In Search of Peace With Justice in Colombia


Asked recently by a Mexican interviewer to justify U.S. involvement in Venezuelan affairs, President Barack Obama suggested Venezuela should be heading “toward democracy, toward freedom. You’re seeing it here in Mexico [and] in Colombia, in Chile, in Peru.” The notion of Colombia as a model, however, deserves a look. The same goes with U.S. methods in Colombia.

In 2000, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government were engaged in peace talks. A military truce was in force which the government used to refurbish its military, which according to a FARC negotiator in peace talks underway now in Cuba, was “without supplies, boots, and gasoline for airplanes.” The Clinton administration pitched in with Plan Colombia. That allowed subsequent U.S. governments to help fund Colombia’s military and police, provide military equipment, send in troops and military contractors, and install air bases.

US anti-FARC measures date back to a 1960’s U.S. anti-insurgency program applied to Colombia known as “Plan LASO.” That initiative, part of a regional anti – communist offensive, was operating in 1964 as 16000 Colombian troops bolstered by U.S. weapons and advisors attacked and dispersed leftist small farmers settled in Marquetalia in southern Colombia. Several dozen of those chased into the mountains organized themselves as the FARC.

The government of former President Alvaro Uribe, taking power in 2002, used a beefed-up Colombian military to try to finish off the FARC. In the process combatant and civilian deaths multiplied, peasants were removed from land, and jails filled up with political prisoners. Paramilitary violence and severe rural poverty remained.

U.S. support for Colombian militarization and U.S. silence on human rights abuses serve as background for government – FARC peace talks underway in Cuba now. That killings, threats, and arbitrary detentions have swelled since talks began in November, 2012 is no accident.

On May 9 in Tolima, Colombian army units captured eight peasant rights advocates belonging to Marcha Patriotica, a social and political movement launched in mid-2012. In a dramatic show, helicopters transferred them to a military base in Prado and vehicles in convoy removed them to prison or house arrest. They were charged with rebellion and FARC membership. Those seized included Guillermo Cano and Floricel Buitrago Cangrej, leaders of the ASTRACATOL peasant rights organization. Cano serves on the executive committee of Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural workers union.

One observer explained: “These detentions [represent] sabotage of the peace dialogues that are underway in Havana (Cuba). Another condemned “detaining peasants left and right with the same old manic story of their being subversives or allies of the insurgency.”  Lawyer and prisoner rights advocate Karen Tapias noted that “ASTRACATOL is associated with the Marcha Patriotica, and threats against that movement don’t occur in isolation.” The people detained are high – profile opponents of big mining and hydroelectric projects in resource-rich Tolima.  They and others condemn policies “shaped by the influence of foreign capital and supported by the military forces that offer guarantees for the plunder of our natural resources.  Eight other ASTRACATOL unionists were imprisoned and similarly charged eighteen months earlier. They had led demonstrations against ISAGEN Corporation’s Amoyá River Hydroelectric Project.

ASTRACATOL and FENSUAGRO leaders Alonso Lozano and Gustavo Adolfo Pizo Garcia were murdered in March in Cauca Department, one of them allegedly by soldiers. On May 14, 75 year old Benedicta Joya Aponte, sister of a peace activist Catholic priest, was murdered in Santander. “She was a guerrilla” was inscribed in blood on her incinerated body. Since March murderers have eliminated eight leaders of groups working to reclaim land seized by paramilitaries.

On April 26 in Tumaco, Narino Department, troops attacked and arrested 14 members of groups associated with Marcha Patriotica. One was killed in the melee. On May 1 in Bogota a reporter investigating prison conditions for convicted military personnel was attacked and injured. On May 6, paramilitaries issued death threats against eight reporters in Valledupar. Journalist Alberto Lázaro del Valle was murdered in Cali on May 10.

And more: troops in Cauca detained and threatened to kill ASTRACATOL leader Maribel Oviedo. A fragmentation grenade damaged indigenous leader Pedro Manuel Loperena’s home in Valledupar on May 11. In Valle del Cauca in April paramilitaries labeled Sinaltrainal union leaders as “military objectives.” After making a congressional presentation on Afro-Colombians’ land rights on May 2, Erlendy Cuero Bravo was threatened with death by paramilitaries.  Police in Bogota threatened to prosecute Alfonso Castillo and Diego Martinez of the MOVICE human rights group. They had accompanied demonstrators demanding the return of stolen land.  Human rights lawyer Martinez has received multiple death threats.

