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Silence on the Death Squads?

Rice in Colombia

by W. JOHN GREEN

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began her Latin America tour this week, arriving in Brazil with a series of talks scheduled with leaders in Colombia, Chile and El Salvador. Rice is certain to push Washington’s argument that Latin America’s deep poverty problems can be solved with neo-liberal prescriptions for more democratization and privatization-precisely the formula which has proved ineffective in the past because the democratization was superficial and the privatization being a major part of the reason why poverty abatement has been such a stark failure in most of Latin America. Also, Rice is not expected to even allude to the fact that a de facto coalition embracing Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela and most likely Ecuador could further isolate the U.S. in much of Latin America. As a result, Rice will be flying the flag in four countries on this trip: El Salvador, which is a loyal spear-carrier in Iraq; Chile, whose foreign policy is on bent knees to the U.S. because of its dependency on trade; Colombia, which is now the third leading receiver of U.S. aid in the world; and Brazil, which is too important to ignore.

Additionally, Rice will seek support in containing Venezuela’s leftist president Hugo Chávez, citing her "concerns about the behavior of the Venezuelan regime." However, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is not likely to entirely assume his usual position of deference to the Bush camp and can be expected to defend Bogotá’s pragmatic relationship with Caracas. Meanwhile, Rice will voice U.S. support for a set of policies that, aside from running an ecologically questionable ineffective coca spraying program, primarily underwrites the Colombian military and police, which together account for over 80% of Plan Colombia’s total $3 billion funding.. Throughout all of Plan Colombia’s existence (it is scheduled to expire this year), the country’s security forces have had close ties to the paramilitary groups whose massive human rights derelictions are of international concern.

Dark deeds of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC)

Misleading newspaper coverage presented the talks between President Alvaro Uribe’s government and paramilitary chiefs over the last year as "peace" negotiations. The paramilitary group known as the AUC was formed in the early 1980′s at the behest of local elites, drug traffickers and military officers, and is responsible for assassinating thousands, including prosecutors, judges and elected officials as well as everyday Colombians. The AUC has not been known to attack the state, but rather paralleled the government’s struggle against leftist guerrillas, even characteristically working closely with military and national police units. The AUC helped government security forces to sweep away guerrillas in regions from Catatumbo in the north to the Cauca Valley in the southwest. They have also have been instrumental in placing the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) on the defensive and have helped to nearly wipe out the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Along the way, the AUC has murdered thousands of peaceful labor activists, peasant leaders, journalists, human rights defenders and progressive politicians and has played a major role in developing Colombia’s largest export sector: illegal drugs.

At a June 2004 conference at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Wood expressed support for Uribe’s attempts to pass "alternative sentencing" legislation in order to provide an exiguous legal basis for paramilitary demobilization. But at the same time, Wood confused the issue by stressing that the United States would not accept "peace at any cost," especially if it undercut Washington’s efforts to extradite paramilitary drug traffickers. He said a "good peace" is possible if it changes the behaviors of those in the process. In contrast, its alleged rehabilitation goals it now appears that the U.S. will grant asylum to international terrorist Luis Posada. Posada claims responsibility for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner which killed 73 people, as well as several other bomb attacks on Havana tourist spots during the 1990s. Washington will now be even more hard pressed to convince Colombia of its sincerity in its condemnation of terrorism and the search for "good peace."

Framing an Escape Clause for Paramilitary Culprits

Ambassador Wood summed up the paramilitary demobilization process by describing it as difficult because neither peace nor justice is likely to be entirely achieved. Progress will be "uncertain," given that AUC’s freedom fighters range from child soldiers and rightwing zealots to drug traffickers. But if Colombia’s war is ever to wind down, he added, then, demobilization is "necessary."

