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Abandoning a Negogiated Prisoner Exchange for a Military Resucue Attempt?

Uribe’s Failure to Learn from Colombia’s Past

by JAMES J. BRITTAIN

At a time when the Colombian government is experiencing growing urban and rural opposition to state-induced political and economic policies such the VAT tax reform, new inequitable bilateral-trade agreements with the United States, and a significant reduction in socioeconomic aid to regions most affected by the civil war, one would think that the Uribe administration would seek to mend the frayed relations with his remaining allies within the traditional dominant class. However, with the recent announcement that the Colombian government seeks to replace a negotiated prisoner exchange with the FARC-EP for a military-based rescue attempt, it looks as though this rationalism has failed to enter the president’s thinking.

Ironically, due to neoliberal economic policies, Uribe has significantly decreased the percentage of foreign corporate-tax-revenue going to the Colombian state, especially when concerning energy-based primary industrial revenues, resulting in far less capital accessible for the civil war effort (Richani, 2005a: 115; 2005b: 89-90, 101n.69). During 1991 and 1992, the Colombian government designed a taxation model to assist its fiscal capacity to confront the growing power of the FARC-EP and other leftist social movements. At this time the Colombian state took measures to raise funds from its most profitable natural resource and instituted a $1-$1.50 "war tax" on every barrel of oil sold (Aviles, 2006: 157n.15; Renner, 2002: 38). While this model produced millions of dollars for the Colombian state to use in its counterinsurgent activities, in 2001 several energy-based multinational corporations organized a unified opposition to the levy arguing it was a deterrent to trade, investment, and profit maximization (Richani, 2005a: 116). As a direct result of increased neoliberal economic policies, and an internal decrease of state-controls over MNC activity, the "war tax" on oil was removed (Richani, 2005a: 128). Similar policies have taken place over the past four years resulting in a systemic reduction in the amount of accessible revenue able to be utilized by the state coffers to confront the guerrilla (Leech, 2005).

With the threat of the FARC-EP not subsiding, the state has had to find other sources of capital to sustain its fight against the insurgent forces. One of the outcomes of this decreased fiscal capacity has been for the Uribe administration to increase its reliance on the nation’s economic elite. During Uribe’s first year in office, Colombia’s dominant class saw a 20% hike in income taxes (Muse, 2004). Following this, the state placed an additional one-time 1.2% tax on liquid assets belonging to the country’s wealthy for the purpose of increasing the Colombian forces efforts to restore security and order throughout the country (Daily Journal, 2006). At the time, the measures were largely supported by this sector of the population who sought to keep the central urban-centres safe from the FARC-EP and was therefore behind Uribe’s taxation policies. However, over the past four years the elite-based tax structures did not subside, but were rather sustained. This has led to several scholars arguing that the upper-economic strata within Colombia have come to share the vast majority of costs associated with the civil war and thus disproportionately burdening 1.7% of the Colombian population while the majority reap the security-based benefits (Crandall, 2005: 177; Sweig and McCarthy, 2005: 22; Richani, 2005b: 90). Due to this ‘burden’ an opposition has grown within this class over the last few years.

Nevertheless, in the spring of 2006, Uribe proposed an additional ‘one-time’ elite-based tax to expand military spending. Uribe expressed his defiance against elite-grumblings and stated that "we have to consider making the richest sectors (of society) make a one-off contribution to provide money for (military) technology and transport" (as quoted in Reuters, 2006a). Later in July, the state, obviously in disregard to the growing opposition, announced that yet another tax targeting the economic elite would be presented to members of the Colombian Congress. The tax reform sought to increase military’s coffers by $1.2 billion through imposing a tax structure that would place a low percentage levy on financial holdings that exceed $1 million (USD) (People’s Daily, 2006).

Increasingly taxation over Colombia’s dominant economic class undoubtedly places Uribe in a comprising and difficult position when concerning his political and economic ‘allies’. The dilemma facing Uribe when concerning these increasing economic pushes against elite civil society hinges on whether or not "Colombia’s elite continues to make economic sacrifices, supplementing the one-time tax payment earmarked for defense spending along with a tax for social investment" (Sweig and McCarty, 2005: 26). According to Richani (2005b: 89-90, 101n.69; see also 2005a: 115), these policies have, in actuality, led to Colombia’s elite-social base "rebelling against paying any more taxes" (2005b: 90).

In light of the above, coupled by the fact that "to finance the war, the Uribe government is running a budget deficit of 6 percent of the country’s GDP, which is well-above the 2.5 percent limit set by the IMF" (Richani, 2005b: 89), Uribe cannot afford-both politically and fiscally-to escalate a military conflict with the FARC-EP. In disregard of this reality, the Colombian government has decided to negate a peaceful negotiated prisoner exchange, which would immediately increase Uribe’s political clout amongst the elite opposition with dozens of relatives from this class being returned to their families. On the contrary, Uribe paradoxically pronounced that "we cannot continue the farce of a humanitarian exchange (of prisoners) with the FARC The only path that remains is a military rescue" (Bronstein, 2006).

