC’s offensive in Northern Cauca attacked the very heart of Colombia’s indigenous movement, where indigenous leaders have patiently and courageously built autonomous institutions for their own development and governance over decades, as well as their own mechanisms for peace, conflict resolution, and demilitarization of the zone. One of the leaders of this indigenous project is Vicente Otero. One of the principal effects of the combats in Northern Cauca has been to militarize the region and undermine the indigenous political project. Colombian analysts like Daniel Garcia-Pena, who was active in the peace process in the 1990s, argued that the FARC’s offensive was a military success but, since it showed disregard for the indigenous movement and for the civilian population, it was a political failure. Now the government, having failed in its military counterattack against FARC, is engaging in dirty political war against the country’s social movements.

As his secret police were raiding the houses of political activists and announcing plans to arrest hundreds more, as his army was bundling innocent civilians off to jail without charges, as journalists who covered these abuses were receiving death threats in the mail from paramilitaries, Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez was angrily making a public statement denying that he has any paramilitary links. He was responding to accusations by other politicians (Horacio Serpa and Enrique Penalosa) that he is close to the paramilitaries. He told them they should produce proof if they want to make such accusations. In fact, producing such proof is no real challenge (see, for example, this interview with human rights activist Javier Giraldo from 2004: But if Uribe is arguing that public accusations ought not to be made without proof, lest they cause harm and damage to individuals and communities, he should put this principle into practice. Northern Cauca and San Jose de Apartado would be a good place to start.

Some of the leaders of Northern Cauca’s indigenous movement were on the Pacifica Radio Program Democracy Now! On May 20:

Palestinians in Israel’s Prisons: Interviewing Sahar Francis

Sahar Francis is a lawyer and human rights advocate in the Occupied Territories. She works with Addameer ( in Ramallah in the Occupied West Bank on political prisoner’s rights campaigns. In April 2005, she was part of a North American tour organized by Sumoud ( to raise issues of Palestinian prisoners internationally. I interviewed her in Toronto.

Justin Podur (JP): Can you introduce us to your organization, Addameer?

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My weekend in London (Ontario)

I attended the London (Ontario) Palestine Film Festival over the weekend. There were some great films shown. I was there to visit friends and to be on a panel on media coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. The panel was shown after the film ‘Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land’ (I follow Bollywood convention and abbreviate this film to P3L). All of the films were, in my opinion, excellent. In the order that I preferred them, from excellent to superb, here are some brief descriptions.

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Reporters without borders is a sham

There is something peculiar about the way colonialism works today. The most sophisticated colonial projects use the rhetoric of human rights, democracy, and even anti-racism in their favour. This has a profoundly immobilizing effect on those who are actually trying to support struggles for self-determination. All the ‘democracy promotion’ that’s been going on at the hands of the US in recent years is a case in point. A very important example is ‘Reporters Without Borders’. Take a look at Salim Lamrani’s article on that institution, and you will see what I mean. Serious anti-imperialists are going to have to do some serious thinking about how to deal with all this stuff. It is very important in demobilizing our potential constituency.

Thanks Kole for holding it down over the past few days.

Status For All – By the Numbers

I was suprised to read in the French daily Liberation this morning that the Spanish government is set to regularize some 600,000 non-status people in that country. The number falls short of the 800,000 initially promised by the Zapatero government – or the demand by immigrant/refugee rights movements to grant ‘Status for All’ – but it is still something to consider in the Canadian context. The numbers themselves tell a pretty convincing story as to the feasibility of such an initiative in Canada. Let’s hope Immigration Minister Joe Volpe is taking notes on the Spanish experience!

Consider the following: Spain’s population currently stands at an estimated 40,341,462 (July 2005 est.). The country has a GDP of $937.6 billion (2004 est.) or $23,300 (2004 est.) per capita and an unemployment rate of 10.4% (2004 est.). Spain’s total land area stands at 499,542 sq km, accounting for a population density of some 80.8 persons per sq km (2005 est.).

Canada, on the other hand, has a smaller population, standing at 32,805,041 (July 2005 est.). However, it has a GDP of $1.023 trillion (2004 est.) or $31,500 (2004 est.) per capita and an unemployment rate of 7% (2004). Canada’s total land mass is 9,093,507 sq km, accounting for a population density of 3.6 persons per sq km (2005 est.).

Given that Canada’s overall GDP is 9% bigger than Spain’s (or 26% times bigger in terms of GDP share per person), that the geographic area of this country is roughly 18 times the size of Spain (with a population density that is 22 times smaller), and that the entire estimated population of non-status people in Canada is only a third of those affected under the Spanish amnesty law (i.e. 200,000 in Canada vs. 600,000 being regularized in Spain), it is hard to believe that the Canadian government is hard pressed to grant the demand of ‘Status for All’ to immigrants and refugees in this country.

The government’s math just doesn’t add up. Even if we accept the erroneous logic of right-wing critics – i.e. that immigration somehow affects jobs (thus flying in the face of the fact that immigrants largely fill jobs that are left empty by resident labour forces) – we still find that Canada is in a much better position than Spain to afford lee-way for non-status people.