Victimized agrarian rights activists are fighting battles advanced by FARC negotiators in Havana who so far have focused almost entirely on control and use of land. The insurgency is well used to confronting political and military protectors of big landowner interests.  Ex – President Uribe has emerged as the lead spokesperson for that sector. He recently castigated President Juan Manuel Santos for having initiated peace talks. Santos, he said, “has converted himself into the great apologist for the Venezuelan dictatorship that is traveling the road of the Cuban dictatorship. [He has]“interests coinciding with the Venezuelan dictatorship and with the guerrillas.”

Anti – Santos hyperbole promotes fear useful in discouraging ordinary Colombians from unifying in the cause of peace. Military repression, facilitated by Uribe’s close ties with the military, has the same effect.  Neither is good for nationwide dialogue on peace with justice as sought by FARC negotiators. Through monetary support, technical assistance, and equipment for Colombian soldiers and police, the U. S. government helped set the stage for opposition to the talks.  Fraternal relations between officers of the two armies, mediated in part through the U.S. Army school formerly called the School of the Americas are part of the scenario.

Negotiations unfolding amidst heightened intimidation are looking precarious. As the ninth round of discussions began on May 15, negotiators were still dealing with their first agenda item, the land question. And there are no easy solutions for those remaining: illicit drug trafficking, reparations for victims, verification and implementation of any agreements, ending armed conflict, and political participation of former combatants. Recent announcements underscore uncertainties. The government wants talks to end during the present year. Yet President Santos urged peace partisans to back his 2014 re-election campaign.  A FARC negotiator insisted to the press that the process must continue whether or not Santos is re-elected.

With FARC optimism maybe waning, negotiators’ thoughts turned to non-negotiable points hinting at continuing conflict. “The same ideas that took us to war are those we defend at the table and in the streets,” Pablo Catatumbo told journalist Alfredo Molano Bravo in a recent interview with three of them. “We did not come [to Havana] to surrender arms they have been unable to take away from us,” added Ivan Marquez.  He elaborated: “Weapons will not be handed over; they will disappear and then appear like before in response to persecution and siege at the hands of that trinity, the landowners, military people, and paramilitaries (…) The government has to commit itself to not be taken over by cattle ranchers, generals, and the Urabeños (a powerful paramilitary organization).”   FARC negotiators want a constituent assembly; “There is no civil war in our history that has not ended with a new constitution,” one of them said. Pablo Catatumbo is encouraged: “We have the people and we come from the people. They like us and follow us. As proof, so-called civil society wants to take part in dialogues and has done so.”

What Catatumbo was talking about is exactly the phenomenon that is anathema to the imperialist U.S. government. For those in charge in Washington, any indication that popular support for FARC negotiating points may be growing could logically be regarded as a sign of failure. And not least among outcome measures likely to gratify them is silence in the United States greeting outcries against violent, arbitrary repression in Colombia.

That would be a silence serving to elucidate the entirely different situation of U.S. interventions in Syria currently. Imprecations against evildoers there are loud. As in Colombia bad people are called terrorists. The difference lies in the fact that Syria has not yet been brought into the globalized system of capitalist domination and exploitation. That process is underway, with the anticipated result that Syria will be domesticated, like Colombia.

The U.S. Peace Council outlines the process for bringing in line states like Syria not yet assimilated into the system: “Demonization of political leaders as a pretext for intervention—as it has been done to Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, Panama, Venezuela, Cuba and many other countries—serves a dual purpose for imperialist powers: First, it is used as a means of creating a justification in the public mind in order to pacify all potential opposition to the planned attack [and secondly] the more important, and deceptive, purpose of such propaganda is to hide the true imperialist motives behind these aggressions.

Colombia, by contrast, has been consolidated.  Under such circumstances, demagoguery may be de-amplified. But vigilance is in order to assure that bad news, human rights abuses, for example, does not receive much of a hearing.

W. T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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