At the same 2004 Wilson Center gathering, Colombian Senator Rafael Pardo Rueda warned that the process has not taken into account the price tag of reintegrating Colombia’s 15,000 paramilitary fighters into society or the extent to which their leaders have concentrated political power in their own hands. His concerns were echoed by Gustavo Villegas, director of the Peace and Reconciliation Program in the northwestern city of Medellín, the site of a troubled demobilization effort that began in November 2003. José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said the proposed legislation provided neither justice nor reparations as prison terms were much too brief for someone guilty of ordering a massacre. Uribe’s faulty demobilization plan also allowed paramilitaries to keep ill-gotten gains, including tens-of-thousands of acres snatched from displaced peasants. Michael Frühling, the U.N. human rights chief in Colombia, pointed out that impunity would poison the process and insisted that the Uribe government sever its paramilitary ties in a process he described as "decontamination." Finally, Daniel García-Peña, Bogota’s chief peace negotiator from 1995 to 1998, noted the government has deployed paramilitaries to thwart popular movements for six decades. García-Peña, who directs the grassroots Colombian group called Planeta Paz, said there was little evidence that the Uribe administration was departing from this tradition and earnestly confronting the paramilitaries.

Paramilitaries ­ A Gory Record

Paramilitaries, by far, have done most of the killing of civilians in the country’s decades-old gory mêlée. Carlos Castaño Gil, the paramilitary chief who was murdered by rival factions in April 2004, often described himself as a patriot carrying out what government forces would be doing if not for foreign pressure. Many observers in the international community are starting to grapple with an unpleasant truth: if Colombia’s conflict is ever to end, the discourse involving peace with justice may be a zero-sum game in the short run. Colombia’s dysfunctional judicial system makes prosecution of paramilitaries a very unlikely prospect and, as it stands, neither rank-and-file paramilitaries nor guerrillas have much incentive to disarm. The paramilitaries face extradition and guerrillas would almost certainly be assassinated by the thousands upon returning to civilian life. Those seeking peace in Colombia continue to be confounded by elusive but necessary tradeoffs between impunity and accountability.

President Uribe faces a dire political dilemma. For decades the country’s estimated 15,000 paramilitary troops have done most of the dirty work in the government’s notoriously brutal war against leftist guerrilla groups and in quashing the enormous social stress brought on by the country’s domestic protest movements. But the notorious rightwing fighters have become more trouble than perhaps they were worth to many Colombian senior officials, notwithstanding the few highly publicized "demobilizations" of former AUC members which were successful, it is not entirely certain that the government can monitor their activities now that they have returned to civilian life.

Uribe’s Strategy

When Uribe took office in 2002, he pledged to defeat the guerrillas on the battlefield and it looked like paramilitaries would play a prominent role in carrying out this vow. Uribe has had long-standing ties to northwestern drug traffickers, and as governor of Antioquia Province from 1995 to 1997, he promoted Convivir, a national program of civilian watch groups, many of which carried out massacres and eventually joined the paramilitaries.

An increasing number of military and civilian elites have begun to consider the utility of the paramilitaries to achieving national goals. National University political scientist Mauricio Romero Vidal says that this may be why Uribe initiated talks with the AUC, the main paramilitary confederation. Changing gears, the Uribe administration forged a 2003 agreement to phase out the illegal rightwing fighters by the end of 2005. Romero calls the purported demobilizations an attempt by the national government to reestablish legitimacy as well as achieve a monopoly on force.

However it is not clear that the demobilizations to date have been anything more than window dressing. In Medellín, where 860 people turned over weapons in the country’s first paramilitary demobilization, illegal rightwing activity has continued. Paramilitary groups also remain very active in Catatumbo, the site of the largest demobilization in 2004. Nationwide, the number of fighters who have handed over their weapons constitutes a small percentage of the country’s paramilitaries. Since declaring a "ceasefire" in December 2002, the AUC units have carried out at least several thousand murders and disappearances, according to the nongovernmental Colombian Commission of Jurists.

While the Uribe government has extradited lower level drug traffickers by the dozen to the U.S., it has protected Salvatore Mancuso Gómez and several other AUC commanders wanted by Washington. In July 2004, the government even flew in Mancuso and two of his lieutenants to address the Colombian congress.

Even more disturbing, it is far from certain that Uribe would have the wherewithal to bring the AUC to heel even if he were sincere in the effort. Paramilitaries have extended their influence across society, from city halls to universities, from soccer teams to the attorney general’s office. For a president who wants to be reelected in 2006, that is no small personal predicament.

W. JOHN GREEN, Ph.D., is a visiting professor of History at the University of South Carolina and a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Relations. Dr. Green is also the author of Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia.