The people of Colombia are cracking up the walls of war and authoritarianism

“Sorry if my protest has cause a traffic collapse, but your indifference has caused our country’s collapse.”

The protests that started with the national strike called by Colombia’s central union on November 21 to protest pension reforms and the broken promises of the peace accords have persisted for two months and grown into a protest against the whole establishment. And the protests have continued into the new year and show no signs of stopping.

The end of the decade has seemed to bring an unstoppable march of the right wing in Latin America as elsewhere. The 2016 coup in Brazil that ended with fascist Jair Bolsonaro in power, the 2019 coup in Bolivia, the continuously rolling coup in Venezuela, all showcased the ruthlessness of the U.S. in disposing of left-wing governments in the region. Right-wing victories at the ballot box occurred in Chile in 2017 and in Colombia in 2018, where the electorate rejected the left-wing Gustavo Petro and embraced Iván Duque, a protege of the infamous former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez. But with the new wave of protests, the unstoppable right-wing juggernaut is facing many challenges.

In Chile, three months of protests, still going, are demanding the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera and the reversal of a range of neoliberal policies. Even in the face of the police and army using live fire against protesters, they have not let up.

Ecuador is another peculiar case, in which Lenín Moreno ran as a candidate who would continue left-wing policies, but who promptly reversed course upon reaching power in 2017, including revoking the asylum of Julian Assange, who is now in a UK prison. Reopening drilling in the Amazon, opening a new U.S. airbase in the Galapagos, getting rid of taxes on the wealthy, and doing a new package of International Monetary Fund austerity measures was enough to spark a sustained protest. Moreno’s government was forced to negotiate with the protesters and has withdrawn some of the austerity measures.

In Haiti, protests have gone on for over a year. Sparked in July 2018 by a sharp increase in fuel prices (the same spark as for the Ecuador protests), they have expanded to call for the president’s resignation. In Haiti, as the protests have dragged on, some of the country’s elite families have joined the call for the president’s resignation, which will make it even more difficult to find a constitutional exit from the crisis.

In Colombia, after winning the runoff in 2018, President Duque may have felt that he had a mandate to enact right-wing policies, which in Colombia have usually included new war measures in addition to the usual austerity. But combining pension cuts with betraying the peace process was simply stealing too much from the future: Young people joined the November 21 protests in huge numbers (the lowest estimates are 250,000).

The sustained nature of the protests is striking. Rather than one-offs, the protests have been committed to staying on until change is won. We may hear more this year from post-coup Brazil and Bolivia as well.

At the heart of Colombia’s protest is the issue of war and peace. To say Colombians are war-weary is an understatement. The war there that began (depending on how you date it) in 1948 or 1964 has provided the pretext for an unending assault on people’s rights and dignities by the state. Afro-Colombians were displaced from their lands under cover of the war. Indigenous people were dispossessed. Unions were smeared as guerrilla fronts and their leaders assassinated. Peasants and their lands were fumigated with chemical warfare. Narcotraffickers set themselves up inside the military and intelligence organizations, creating the continent’s most extensive paramilitary apparatus. Politicians signed pacts with these paramilitary death squads. The war gave the establishment an excuse for the most depraved acts, notably the “false positives” in which the military murdered completely innocent people and dressed their corpses up as guerrillas to inflate their kill statistics. Even though the guerrillas, with their kidnapping and too-frequent accidental killings of innocents, were never popular with the majority, Colombians have backed peace processes when given the chance. And Colombians didn’t look kindly at the major betrayals of peace processes in the past, like the one in the 1980s, when ex-guerrillas entering politics were assassinated by the thousand. From 2016, when the new peace accords were affirmed, until mid-2019, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) tallied 138 of their ex-guerrillas murdered; more than 700 other activists were killed in the same period, including more than 100 Indigenous people since Duque came to power in 2018.

At the end of August, a group of FARC members led by their former chief negotiator, Iván Márquez, announced that they were returning to the jungle and to the fight. They argued that the assassination of their members and the refusal of the government to comply with the other aspects of the accords demonstrated that there was no will for peace on the side of the government. Those FARCs who announced they were giving up on the accords were treated as having gone rogue: The government labeled them as criminal groups. Aerial bombardment (a war measure not normally the first recourse in dealing with “criminals”) quickly followed. When a bombing (also in August) by the Colombian air force of one of these rogue groups in Caquetá killed eight children and Duque labeled it “strategic, meticulous, impeccable, and rigorous,” he was greeted with much-deserved public revulsion. Duque was shaping up to deliver the same kind of war as always, only now under the flag of peace, its victims labeled criminals instead of guerrillas.

Eternal war does benefit some: those in the arms and security business especially, and those who want to commit crimes under the cover of war. But despite the many benefits of eternal war for the elite, normalcy also exerts a powerful draw. When Duque’s mentor Álvaro Uribe Vélez was elected president in 2002 and 2006, it was with the promise of normalcy—of peace—through decisive victory over the guerrillas. Instead, he delivered narco-paramilitarism, false positives, and, very nearly, regional wars with Ecuador and Venezuela.

One of Uribe’s early acts was to negotiate a peace agreement with the paramilitaries. Since the paramilitaries were state-backed, organized, and armed, this was a farcical negotiation of the government with itself. But when some of the paramilitary commanders began to speak publicly about their relationships with the state and multinational corporations, they found themselves deported to the U.S. At the time, the scandal was given a name—“para-política.” But to some of the investigators, it was better-termed “para-Uribismo.” Paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso—who had the temerity to talk about the Chiquita banana corporation and who is apparently going to return to Colombia sometime soon—is just the best-known name. Many others have found that being a paramilitary leads to a considerably shortened lifespan. Uribe, mayor of Medellín and governor of Antioquia during the heyday of the cartels, is named in numerous official documents as being close to both the narcotraffickers and the paramilitaries. The evidence keeps coming, as courts, now trying Uribe’s brotherkeep getting closer to the man himself.

After the first round of “Uribismo,” it was time to try a peace process. The betrayal of that process, initiated in 2012, and the new president Duque’s promise of yet another decade of “Uribismo,” has been a motivating force of the recent protests.

Uribismo entangles endless war with austerity and inequality. In a recent Gallup poll, 52 percent of Colombians surveyed said the gap between rich and poor had increased in the past five years; 45 percent struggled to afford food in the previous 12 months; and 43 percent lacked money for shelter. The social forces that typically fight for social progress and equality—unions and left-wing political parties—have traditionally been demonized as proto-guerrillas. With the government declaring the war over—and with great fanfare—people want the freedom to make economic demands without being treated as civil war belligerents.

But when faced with the November 21 protests, the government went straight to the dirty war toolkit, murdering 18-year-old protester Dilan Cruz on November 25, imposing curfew, detaining more than 1,000 people, and creating “montajes,” the time-tested use of agents provocateurs to commit unpopular and illegal acts to provide a pretext for state repression. Government officials have also tried to claim that Venezuela and Russia (of course) were behind the protests.

Part of the dirty war toolkit is to negotiate, and the government has been doing so with the National Strike Committee. No doubt hoping that the protests will exhaust themselves and any agreements can be quietly dropped as numbers dwindle, the government is dangling the possibility of dropping some austerity demands. Meanwhile, the negotiators are being threatened by paramilitary groups, and another mass grave of those murdered as military “false positives” has been unearthed. Uribismo has wormed its way into every structure of the state: Real change will have to be deep. By not giving up easily, the protesters have shown the way. These protests could be a crack in the walls of fascism that seem to have sprung up everywhere in the past decade.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. He is the author of the novel Siegebreakers.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Ossington Circle Episode 34: Colombia’s Peace Process Fails, with Manuel Rozental

The Ossington Circle Episode 34: Colombia’s Peace Process Fails, with Manuel Rozental

I talk to friend and frequent guest Manuel Rozental about the breakdown of the (probably inaccurately named) peace process in Colombia, as FARC dissidents announce that the accords have failed and they are returning to war. We talk about war and peace in Colombian history and a global economy that profits more from war than from peace. 

Héctor Mondragón: The plan to Gaza-ify the Colombian Peace Process

[This important article is by the Colombian economist and activist Héctor Mondragón and argues that Colombia’s landowning elite are not interested in peace, even though negotiators have gone to great lengths to placate them. Originally in Spanish – translated by Justin Podur.]

To understand what is happening with the Colombian Peace Accords, it is necessary to identify the enormous political power held by Colombia’s large landowners. Without understanding the problem of the concentration of land ownership, it is impossible to understand anything that has happened in the country in the past eighty years.

The Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany in 1875 identified in their program the problem that the means of production were under the monopoly control of the capitalist class. Marx criticized their formulation for neglecting the “monopoly of the land owners (the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital)”. He added that even “in England the capitalist class is usually not even the owner of the land on which his factory stands.”

Now, in the 21st century, in Colombia the economic and political power of the large landowners is notorious. The prolonging of the armed conflict unleashed an agrarian counter-reform and millions of peasants are displaced. Colombia has become the country with the most expensive land in the region (1) and the majority of arable lands are not cultivated. (2). 

The armed conflict has become an anchor weighing down social movements and an obstruction in the path of workers and peasants’ struggles for their rights. It serves as the pretext for repression and murder of popular leaders. Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Colombians, peasants and unionists, and human rights defenders have paid the highest price in lives and suffering for the continuation of the armed conflict. They want an end to it.

The landowners have made their profits throughout the period of war. They have no interest in returning the lands they have stolen and want to continue the process of displacement. The war also serves those who impose mineral, petroleum, and other megaprojects that devastate the environment because it provides the pretext for the physical elimination of the leaders of opposition to these projects. These assassination campaigns are not unique to Colombia – they occur throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

Those who profit from war will not accept any peace accord – not even one they were able to edit and redact – because they know that the main effect of the end of the armed conflict will be that the people, especially the peasantry, will be able to organize and mobilize as mass movements for their rights. This will not be tolerated unless it is imposed on them by a mobilization of millions of determined Colombians who refuse to accept a return to war and who refuse to believe systematic campaigns of lies.

Neither the peace accord signed in Cartagena on September 26, 2016 nor the one signed in Bogota on November 24, 2016 will be accepted by the spokespeople of the landowners and megaprojects because they will not accept any peace accord, ever.

The hope generated by the accord signed in Cartagena resembles the hope awoken by the Oslo Accords of September 13, 1993 between Israel and Palestine, for which Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat received the Nobel Prize in 1994.

The religious right never accepted the Oslo accords. Assassinations and attacks were the path by which the accord was eroded and finally torn apart. On November 4, 1995, after a huge demonstration of support for peace, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a religious extremist. Rabin had just said in his speech: “I was a military man for 27 years. I waged war as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must make the most of it.”