A number of groups in Canada are mobilizing with the demand for the regularization of all non-status persons, an end to deportations, an end to the detention of migrants, immigrants and refugees, and the abolition of security certificates. Solidarity Across Borders and No One is Illegal in Montreal are planning a 200 km march from Montreal to Ottawa this June 18-25 to press for these demands. To find out more about this and other campaigns for immigrant and refugee right currently active in Canada click here, here, and here.

Report from (just outside) the shareholder’s meeting of a Canadian war profiteer

I have had the honour of participating in a so-far small but I believe politically important campaign against Canadian war profiteering, focusing on a corporation called SNC-Lavalin. I gave a long talk to a group about the topic, with some information on the corporation and some thoughts on related issues, a few months ago. Today, the shareholder’s meeting of SNC-Lavalin in Toronto, was, in a sense, our first test.

The action started at 10am, since the meeting started an hour later. Turnout was small, and there are several reasons for this. The first and most obvious is that Canadian war profiteering, despite being a long tradition, is not well known and indeed, while most Canadians are against the war and occupation in Iraq, most Canadians also think Canada isn’t participating in the war and occupation in Iraq. So there’s the chicken-and-egg problem of needing to do actions like this to raise the issue, and that such actions will be limited in size so long as the issue is not well-known…

There are also serious organizational and resource limitations. I know personally many of the organizers of today’s event, and I can tell you that they are a bunch of fanatically devoted hard-working people who are stretched to the gills with the amount of work they are doing, with essentially no resources. Along with organization there’s also logistics – the shareholders might be able to go to the meeting during business hours. The only demonstrators who could go were folks who work in the afternoon or evening, or students, who were most of the demonstrators.

Adding to these difficulties was the appalling behaviour of the police. This is to be expected, and is taken for granted, unfortunately, but there were a few dozen people mobilized to raise issues that are of life-and-death for millions of people (and death for tens of thousands already), and the police responded with horses, paddy wagons, special surveillance equipment, and plenty of plain nastiness. They made several arrests that seemed to me to have been motivated by pure vindictiveness (and possibly training, wanting to try out violent techniques on more or less helpless people in a street setting). One of the arrests was far closer to a kidnapping, with several huge armed men nabbing a kid after the demonstration had already ended and speeding off in an unmarked vehicle. It was shameful for the macho posturing and for the political message conveyed – no the two are doubt related. The organizational and personal costs of these arrests are high, especially since those singled out for arrest were some of the most energetic and inspiring people who will now have to deal with whatever trumped-up charges the state will come up with.

For something to set against all these costs, I believe the demonstration was a political victory. Indeed, the costs might have ‘overshadowed’ the victory for us, but according to the Canadian Press article about the meeting, SNC’s first-quarter profit was ‘overshadowed’ by our protest.

The CEO of SNC-Lavalin, Jacques Lamarre, also provided (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps perfectly wittingly) proof, as if it was necessary, that Canada’s participation in the Iraq occupation should not be considered to be merely a matter of corporate participation, but was in fact official government policy. “As long as the Canadian government tells us you can sell to the U.S. government, we will do it,” he was quoted on the newswires saying. “We never make any sale . . . which is not 100 per cent approved and reviewed by the Canadian government.”

Tells something about the relationship between a corporation like SNC and the state, if the violently disproportionate behaviour of the police was insufficient to do so.

(On a more personal note, I had an odd verbal exchange with a police officer who I at first thought was merely trying to run me over with his bicycle, but turned out had come over to call me an ‘anti-semite’ for mentioning Israel/Palestine during my brief turn at the megaphone. You see, from what we’re able to tell, SNC-Lavalin is involved in building highways and settler-only roads in Israel and the occupied territories, and is thus helping apartheid and occupation there as well. I mentioned this role, and mentioned as well the well-documented and widespread use of torture by Israel against the Palestinians, showing how occupation and torture go together in Israel/Palestine as in Iraq. The officer said something like: ‘You know, I am just here to do a job, I didn’t have any problem with you people, but then you bring this anti-Jewish stuff into it. You’re a bunch of anti-semites’. I replied that it wasn’t about Jews. He said, approximately, that I didn’t know anything about it, because I hadn’t been there. I said I probably knew more than he thought, and that I’d been to Jenin. He said he’d been to Israel and that they were fighting a war there (suggesting, perhaps, that he was a volunteer in the Israeli army?) I knew nothing about. (He was quite wrong. I’ve seen his war. ) This went on for a while – I suppose I am sensitive to being called a racist, even when the person making the accusation is a violent racist himself. My friends thought I was putting myself in unnecessary danger talking to him. I suppose the image that came to my mind when he was talking to me wasn’t so much the wreckage that he and the people he identifies so strongly with have wrought on the people he has such contempt for that he can’t even acknowledge they exist – see Junaid Alam’s article, linked just above, for an interesting discussion of this – but Neta Golan, at the Qalandiya checkpoint, trying to reason with a similar fellow saying and doing similar things. That was a long time ago now, and I’m not Neta. But enough about that all.)