Such a statement demonstrates Uribe’s failed memory when concerning past militaristic-based attempts at implementing a ‘rescue’ of detained members of the elite and state forces. In the spring of 2003, such a campaign was tried by the Uribe administration through the use of the military’s elite airborne "Fudra" force. The mission ended in the humiliation of the Colombian state forces when two top politicians and eight military officers being detained by the FARC-EP were killed during the rescue attempt.

On May 5 [2003] a fleet of US-donated Black Hawk helicopters carrying Colombian Special Forces attacked a guerrilla camp near Urrao in Antioquia department. The declared objective was to free captured government soldiers and two other prominent prisoners: the governor of Antioquia, Guillermo Gaviria, and former defence minister Gilberto Echeverri. But everything went wrong. Hours later, the bodies of ten dead prisoners where left behind in the camp, as the guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia FARC retreated into the thick jungle. Only three prisoners survived the rescue attempt (Engvist, 2003).

Blaming the government for the atrocity, Juan Carlos Lecompte, a former partner and friend of detainee, Ingrid Betancourt, stated that when looking at the tragic results that occurred in the botched 2003 rescue attempt, "we are going to insist that the government abstain from doing any military operations to rescue Ingrid" (as quoted in Engvist, 2003). It was also during this period that numerous members of Colombia’s elite turned on Uribe, stating that he was solely to blame for their relative’s deaths. Yolanda Pinto, the wife of the Gaviria, stated that "The government provoked this situation" by failing to recognize the praxis and political mission of the FARC-EP.

While the FARC-EP have been noted for keeping detained officials and soldiers safe and within the conditions cited under the Geneva Conventions (Botero, 2006), it must be re-emphasized that the

"guerrilla units have the moral obligation to save their own lives, and protect, as far as possible, the lives and physical well-being of the prisoners in their command. But in no case can rebels allow their prisoners to be taken away by enemy forces without a guerrilla military response" (as stated by Raúl Reyes, members of the FARC-EP Secretariat in Engvist, 2003).

In light of the above, a military-based solution to rescuing the detained officials/soldiers will only result in a re-visitation of the events experienced three years ago. As witnessed in the past months, there is considerable support for peace negotiations and dialogue to begin between the Uribe administration and the FARC-EP not only by the people within rural Colombia but also amongst the urban-based working class and from sectors of Colombia’s elite. By not acknowledging the position of the Colombian constituency, Uribe’s ‘rescue’ will do nothing more than accelerate the already existing opposition towards the state, most notably amongst the traditional elite.

JAMES J. BRITTAIN teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick. He can be reached at: james.brittain@unb.ca

Works Cited

Avilés, William (2006) Global Capitalism, Democracy, and Civil-Military Relations in Colombia. New York, NY: SUNY.

Botero, Jorge Enrique (2006) Últimas Noticias de la Guerra. Bogotá: Testimonio/Editorial Random House Mondadori

Bronstein, Hugh (2006) "Colombia’s Uribe orders rescue of rebel hostages" October 20

Crandall, Russell (2005) "From Drugs to Security: A New U.S. Policy Toward Colombia" in The Andes in Focus: Security, Democracy & Economic Reform. Russell Crandall, Guadalupe Paz and Riordan Roett (Eds.) Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner. pp. 173-189.

Daily Journal (2006) Uribe Proposes Tax to Finance Army" March 29, 2006

Engqvist, Maria (2003) "President blamed for the killing of 10 prisoners" May 26

Latin American Press (2004) "How Much the War Costs" November 25

Leech, Garry M. (2005) "Oil and Plan Colombia" Oral Presentation for Amnesty International February 27, 2005. Hampton, New Brunswick.

Muse, Toby (2004) "Paying the Piper: Swamped with debt and fighting a war, Colombia’s Uribe feel the heat inside and out" Latin Trade. 12(1): 22-23.

People’s Daily (2006) "Colombian gov’t plans temporary tax to raise money for military" July 7 , 2006.

Renner, Michael (2002) The Anatomy of Resource Wars. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute.

Reuters (2006) "Colombia’s Uribe Wants Assets Tax to Fund Military" On-Line March 29 2006.

Richani, Nazih (2005a) "Multinational Corporations, Rentier Capitalism, and the War System in Colombia" Latin American Politics and Society. 47(3): 113-144.

Richani, Nazih (2005b) "Third Parties, War Systems’ Inertia, and Conflict Termination: The Doomed Peace Process in Colombia, 1998-2002" Journal of Conflict Studies. 25(2): 75- 103.

Sweig, Julia E. and Michael M. McCarthy (2005) "Colombia: Starving Off Partial Collapse" in The Andes in Focus: Security, Democracy & Economic Reform.

Russell Crandall, Guadalupe Paz and Riordan Roett (Eds.) Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner. pp. 11-43.