As fighting resumed between the Israeli Army and Palestinian armed groups, Yasser Arafat was under Israeli house arrest in Ramallah from 2001, a violation of what was left of the Oslo Accords of 1993. The Israeli government has continued to build colonies on recognized Palestinian territory, bombed and invaded Palestinian towns hundreds of times, and converted Gaza into a ghetto where Palestinians are systematically murdered and massacred. Israel is governed by those who opposed the peace accords, those who declared Rabin a “traitor” – instead of peace, there is a racist nightmare.

Colombians have to do whatever we must to defend peace, to avoid what has occurred in Palestine – to resist the planned Gaza-fication of Colombia’s peace process. Unfortunately, things are moving in the direction of Gaza-fication.

First, through a massive fraud, thousands of voters were misdirected by messages that told them their retirement pensions would be reduced and their social services eliminated if peace accords were approved; that the peace accord “promoted homosexuality” and the “gender ideology”; that taxi medallions would be seized to be given to demobilized guerrillas; that many respected and famous people (who were pro-peace accords and voted “Yes”) were going to vote “No”. The result of the failed plebiscite on the accord was the consequence of a fraud – but it was used to modify the accords.

Second, the modifications of the accords have come at the expense of the peasants, communities, and the promised rural reform.

The deterioration of the text of the peace accords could only be justified if the new accords would bring in an armed actor that has, so far, not agreed to peace. At the end of the day a peace accord is between enemies – it is not a piece of legislation defined by voting by the population. A peace accord is what it is precisely because it does not reflect the thinking of any of its signers who agree to it – it is essentially an agreement on mutual concessions by those who had been at war. And yet in this case concessions to landowners were given without any promises by them to agree to peace. Indeed, they continue to advance their own plans for the continuation of the war.

Third, and worst, since the days before the signing of the accords and more so in recent weeks, a new wave of assassinations of Indigenous, peasant, and Afro-Colombian leaders has been unleashed. Those who have questioned gas fracking in Cesar have been arrested and detained. In Caqueta, they have been assassinated. The young governor of Putumayo, who challenged traditional landowners and is a firm defender of peace and rural rights, has been ousted. The leftist former mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, was fined 67 million dollars because he lowered bus fares while in power.

Fourth, the mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, sent the police to destroy the Campamento de Paz, a camp which had been set up in the Plaza de Bolivar in anticipation of the ratification of a peace accord that would end the armed conflict.

Fifth, before ratifying the new peace accord, the national government ratified a law that seeks to regulate prior consultation with Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and other groups in the country. According to Indigenous organizations, it is an “affront without precedent”, one which contravenes national and international jurisprudence and, if adopted, would violate the fundamental collective rights of these groups.

Remember that among ex-president Alvaro Uribe’s proposals to modify the accord was “limiting prior consultation”. In the new accord, Uribe’s proposal was rejected, but the government has put the proposal into legislation instead.

The changes in the new accord that affect peasants all came from Uribe – in some cases they had input from Andres Pastrana and Marta Lucia Ramirez. The changes are motivated by a desire to confront, weaken, or neutralize the important definitions in the original accord on the peasant economy.

The accords recognize “the fundamental role of the peasant, family, and community economy.” But this is precisely what the successive governments have denied. Uribe, in his first electoral campaign, stirred the Agricultural Society of Colombia (SAC) when he declared his lack of confidence in any autonomous role for the peasantry and proclaimed the need to subordinate peasants to the big landowners: “We will install in Barrancabermeja a peasant association, and demand that the contractors integrate with an efficient enterprise in San Alberto, so that associated peasants and business owners with a tradition of efficiency can take responsibility for the success of these projects.” (3)

This subordination of the peasant has already been imposed in practice through strategic growers’ associations, especially palm oil growers, during the years that Andres Pastrana was president. Pastrana was also the president that brought in Plan Colombia (4). The subordination of the peasant continued under Uribe’s governments, which received funding from the World Bank to support “associations of producers” of “small agricultural producers” with “private enterprise” (5). This experience did not help Colombian agriculture. By the end of Uribe’s second government, it was in one of the worst crises the sector has ever seen.

The following has been added to the peace accords:

“1.3.3.6: Associations. The government will foment and promote associations, links, and alliances between small, medium, and large agricultural producers along with processors, sellers, and exporters with the goal of guaranteeing economies of scale and competitiveness and value-added to contribute to the improvement of the living conditions of rural inhabitants in general and small producers in particular. Technical, legal, and economic (credit or finance) assistance will be provided to small producers with the goal of guaranteeing family and community economies that are balanced and sustainable.”

In this manner, the plans of the past three presidents, also the doctrine of the Chicoral Pact of 1972 – which stated that large producers were necessary to guarantee competitiveness – has been inserted into policy through the peace accords. In reality peasant agriculture can reach and in some cases exceed the efficiency of large-scale cultivation. And besides, independently of the scale of production, small producers are efficient when they have access to resources and when the environment permits. (6)

This modification works with the other: “The government will pass a law with the goal of promoting other forms of access to state lands, such as the assignment of usage rights.” The origin of this change lies in the government and the Zidres law, which states that the occupiers of vacant lands that do not meet the requisites for being granted title may “conclude contracts to real surface rights, which allow the use, enjoyment and layout of the rural properties they occupy.” Although the agreement limits this to medium producers, there is no doubt that land grabbers are very interested in this modification of the accord and have taken advantage of the “No” vote.

The traditional discourse has been inserted in the new agreement so that “big producers” and “medium producers” can try to neutralize – as they always have – any programs that favor the peasants.

