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Triumph of the Will in Colombia?

Bush and Uribe at the Beach

by FORREST HYLTON

"President Uribe has shown the will to triumph over the guerrillas."

George W. Bush

Had it been Bogotá, which Donald Rumsfeld passed through on August 19, 2003, citizens might have experienced dejá vu, but this time it was Cartagena de Indias and President Bush rather than Dr. Strangelove was visiting. 15,000 troops, US as well as Colombian, were deployed, 1,200 of them along the urban perimeter where poor black people — many displaced from the countryside — live. Snipers were posted on the rooftops at the airport and in the city center, while helicopters and combat planes circled the airspace, which was closed. A US aircraft carrier and two submarines were stationed off the coast, and last but not least, two "anti-explosive" robots were used to avoid bombings. The day was declared a civic holiday, though the sale of liquor was prohibited. Two battalions of anti-riot "Robocops" spread out over the city to contain potential (non-) ‘violent’ protests, while in central Bolívar, a combined task-force of police and infantrymen undertook "offensive" operations in Montes de María against FARC and ELN guerrillas in order to "prevent" a possible attack.

Thus Bush’s first official state visit since re-election. Unlike Bill Clinton, who toured the scenic areas of Cartagena in his limo four years ago, Bush was whisked away to the island of Manzanillo, which had once been a colonial slave plantation. Fittingly enough, the official agenda was kept simple. Plan Colombia and Plan Patriot. Free trade agreements. Fightin’ terr’ists.

The majority of cartageneros live in neighbourhoods without adequate services or infrastructure — neighbourhoods that have recently been hit by the worst floods since 1996, and in which paramilitaries ‘cleanse’ suspected subversives with complete impunity. This display of spectacular military force may have brought to mind Fallujah rather than Bogotá, capital of Uribe’s ‘Cattle Republic,’ in which the ‘land belongs to he who expropriates it.’*

Then, too, the signs were even clearer this time. While Bush mentioned the issue of Iran’s nuclear plans as paramount, the defeat of the Colombian insurgencies is now higher on the list of imperial priorities than it was when Rumsfeld did Bogotá. So, while Plan Colombia is set to expire in 2005, we can expect that there will be at least four more years of it. As Bush, like Kerry, pointed out, Plan Colombia has been a bi-partisan affair from the get go.

Being a man of faith, Bush believes Uribe is well on the way to ridding Colombia of its "narco-terr’ists," and he intends to provide total support toward that end. Compared to Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s easy for the Bush administration to envision Colombia as an example of imperial success. Whereas the "forces of evil" control more and more of the former countries, in the latter the bad guys are on the run (even if they haven’t yet been smoked out of their holes).

The reality, of course, is otherwise, though that matters little to those who openly disdain what a top Bush aide once referred to as "the reality-based community." In assessing the impact of the $3.39 billion paid out for Plan Colombia since 2000, 80% of it in military/police training and hardware, supporters, like the Financial Times of London, point to the sharp reduction in kidnappings, which are down by 42% since 2003. Then, too, there is the 4% rate of economic growth, based on yet another narco-construction bubble like the one initiated under César Gaviria some fifteen years ago. Boosters also point to the fact that according to US government studies (which should be regarded with extreme scepticism), the area under coca cultivation has diminished by 30% since 2001. This has been accomplished through massive aerial fumigation in the south, which, as courageous scientists have demonstrated, has caused widespread respiratory and skin infections, particularly among children, and has destroyed rivers, fish, and wildlife, as well as livestock and licit crops, without providing alternative sources of livelihood. Furthermore, fumigation has not diminished the price or availability of the coca leaf or coca paste in Colombian markets, much less the price of cocaine on US streets, as Colombia continues to account for 80% of world cocaine production.

However, Uribe was elected (with 24% of the potential vote) on a straightforward platform: he would eliminate the "contagion" of insurgency before it became a threat to other countries in the region. And here Uribe’s successes have been non-existent, as the guerrillas have largely melted into the jungle and broken their large columns down into smaller, more mobile units. The leadership structures of both the FARC and the ELN are intact. Furthermore, on Uribe’s watch, the number of FARC attacks has actually increased dramatically.

But there are other, more significant statistical indicators by which to measure the "success" of Plan Colombia. A record number of people were "disappeared" in 2002-2003 — 3,593 per year, as opposed to 3,413 between 1994-2001. The number of killings attributed to state security forces is up from 120 per year between 1998-2002 to 184 in 2003, while the percentage of paramilitary killings of civilians continues to hover around 70%, in spite of the "unilateral ceasefire" declared in December 2003 as part of the farcical "peace negotiations" between the AUC paramilitaries and the Uribe administration. The Human Rights Ombudsmen’s Office reports 342 violations of the ceasefire, resulting in some 1,900 murders. More than 4,800 civilians were arrested on charges of "rebellion" in 2003, though three fourths of them were subsequently released for lack of evidence. According UN studies, 2.5 million children work for a pittance in dangerous and difficult conditions, while every two days a Colombian dies of hunger. The percentage of people living in poverty — defined as an income of less than $3 per day — has risen to 64% overall, and 85% in the countryside.

The number of internally displaced people — a majority of them women and children, a disproportionate minority of them indigenous and Afro-Colombian — has increased from 2.5 million to 3.5 million since 2002. With the possible exception of occupied Iraq, Colombia remains the most dangerous country on earth for independent journalists, trade unionists, teachers, human rights activists, and amphibians, 208 species of which are currently in danger of extinction. A poll carried out by the National Department of Statistics (DANE), which led to the resignation of its director, César Caballero, demonstrated that less than 30% of residents in Bogotá and Cali feel secure. So much for the wonders of Uribe’s "democratic security" policies. For the first time since the mid-1980s, Cali has surpassed Medellín in its homicide levels. Cali is a hotbed of independent progressive politics, and homicides are up 60% throughout the department since 2003.** At the press conference in Cartagena, Bush declared that his was an administration that looked for results, and that Uribe’s was one that achieved them.

The results listed above offer little cause for celebration. Yet rays of light are breaking through the storm clouds of war, as protests, in the form of mass mobilizations and student strikes, have increased in October and November. In spite of the uniform support ­ including that of the EU — for a military solution to a socio-political conflict, Uribe, like his counterparts in the region, must confront that most terrifying of things for rulers everywhere: an organized movement from below demanding radical social change.

The Anti-Re-Election Front has decided to run a candidate against Uribe in 2006. If it channels regional oppositional tides into a coherent national force, Colombia might find itself swimming with the continental current in spite of the fact that it receives half of all US "aid" to the region. Rather than a success story, with time Colombia might prove to be yet another example of the limits of imperial power.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. He can be reached at forresthylton@hotmail.com.

* Both phrases are borrowed from Alfredo Molano’s columns in El Espectador.

** Not all of the rise in homicides can be blamed on counterinsurgent politics, insofar as fierce wars for territory have broken out among traffickers for control of the northern part of the department.

Sources: AP, El Colombiano, El Espectador, El Tiempo, CNN en Español, Latinamerica Press, Colombia Week, Financial Times, Center for Internacional Policy-Colombia Project