A Way Out for Colombia

“Who in the U.S. benefits from fumigating Colombians?” the man asked me pointedly in the crowded community hall in a paramilitary-controlled part of Putumayo. Putumayo is a southern department of Colombia where the guerrilla insurgency is strong, where much coca is grown, where paramilitary massacres, disappearances, and assassinations are frequent, and where Plan Colombia is focused. It’s also the focus of U.S. military assistance and fumigation programs.

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Loincloths, Ski Masks, and Social Movements

“Certainly a soldier, myself included, is an absurd and irrational man, because he has the ability to resort to arms in order to convince. In the end, that’s what a soldier does when he gives an order: convince by force of arms. That’s why we say the military must never govern, and that includes us. Because whoever has had to resort to arms to make his ideas felt is pretty short on ideas… that’s why we say that armed movements, however revolutionary they may be, are basically arbitrary movements. In any case, what an armed movement has to do is raise the problem and step aside.” March 11, 2001.

Anyone recognize the speaker? How about this: “those of us who are military are not intelligent, if we were we would not be military”, in April 1999.

These are words of the EZLN, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the first in an interview in Mexico City and the second in a letter to Mumia Abu-Jamal. Play this name that quote game one more time with me for this: “who is the true warrior-he who walks always with death at his side or he who controls the death of others?” That’s Gandhi.

What’s the point of this quoting game? I’ve heard the violence/nonviolence in social movements framed too many times in terms of the EZLN versus Gandhi. The EZLN is supposed to exemplify armed struggle. Gandhi is supposed to exemplify weakness or a reluctance to take a punch. The truth is that Gandhi said, correctly, that courage was in facing punches and not in doling them out. And the truth is that the EZLN is very clear about how unhappy they are to be an armed movement.

In March, when they went to Mexico City, they made a big show of leaving their weapons at home. Of accepting that the only protection they had was the political protection of hundreds of thousands of (equally unarmed) Mexicans who would take care of them.

Pitting the EZLN against the Indian Nationalist Movement as if approving of one means disapproving of the other is an odd and unfair thing to do. Does supporting the EZLN mean I like violence? Does thinking highly of Gandhi’s strategies mean I’m a pacifist? Or does being impressed by both mean something else entirely? Maybe it means that I support understanding one’s own situation and context and trying to act appropriately, which is what characterizes both movements. Maybe it means I support building alternatives at the same time as resistance, taking care of one’s own people, communicating with them, making the opposition look ridiculous, and trying to choose appropriate actions for the situation.

In 1995, when the Mexican Government attacked with the intention of arresting the Zapatista command, the command didn’t stand and fight. They retreated. They knew that if they fought, the Government would have every excuse to execute terrible reprisals against their people. This year, they left their weapons in Chiapas and went to Mexico City, and the government-who would have loved to arrest them– was helpless.

Advocates of armed struggle say that the only reason the government doesn’t repress a movement out of existence is because the movement is ineffective. So how does that work with the unarmed Zapatista caravan? Was it ineffective? Is that why the government didn’t attack it or round up the leaders? Or is there such a thing as political protection against repression? Do governments, in spite of having all the guns, still rely on the obedience of people to govern- and do they not fear losing that obedience?

I heard an Indian military analyst once criticize Indian militarists who thought India should gear up to try to resist or deter a US intervention. The trouble with their argument, he said, was that there is just no way India, or any 3rd world country, can militarily deter the US. Such protections as there are, are political. I believe the same is true for social movements.

The opposition would like nothing better than to turn a social struggle into a military one. That’s one they can win. But as the EZLN said, even violence is nothing more than a way to convince. The purpose of an assassination or a massacre isn’t usually to kill the people assassinated or massacred. It’s to convince the people who aren’t killed. The question for social movements is, given the potentials on both sides, is it worth using that method to convince?

Note that this isn’t a moral argument. I believe that self defense on the part of an oppressed people is a moral act. I think Malcolm X was right to be unmoved by white liberals trying to teach black folks nonviolence-go teach the Klan nonviolence, he said, and then we’ll talk. I think that superior morality isn’t in self-defense or in pacifism, but in doing whatever is necessary to end the oppression in the least costly way possible. If I thought that meant violence, I’d be blowing something up right now. Since I don’t, I’m not.

Both the EZLN and the Indian nationalists found symbols that communicated with people. The EZLN uses ski masks, rubber boots, and guns. Gandhi used loincloths and spinning wheels. The point isn’t to use their symbols but to find ones that are appropriate to our own time and place.

I have high hopes for the movement against capitalist globalization in the first world. I hope that it expands to realize the importance of colonization of native people, the oppression of african americans everywhere but especially in the justice system, the exploitation of immigrants, the abuse and inequality suffered by women, the destructiveness of the drug war, class exploitation and poverty at home.

But I am worried that we are being drawn into an arms race with the opposition. That’s something both our friends in ski masks and our friends in loincloths refused to do.

A few more moves ahead


There is too much at stake for social change to be a game. But if it were a game, the side that had the ability to think many moves ahead, anticipate its opponents moves, know what its goal was and move toward it relentlessly, would have huge advantages over the side that didn’t.

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Invisible Struggles in Colombia

If you had the chance to see ‘Traffic’, you know the War on Drugs is a sham. There’s a good chance you know that its domestic effects are to imprison thousands and thousands of non-violent offenders who aren’t dangerous, cut them off from their families and friends, destroy their life chances, destroy social bonds and devastate their communities, and lock them up in brutal places which are training grounds for crime. You probably know that the money and arms the US sends to countries like Colombia to ‘fight’ drugs ends up in the hands of paramilitaries who use it to produce drugs and kill civilians.

Perhaps you know about Plan Colombia, the violence of which is beginning to take effect. The Plan that sends $5 billion in military aid to the Colombian government to fight drugs, which translates to sending the Colombian military and paramilitaries $5 billion in advanced weapons to fight guerrillas and progressive social movements. Perhaps you know about the impunity with which trade unionists and human rights workers, journalists and legal workers are murdered in places like Barrancabermeja. Maybe you’ve read about the familiar process: small farmers, or indigenous people, or afro-colombians, on resource rich lands. Local elites and politicians cut a deal with multinational corporations to split the resources on the lands– to build an oil well, or a hydroelectric dam. The only obstacle? The people who live there. So make refugees of them, and if they resist, murder them.

But if you’re like me, you probably haven’t had the chance to hear directly from the social organizations who are resisting this kind of development. You probably haven’t had a chance to see the courage, intelligence, and resilience with which they resist and persist in pressing for a negotiated solution to the conflict between the government and the guerrillas. You probably haven’t had a chance to see the diversity of the types of organizations, their strength, and their attempts to construct real alternatives to the destruction being meted out to them.

The Canada-Colombia Campaign made it possible for some of us to have that chance. It brought six activists from six different organizations in Colombia to Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa to discuss the situation in Colombia, the connections with North America, and what genuine solidarity between activists here and there could mean.

The mainstream press tells us that North American opposition to the FTAA and corporate globalization is self-interested and guaranteed to deny the third world its opportunity. We selfish, greedy north americans don’t want the FTAA because we don’t want to lose our jobs to the southern countries when companies relocate there. But as Patricia Buritica, a trade union leader with the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores said, company relocations from northern countries causes misery– company relocations to the southern countries cause deaths. It is to please those same companies that paramilitaries have created a refugee population of around 2 million in Colombia. To please those companies, paramilitaries and the army make Colombia one of the most lethal places in the world for trade unionists– 50% of all trade unionists who are killed, are killed in Colombia. In other words, the less mobile corporations are, the better– for everyone.

Maria del Pilar Cordoba, a feminist and peace activist with the Ruta Pacifica de Mujeres (Women’s Path for Peace), asked North Americans who want to build solidarity with Colombia to leave their fear behind. “Everyone I’ve talked to here, when I tell them what I do in Colombia, says ‘oh how frightening’. I would rather they not be so frightened. I would rather they turn that fear into something else. We all live with the fear of death, and we have to keep working, and we want you to do the same.” Dora Guzman, a leader of the Popular Feminist Front, (Organizacion Feminina Popular), extended the discussion of fear further: “There is not one of us who doesn’t face several threats a day on our lives from the paramilitaries. What we’ve done is to collect all these fears into one big fear, and then get rid of that, so we can continue with our work.”

They talked about the small victories that solidarity has helped bring about, and the potential for greater victories. Agustin Reyes, a peasant leader with the Peace Communities and Territories (Comunidades y Territorios de Paz), told a story of how his organization took a denunciation of a paramilitary threat against his community to the Attorney General. Shortly afterwards, his organization began to face threats and harassment from paramilitaries. They then took a denunciation of this to the Attorney General, and also to the international human rights network. A letter writing campaign followed, inundating the Attorney General with mail, forcing him to take steps to guarantee their safety. Maria del Pilar Cordoba told a story of a mother who used an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign to force authorities to disclose the location of the remains of her disappeared and murdered son. Ezequiel Vitonas Talanga, an indigenous leader with the Indigenous Autonomous and Peaceful Co-Existence Movement (Proyecto Nasa) told another story of how letter-writing campaigns have saved lives.

The presence of international observers has also done much to deter impunity. While activists from Colombia face murder, international observers there are relatively safe. The six activists and their organizations extended an invitation to North Americans to go to Colombia and see what’s going on, and help chip away at the impunity there.

I asked the Colombian leaders what we could demand of our own governments in order to complement their struggles. They told me to oppose the FTAA, and Plan Colombia, and the investments and aid projects that displace and destroy people. Someone in the audience told them about North American governments’ repression of the American Indian Movement, the dispossession and destruction of indigenous people here. Agustin Reyes noted how this showed that we were fighting the same enemy, and that our struggles really could be complementary.

As the discussion wound up, I wondered about that $5 billion figure. I wondered how much progress could be made against drug addiction with that amount of money. Or how far $5 billion would go in rebuilding communities devastated by the War on Drugs, or in rebuilding social services destroyed by globalization. Or how small a fraction of that money it would take for Peace Brigades International or the Christian Peacemaker Teams to establish a large, permanent international observer presence in places in Colombia where it could save many lives. It was probably idle dreaming, but after listening to these activists, I didn’t feel I had the right to give up hope.

Mexico’s New President Vicente Fox and the Zapatistas


I was talking to a Mexican friend who voted for Vicente Fox in the July elections, and told her I was a Zapatista supporter. She was appalled. “You’re not Mexican, you don’t know what’s going on there. You can’t know from spending a few months there. I’m from there and the decisions made by the government affect me and my family. And I’m against the Zapatistas.”

“Okay fine,” I said. “Now give me a real reason.”

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