One “principle” added to the proposal of the “No” promoters says:

“Rural Development: Rural development depends on a balance between different forms of production – family agriculture, agro-industry, tourism, commercial agreculture – on competitiveness and the necessity of promoting and encouraging investment in the countryside with a business vision of production as a condition of development; promotion and encouragement, under equitable conditions, of chains of rural production with other models of production, which could be vertical or horizontal at different scales. In all cases the peasant, family, and community economy will be supported and protected, strengthened and developed.”

The modified accord fortunately maintains the recognition of the fundamental role of the peasant economy, as well as the principles of Welfare and “Buen Vivir”. But it cannot be denied that even though they did not agree with the peace accord, the big landowners have succeeded in introducing their discourse into it. They will later be able to use it to impose their “balance” of activities, and to erode what was agreed upon about the participation of communities in planning and management.

The Colombian Constitution, from the preamble and first article, defines the country as a democratic and participatory republic. It is not a mere representative democracy. The text of the original accord developed this point when it sought “decision-making bodies at different territorial scales that include the presence of communities”. The modified accord now speaks of bodies “that guarantee the participation of communities in the process of decision-making.” That is, communities now participate – they don’t make the decisions.

The modified accord says that the mechanisms for participation “in no case will limit the powers of government or of its legislative bodies (Congress, Councils and Assemblies).” What the spokespeople for “No” denied to rural communities, they have claimed for themselves, limiting the powers of the President of the Republic to define the peace accords.

On the question of the campesino reserve lands, the modified accord simply adds that they will be “made by the competent authority in accordance with current regulations” – that was obvious in the previous agreement since there are clear existing regulations on these zones. Their application was frozen, first by decision of Uribe and after – by request of the Ministry of Defense! The original and modified agreement both seek the enforcement of the law on campesino reserve lands, which has been in force since 1994.

What has happened with the campesino reserves in the past 22 years shows that it is not about what a law, decree, or accord says, but about how the government can use the armed conflict to displace peasants from their lands and prevent peasants from exercising their rights.

In order to not return to the peasants what has been stolen from them, in order to continue with land grabs, in order to impose large-scale, open-pit mining, fracking, diversion of rivers for coal or for dams – the despoilers need for the conflict to continue. They need for there to not be peace and for Colombia to continue under the thumb of those who promoted the “No” vote in the peace accord.

This is no matter of simple parliamentary opposition to the peace accords. There is a new deployment of paramilitary groups, operating with their usual impunity, to enclose each community and convert it into a ghetto, like Gaza. In Colombia the communities most affected by the war voted massively for the “Yes” side in the referendum – especially the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. The enemies of peace are on the other side.

The defense of rural communities is also the struggle for food sovereignty. Donald Trump says he will protect the US from imports, but will promote exports, repeating the old history of The Big Stick to impose the consumption of North American exports, especially agricultural exports, on Latin America, produced specifically in the areas that voted massively for Trump. Without peace, they will continue to impose the destruction of our food sovereignty.

The struggle for peace is fundamental. It is the most important struggle right now for the defense of Colombian workers and especially for campesino, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities.

1. Portafolio (2009) “Colombia tendría la tierra más cara de la región, según estudio de la SAC”, 30 de octubre de 2009.

2. DNP (2010) “Bases del Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2010-2014: Prosperidad para todos”. Bogotá: Departamento Nacional de Planeación, p. 172.

3. Discurso en el congreso del la SAC el 8 de noviembre de 2001.

4. Gobierno de Colombia. “Plan Colombia: plan para la paz, la prosperidad y el fortalecimiento del estado”, 8 de marzo de 2000.

5. Grupo del Banco Mundial. Colombia. “Banco Mundial aprueba préstamo por US$30 millones para mejorar la productividad rural”, 21 de agosto de 2007.

6. Forero, Jaime et al. 2013. “La eficiencia económica de los grandes, medianos y pequeños productores agrícolas colombiano”; EfiAgrícola.

 

No to Peace in Colombia?

In the four years that it took to negotiate this peace deal, Colombia has been moving inexorably towards October 2, the day that the people could have their say about the deal that would end the five-decade long war. The polls predicted an easy win for the “yes” side. The government’s negotiators and the guerrillas (FARC) campaigned for a strong “yes” vote. This was the best deal that could be had, they said.

There are around 34 million Colombians eligible to vote out of a population of around 48 million. My own prediction was that about half of that would vote in the referendum and around 70% of them would vote “yes”.

But the ‘No’ won with 6,422,136 votes, defeating the ‘Yes’ who came in with 6,361,762. A difference of 60,374 voters. A difference of less than half a percentage point of the 12.8 million who voted. An even smaller fraction of the 21.2 million who didn’t vote.

With peace at stake, why was abstention so high? High abstention is a feature of recent elections – it was high in the 2014 election as well – with 32.9 million eligible voters in 2014, just 14.7 million voted, and only 7.8 million of those voted for the winner, President Santos.

But Santos and the peace bloc weren’t able to get that number to vote “yes”. What happened?

The polls predicting an easy “yes” victory may have played a role. Why would “yes” voters feel the need to vote if the outcome was a foregone conclusion? The “no” side, by contrast, was mobilized by the ever-polarizing ex-President and war candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez.

The areas most affected by the war voted “yes”, while most of the cities voted “no” (Bogota and Cali, however, voted “yes”). Hurricane Matthew may have played a role, since the Caribbean Coast has been severely affected by the war and was expected to be a “yes” stronghold.

Disenchantment with the process played a role. After four years of negotiations, the people were being asked to show up to rubber-stamp a process the parameters of which they did not have a say in setting. Most of them chose not to show up at all, and half of them voted not to give the rubber stamp. Though Colombia’s social movements voted “yes”, they had critiques of the process – that the war against the people would continue under this peace, that the economic model had been left untouched, that their voices were heard only in tokenistic ways at the table. These feelings, and not just the right-wing opposition organized by Uribe, may have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for the “yes” side.

Before despairing of eternal conflict, however, let us clarify what this result was and was not.

It is certainly not a mandate for war. At a virtual tie (50.23% no, 49.76% yes) and with almost twice as many abstainers as voters, this can only be read as a sign of division and a lack of consensus, not the unequivocal statement of a vengeful electorate.

It is not driving FARC straight back into the jungle – certainly not right away. FARC immediately communicated that they view this result as a sign that they must work even harder for peace, and reiterated that they will continue to use only words as their weapons in the days ahead. The cease-fire stands. The negotiators will be back in Cuba this week.

President Santos walked out of the palace to a spontaneous demonstration of people chanting “We Want Peace! Not One Step Back!” and told them, and the media that he would continue to work for peace and that the peace process would continue to move forward. His next step was to call a meeting of all political parties to find a consensus process to move forward. It is unfortunate but inevitable that Uribe’s spoiler party will have to be a part of this process.

The most likely way forward will be to try to make adjustments to the accords that will make it acceptable to at least a substantial number of the “no” campaigners and try to pass them. The “no” side’s main issues were with the “transitional justice” proposals for guerrillas who had committed crimes, with some of the land reform and redistribution proposals, and with the conversion of FARC into a political party. Unfortunately these were also the key points making the deal acceptable to FARC – so the work of making the adjustments will not be straightforward or easy.

One of the campaigners for the peace deal, liberal former senator Piedad Cordoba, tried to find a silver lining, telling TeleSUR that voters had given Colombians an opportunity to dialogue again. Perhaps the “yes” side took the support of the people for granted. As the process moves forward after this turn, proponents of peace are unlikely to forget this hard lesson.

Colombia: The possibilities opened by the peace agreement

On June 23, at the end of a four-year long peace negotiation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government signed a ceasefire agreement in Havana. In cities around Colombia, people left signs on the streets reading: “R.I.P. Civil War, 1964-2016”. There are good reasons to date the civil war’s origin even further back, all the way to 1948. In either case, this is a historic moment, the signing of a peace to end one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Like many other guerrilla movements in Latin America the FARC took up arms in part to defend peasant lands from powerful interests: local big landowners, the state, and multinational corporations, and their military and paramilitary forces. The peace agreement they signed contains a mandate for land reform, as well as for restitution for the victims of the conflict, a transitional justice process for guerrillas who committed crimes during the war, and a process for the guerrillas to enter Colombia’s electoral political system.

The process isn’t finished: the final agreement will be signed in Colombia. It will have to be approved in a referendum, and legislation to support it will have to be passed in the Colombian Congress. But the FARC said on June 28, in a sign of how far the process has advanced, that they would not return to war even if the people rejected the accords. There are also other cautions, caveats, and limitations to the process to dampen the understandable celebration.

We have been here before. There have been two peace processes that took years, became very popular in Colombia, and ultimately failed. In the 1980s, a peace process saw thousands of revolutionaries associated with the guerrillas enter politics through the Patriotic Union (UP) party only to be killed by state-backed paramilitaries. From 1999-2002, peace talks ran at Caguan, while the Colombian government built up its military through Plan Colombia. They ended with the Colombian Army driving the FARC out of their safe zone, and another decade and a half of massacres, assassinations, and kidnappings.

While it is the largest, the FARC isn’t the only guerrilla group in Colombia. The National Liberation Army (ELN) is also in a peace process with the government, but it is in relatively early stages. Until that process is also concluded, the armed conflict cannot be declared over.

By every measure, the deadlier force in Colombia, and the bigger problem, is paramilitarism. The paramilitary strategy was introduced in Colombia from the very beginning of the civil war, with US support. Counterinsurgency doctrine starts from Mao’s dictum that the guerrilla is a fish and the people are the water; paramilitaries are supposed to drain the water (“drain the swamp”, is the way it is written in the US). In Colombia, “draining the swamp” has involved massacres against peasant and indigenous communities, campaigns of assassination against progressive politicians, union activists, journalists, human rights and women’s rights activists – anyone seeking any sort of positive change in the country has been targeted.

It is important to understand that despite their self-declarations, these paramilitary forces did not arise in response to the guerrillas, but operate according to their own political logic of terror and control of the population. An example: some of the worst paramilitary massacres were committed after the 1991 Constitution, which guaranteed indigenous and Afro-Colombian rights to land. Paramilitaries slaughtered their way down the pacific coast as the number of people killed grew to thousands each year and the number of displaced people grew into the millions. It is much more difficult to claim territorial rights guaranteed by the constitution when you have been forced to flee your territory.

The evidence linking these paramilitaries to the US-backed Colombian Army, to Colombian politicians, to narcotrafficking, and to multinational corporations, is voluminous.