Threats from the smugglers and the drug people

Lots on Northern Cauca coming – Uribe’s made his political countermove, trying to undermine the indigenous organization. I’ll get some stuff on ACIN’s response soon.

Meantime though, let me report on a rather bizarre experience I had on the weekend. I attended the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Canada (CAIR-Can) fundraiser on Saturday evening. CAIR-Can is an advocacy organization. It does media relations work, tries to educate Canadian society about Islam and Muslim-Canadians, and raises some civil liberties as well. That was my interest, and the interest of the group I was with that attended. In particular, we went to hear Maher Arar speak. Maher Arar, you’ll recall, is the Syrian-Canadian who had the misfortune of traveling through the United States, which was enough to get him shipped off to Syria for 10 months of torture. He gave a speech critical of the federal government’s bill C-36, Canada’s own ‘anti-terrorism’, anti-civil-liberties law. The head of CAIR-Can gave Maher Arar an award. He made a nice little speech at that point about the difference between ‘advocacy’ and ‘activism’. Maher Arar had said he wanted to be called an ‘advocate’ not an ‘activist’, because Arar considers himself unworthy of the title ‘activist’. So the head of CAIR-Can said he was obliged to call Arar an ‘activist’ because to him, an ‘activist’ was someone who suffers personally and makes sacrifices for the cause, while an ‘advocate’ is more detached. That makes Arar an activist (and I suppose it makes me an advocate!)

None of that was the bizarre part. The bizarre part was who else was speaking. Among the attendees was Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian Foreign Minister. Some people I talked to thought Axworthy’s speech was completely incoherent. I disagreed. I think Axworthy’s speech was a coherent intellectual formulation of Canadian imperialism. In order to create such a formulation, Axworthy had to engage in some serious myth-making. But that was no problem for the established politician.

Axworthy began by telling a story of how he was in Egypt the week before. Egypt’s (I’ll just insert a little reminder that Egypt is a client state of the US with little pretense of any democracy whose President ‘wins’ elections by margins of 99%) Foreign Minister talked about the ‘flowering of democracy in the Middle East’ (that would be one of the myths) and asked ‘where is Canada’?

Lloyd challenged the audience with that question. He suggested Canada had been too isolationist since the trauma of 9/11 (that would strike me as another myth – for one, Canada wasn’t struck by 9/11, and I don’t think there was much national trauma there, and for another, that ‘national trauma’ didn’t stop Canada from occupying Haiti – but we’ll get back to Haiti in a second). He then discussed how Ethiopia and Eritrea are having a border conflict that is devastating, and how Canadians got obsessed with their border too.

Then the – ahem – BS started to flow fast and furious. He described what he called the ‘turmoils’ in Iraq, ‘the Middle East’ (don’t say ‘Israel’, Lloyd, much less ‘Palestine’), Sudan, Congo, Uganda. He described a world where ‘threats’ like a disease nobody knew could reach Toronto. He described the framework he built as foreign minister, one of ‘human security’, because individuals face threats. These threats?

The fanatics, the warlords, the drug people, the smugglers. An underworld of power. Information technology can bring them into your living room, to rip society, overwhelm security, and destroy the young.

(The whole rant was worthy of Tom Ridge when he used to declare those orange alerts, really).

So to deal with these ‘threats’, Lloyd formulated ‘human security’ and ‘the Responsibility to Protect’. The test case for this was Kosovo, where they took responsibility and protected the people (by bombing). An interesting test case, that, and one I won’t go into here (there’s an archive at ZNet if you’re looking for some)

‘Responsibility to protect’, Lloyd said, would protect small states from big ones (like it protected Iraq from the US? Or Haiti from Canada/France/US? Or the Congo from Rwanda? Or…) The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was the antidote to those who wanted to divide the world into ‘civilizations’ (I guess Lloyd was talking about Huntington), divide the world into those ‘inside’ and ‘outside the law’ (I guess he was talking about the US with their concept of ‘enemy combatants’, but he certainly didn’t say so). We shouldn’t let 9/11 force us to draw inward, he said (strange way of being drawn inward, ousting governments and occupying countries), but we should open the door to the future.

Really, ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is just another term for ‘White Man’s Burden’.

By now you’re probably wondering why I called this coherent. There’s a reason. Now I just read Walden Bello’s ‘Dilemmas of Domination’ and its effect was the opposite of the one the author intended. He was arguing that the empire is weak: it made me think that the empire is stronger than he thinks. I don’t think the collapse is going to happen any time soon, and I think when it comes it could very well take all of us with it. But I suspect that well before that happens, there will be some testing of strategic alternatives. The Bush people are a particularly nasty kind of imperialism – they offer nothing to their subjects, very little even rhetorically. Lloyd sketches out a kinder, gentler seeming way. The same dirty deeds can get done, but without the clumsy (or is it just brazen?) contempt for the pretense of legitimacy exhibited by the Bush people. Canada’s historic role in imperialism, exemplified in the Vietnam war, has always been like this. Canada’s the good cop – a better analogy would be the doctor who shows up to help keep the torture victim alive so the torture can proceed for longer.

A testament to Lloyd’s incoherence, as opposed to his being understood for what he was really saying: he got a standing ovation.