The leader of the camp dedicated to spoiling the peace agreement is ex-President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who initiated a theatrical peace process to demobilize the paramilitaries in 2003. The paramilitaries spent the next few years demobilizing, bringing rusty weapons to photographed ceremonies and getting special benefits like the right to keep the profits of their crimes. Despite all this demobilizing, the paramilitaries are as active as ever. During Uribe’s tenure as president, a scandal called “para-politica” or “para-Uribismo” emerged, in which paramilitaries revealed signed pacts between their groups and elected politicians in Uribe’s party. He also had the ‘wiretapping scandal’, which revealed that Colombia’s intelligence agency was wiretapping government officials, journalists, and supreme court judges. Uribe continues to have his own intelligence network and has leaked things on twitter about the peace process well before they were public. To get a flavor of what the paramilitaries have been up to recently, read a communique from Colombia’s social movements (see for example this one translated by the Colombia Support Network: http://colombiasupport.net/2016/03/s-o-s-for-our-lives-for-human-rights-and-for-peace-guarantees-that-there-will-be-no-repetition/).

Like many ongoing conflicts, Colombia’s civil war has been deadlier for civilians than combatants. Unarmed social movements argued throughout this peace process (and previous ones) that the unarmed people who have suffered the most from the war should have a say in the peace. Just this past April, in Northern Cauca, Afro-Colombians marched in defense of their traditional lands against mining encroachment and were met with riot police beatings and tear gas. The movements understand very well that inequality, and the violence required to sustain it, did not begin with the armed conflict with the FARC and will not disappear after the FARC lay down arms and enter politics.

But even looking at it with no illusions, the peace process can be celebrated for the possibilities it opens.

Paramilitarism may not be a mere reaction to the state-guerilla confrontation, but it has certainly fed from it. Popular repudiation of specific guerrilla tactics, such as kidnapping civilians, also helped create a stronger right-wing constituency. The Colombian civil war became a laboratory for counterinsurgency, paramilitarism, and covert action that devastated not just Colombia, but other countries as well. Colombian paramilitaries popped up in countries from Venezuela to Honduras. Counterinsurgency experts took the Colombian experience on their resumes and went to Afghanistan and beyond. With peace in Colombia, all of this could change.

On the other side, the state’s first line of defense against every social movement has been to accuse it of collusion with the guerrillas. An unarmed organization would then be treated like a military target. Without the armed conflict as a pretext for the state, Colombia’s movements could end up on a more level political playing field in their struggles for land, union rights, and social justice.

The fine print will have to be read carefully and there will be many traps and risks ahead. But a negotiated end to the Colombian armed conflict has been a demand of Colombia’s unarmed social movements for many decades. They have struggled for it and many have died for it. This peace is their victory, as much as it is that of the two parties who signed the accords.

First published at TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Colombia-The-Possibilities-Opened-by-the-Peace-Agreement-20160629-0009.html

Paz Colombia: the latest US attempt to control Colombia?

The U.S. has announced funding for a new Plan Colombia as the country moves towards a resolution to its civil war. What is its real purpose?

Colombia’s peace process has entered its final phase. Agreements have been reached on land reform, political participation, and the rights of victims. The discussions are now focused on ending the conflict and implementation and verification of the accords. The deadline for a final agreement is March 23, and it might be met.

In this last phase of negotiations, Colombia’s president reached out to the US for aid. On February 4, a new initiative was unveiled in Washington by presidents Santos and Obama: the new version of Plan Colombia, which they called “Paz Colombia”. Obama began by commemorating the success of Plan Colombia, a plan that brought military helicopters and escalated aerial fumigation to the country. “We were proud to support Colombia and its people as you strengthened your security forces, as you reformed land laws, and bolstered democratic institutions,” he said. “And after 15 years of sacrifice and determination, a tipping point has been reached. The tide has turned.”

Santos elaborated on the successes since Plan Colombia was rolled out in 2000: “Today we can say without a doubt that the goals that we had in 2000 — such as fighting the drug war, strengthening institutions, and imposing the rule of law, and to take social programs to great parts of remote Colombian territory — those objectives have been met.”

The history of Plan Colombia is slightly different than that presented by Obama and Santos. As lawyer Dan Kovalik outlined in this article for TELeSUR English, the problems the presidents claim Plan Colombia solved were mostly made worse by it.

Take Santos’s objectives, which Plan Colombia supposedly met: The drug war? There may be a peace agreement between the government and FARC, but the drug war promises to go on and on. The rule of law and the strengthening of institutions? These were certainly areas of struggle over the past 15 years, but any gains made there were fought for by the people, not flown in by the military helicopters of Plan Colombia. Social programs and protections? Many have been lost under neoliberalism – some have been preserved by struggle by Colombia’s movements.

What about Obama’s list? Security forces were strengthened, to be sure. New equipment was introduced and soldiers were trained in its use. But the Plan Colombia years were years of collaboration between the military and the paramilitaries, who were responsible for the most horrific violence. Reformed land laws? The 15 years of Plan Colombia were a time of losses of land and of rights to land. Colombia’s 1991 Constitution was one of the most progressive in Latin America when it came into force. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian territorial rights were enshrined. Paramilitary violence escalated after this constitution, as elites deployed their forces to create facts on the ground: specifically, to use terror and massacre to force people to flee the territories they had just won legal rights to. Millions of people were displaced from their lands in this way. Legal changes under the 15 years of Plan Colombia, the “reformed land laws”, attempted to retroactively legalize this loss of land. As for the bolstering of democratic institutions, it was in the Plan Colombia years that the “para-politica” or “para-Uribe” scandal occurred – evidence of signed contracts between politicians and paramilitaries to kill and displace local people.

There were other scandals too, in the Plan Colombia years. The Colombian security services wiretapping politicians involved in the peace process. The Colombian military entrapping and murdering completely innocent peasants, dressing them up as guerrillas, and using the deaths to inflate the numbers of casualties their units were inflicting (“false positives”).

At the announcement of the Paz Colombia plan, Obama said that the US would support the peace the same way it had supported the war. If this is the plan, it is frightening. When Plan Colombia started in 2000, there was actually a peace process underway between the FARC and the government. It had begun just a year before, in 1999. There is little question that Plan Colombia helped to derail it, steering the Colombian government towards a military solution.

At $450 million USD, the scale of Paz Colombia was reportedly disappointing to President Santos. The original Plan Colombia was announced at $1.3 billion USD, most of which paid for US-manufactured attack helicopters. Colombia paid several times that amount out of its own budget for Plan Colombia. Colombians paid for Plan Colombia, and they will be paying for Paz Colombia.

Those were not the only costs Colombians paid. The environmental and health costs of the spraying are difficult to calculate. In 2008, Ecuador took Colombia to court over the ecological and health damage caused by aerial fumigation on the Colombia-Ecuador border. In 2013, the lawsuit was settled for $15 million, which environmentalists argued was an extreme undervaluation of the damage. The true damages might be in the billions.

Many problems remain. Neither the peace accords nor Paz Colombia deal with the bigger cause of violence over the decades: the paramilitaries. Implementation will be fraught with difficulties. When previous guerrilla groups disarmed and joined politics (Union Patriotica and M-19), they were devastated by state-backed paramilitary assassination campaigns. Unarmed social movements have struggled during the talks, as they did during the war, to get their voices heard and their sacrifices recognized.

But a negotiated end to the armed conflict has long been a demand of these movements, and its realization is to be celebrated. The movements will be the ones fighting to prevent Colombia’s post-war reality from being “mired in structural poverty and violence and endemic corruption”, as Hector Perla wrote in TeleSUR last week.

It is not accurate to say that the US is standing with Colombia in peace as it did in war. It might be more accurate to say that the US is trying to control the peace as it controlled the war. If the history of Plan Colombia is a guide, an independent path might yield a better peace.

First published at TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Paz-Colombia-the-Latest-US-Attempt-to-Control-Colombia-20160208-0015.html

A breakthrough in Colombia’s peace talks

On Sept. 23, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to sign an agreement with the FARC on transitional justice. “Peace is close,” he told the press. An agreement on justice and reparations for victims was one of the most contentious areas of discussion, and one on which Santos and FARC had exchanged some harsh public words over recent months. The FARC announced their willingness to lay down their arms; the possibility of a truth commission has also been discussed. Coming at one of the most dangerous points in the talks, and on one of the most difficult areas of negotiation, this agreement is a breakthrough moment.

The 40th round of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla organization ended on August 30th. Ten days before, the FARC had declared another unilateral ceasefire, one of many that have taken place during these multi-year negotiations. Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, have also been in secret negotiations with the government and may begin an official negotiation soon, according to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo (Sept 7).

There continue to be signs of significant investment in peace by the government and reasons for optimism about an accord. A package of constitutional reforms to facilitate a peace accord was scheduled to be debated in Colombia’s Congress on Sept 11.

El Tiempo also reported an unusual step taken by the U.S. Ambassador, who on September 8 hosted Colombian government representatives as well as ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez to try to win Uribe over to the peace accord. Uribe has been the leader of the opposition to peace, running his own intelligence network, leaking information, and posting inflammatory tweets. While Uribe was in office, from 2002-2010, his policies aligned seamlessly with the U.S. of the War on Terror. If the U.S. Ambassador is, as El Tiempo reports, trying to coax him into acting less of a spoiler, that is a sign of strong support for an accord from the U.S.

But there are negative signs as well. During the previous unilateral ceasefire declared in July, the FARC killed Afro-Colombian activist Genaro Garcia – an act for which FARC took responsibility and vowed to punish its perpetrators. A coalition of social movement groups marched in Genaro’s name at the end of August, demanding a bilateral ceasefire and a role in the negotiations.

The Indigenous movement also suffered a major blow at the hands of the state when, on Sept. 15, Feliciano Valencia was detained by the court on a charge of “kidnapping” a soldier, which carries a sentence of 192 months. In fact, Valencia is one of many Indigenous leaders in Northern Cauca, a territory that has suffered tremendous military aggression over the years. In the incident for which Feliciano is being charged, the Indigenous foiled an aggressive plot by an armed soldier, tried him, punished him according to their traditions, and released him. Their rights to do this are protected by the Colombian constitution: this is an illegal persecution of an Indigenous leader, occurring in the middle of a breakthrough in the peace process.

At the end of June, after the breakdown of a ceasefire and a series of battles, a Gallup poll showed a drop in public support for the peace process, with a nearly even split over support for a military vs. a diplomatic solution (46% favoring military, 45% favoring a negotiated solution), and only 33% believing that the peace process would successfully end the armed conflict. Agreements on transitional justice, ratification, and how to actually end the armed conflict are all ahead, and none of these are easy, as the mainstream think-tank the International Crisis Group argued in July.

More dangerous than any of these, however, are the regional dynamics. The Colombia-Venezuela border remains closed at the time of writing and, although here, too, there are encouraging signs of diplomacy, media operations in Colombia are adding heat to the conflict. So too, in this arena, is Colombia’s ex-president Uribe. The Colombia-Venezuela border has been militarized and dangerous for more than a decade. In 2004, when Uribe was in power, he pursued an arms deal for a large number of Spanish-made tanks to be deployed to the border. Then president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, convinced the incoming Spanish government to cancel the deal and de-escalated the tensions, although there have been armed border conflicts and closures in the decade since.

The military dimension of the long-standing border problem is linked to the paramilitary problem, given the long historical links between Colombia’s military and paramilitaries. Paramilitary forces control the smuggling trade on the Colombian side and have suborned Venezuelan border guards on the Venezuelan side, to the point where smuggling has done severe damage to Venezuela’s economy. The Venezuelan government has enacted an operation to stop smuggling, but the problems on the Colombian side remain. The current border crisis erupted when Colombian paramilitaries attacked Venezuelan soldiers on the border on August 19.

Colombian paramilitarism is responsible for much more than the violence on the border, however. It is as old as Colombia’s armed conflict, beginning in the 1960s with advice from a U.S. military delegation. Colombian paramilitaries are responsible for the worst atrocities of the civil war, for most of the displacement, and most of the killings of noncombatants. They are also intertwined with Colombia’s military and intelligence services and brought large numbers of politicians under their control: this was exposed during Uribe’s presidency and called the Para-Politica scandal. Colombian paramilitaries have been seen in other countries in the Americas: Colombia, having developed expertise in the violent repression of social protest with U.S. help, has been exporting it. The Colombian paramiltiaries were supposed to have disarmed long ago, and their links to the Colombian establishment are officially denied. The Colombian government calls them "criminal bands" (Bacrim) and claims to be fighting them. Because of this official denial, it will be difficult to resolve the issue at the negotiating table. The paramilitary strategy is one that the U.S. has found invaluable since the 1960s. It will not disappear even if an accord is reached.

What really might sink the accord, though, are changes in regional politics. What brought Colombia’s government to the negotiating table in the first place probably had to do with not wanting to be isolated as a right-wing, U.S.-manipulated holdout in a continent that was taking steps in the direction of independence and social progress, with progressive regimes in many countries and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution leading the group. Today the Bolivarian revolution is threatened like never before, and left writers like Raul Zibechi argue that "the cycle of Latin American progressive politics appears to be coming to an end," soon to be replaced with a "repressive right wing environment." If Zibechi is right, then the Colombian government need not sign an accord: it need only wait for the rest of Latin America to catch up to its own "repressive right wing environment." If he is wrong, and there is still some progress left in progresismo, there is still a chance for peace.

But if it does come, Colombia’s peace, however welcomed, will be a violent and unequal one, as I have argued before. Many problems will remain, but peace still deserves support. With peace there are greater possibilities for democratic struggle and civil resistance.

This content was originally published by teleSUR at the following address:
“http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/A-Breakthrough-in-Colombias-Peace-Talks-20150923-0018.html”. If you intend to use it, please cite the source and provide a link to the original article. www.teleSURtv.net/english

A caravan for Genaro, part 2

A guest blog by Sheila Gruner

The caravan arrived in Tumaco last night and today the streets filled up for 3-4 hrs with Afrodescendents, Indigenous people, campesinos along with students, urban activists and a host of other allies. Chants of companero Genaro Garcia – Presente! Presente! Presente! rang through the ally ways, entered windows of schools, shops and offices and resonated against graffitied walls with messages for peace and the urgent need for dialogue to end the conflict.

There was an entirely cohesive voice as this mass of people, many of whom had only recently met, and perhaps never did get a chance to speak directly, moved through the streets in an act of solidarity and outrage and celebration of a possible new society. It was the voice of those who have suffered such loss themselves and understand the urgency to denounce and to be present in a way that still celebrates life and what has been achieved so far, in the defense of collective well being and the deep ties to land that were referred to throughout the days of the caravan.

Without the unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC the march may not have been possible. The police presence was limited, although did trail the caravan and coordinate with the organizers. The some 200-250 people were marshalled by the Guardia Cimarrona and organizers from the Congreso de los Pueblos who left a sense of complete dedication to the task, many being disciplined and dedicated young people who lead and flanked the crowd until it reached its destination in the public space where the culminating political and cultural event took place.

The march itself started at Tumaco’s City Hall and moved through many neighbourhoods, sending a clear message of support for the family and community affected by the loss of Genaro and to make a statement that the invisibility and violent and longstanding silencing of Afrocolombian communities of the Pacific and elsewhere, the attempted erasure of their historical vindications and attacks on social organizations, is deeply unacceptable and can not be tolerated.

It has never been more evident that peace negotiations that involve elements related to issues affecting territories as well as urban communities, such as in the Afrocolombian and Indigenous communities of Narino, Cauca, Choco and up the Pacific coast through the Atlantic and to the interior, can not move ahead without the legitimate representation of Afrodescendent and Indigenous organizational voice.

A lasting end to the conflict can’t be achieved without the right to autonomy and participation being fully implemented, so that those most affected by the violence, imposed by both legal and illegal players, gain the hard fought recognition that they are the legitimate ethical governing force in their ancestral regions.

It is yet a long road. The issues of illegal mining and the drug trade will not easily disappear. Nor the presence of the 7 U.S. military bases in the country aimed at securing multinational and U.S. national and geopolitical interests in the country and broader region. The challenges facing the peace process are present indeed but perhaps more pressing are the implications of the post accord period…for if Guatemala is any indication, the end to the conflict could mean much greater extractive development and new forms of violence within and directed against those communities systematically excluded from any real decisions regarding the processes of wealth production.

The clamour today was how it should be in response to the loss of any and all such committed leaders, activists, peaceful defenders of land and the rights of communities. The violence committed against Genaro Garcia was perpetrated against humanity, and as the Personeria stated public ally today, was a crime of lesser humanity. It was an affront to the collective process and to all who work in defense of human dignity.