A recent article in the Washington Post reveals – I believe with a considerable degree of accuracy – some important and terrifying facts about the counter-insurgency tactics employed by the Colombian government as well as the role of the United States as an advisor that actually directs and controls anti-guerrilla operations. Another virtue of the article is that, though uncritical and triumphalist, it nevertheless shows how the political relation between the two countries may, without fear of exaggeration, be dubbed neocolonial.
At the center of the Post’s article is the claim that smart bombs, guided by U.S. satellites, have changed the character of counter-insurgency operations in Colombia. These weapons, supplied by the United States government, have permitted the assassination of at least twenty-four FARC-EP leaders and given the Colombian state a new military advantage in its half-century-long struggle against a popular rebellion. The article also touches upon the question of the feeble (not to say surreal) legal justification of these tactics.
The article’s description of the stages of a smart bomb attack – in which the dropping of a large 500-pound guided bomb is followed by more widespread conventional bombing, strafing, and then helicopter-deployed troops, who often just pick up body parts – coincides with the description given to a friend of mine by a survivor of the attack on FARC comandante Mono Jojoy’s camp in 2010. The only important difference is that the survivor described the attack not only in terms of its technical details but also as “a brutal thing, an inhuman thing.”
In what passes for the public sphere today, appeals to a moral perspective and decrying the depravity of U.S. policies are probably pointless. The horrorized remain silent, while the cynical control public space. Today’s situation recalls the moment at the beginnings of U.S. imperialism when Henry David Thoreau – who said of fellow writers that if they had “lived sincerely it must have been in a distant land from me” – felt that he had no audience for his words and resorted to symbolic acts and cryptic writing.
Why does an article revealing secret operations appear in a newspaper with important links to the C.I.A.? The story’s publication should not be taken for granted since making known the overt domination of the Colombian military by its U.S. “advisors” creates a difficult situation for the already beleaguered Santos regime. The reason for leaking this information, I believe, is the difficult conjuncture in the U.S., which makes it important to show its capacity to respond – for example, to punish the FARC’s retention of three U.S. mercenaries in 2003 – and the need to justify N.S.A. spying as “good for something.” The article is also spiced with White-Man’s-Burden details such as the Air Force colonel who says “Just don’t fuck up” to a Colombian pilot before his mission.
Then there is the longstanding project of overcoming the “Vietnam complex” and showing that the United States has the capacity to defeat insurgent movements such as the FARC-EP – something which is not really true. The U.S. and Colombia’s collaborationist regime employ some of the same weapons (e.g. “Puff”: a DC3 equipped with Gatling guns) and they rely mostly on air control as in Southeast Asia. Still, the same problems remain: especially that victory in a civil war is essentially about winning the hearts and minds of the population and also that there is no lasting victory that is not essentially political.
Not too long ago, Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap died a natural death at 102. Giap, it will be remembered, defeated both France and the U.S. That the latter defeat is still sizzling in U.S. consciousness was revealed by the many obituaries in the U.S. press this fall that harped on Giap as someone who irresponsibly “prolonged the war.” Indeed, Giap prolonged the war… and thereby won it! Giap not only lived to see the revolutionary victory but also Vietnam’s reconstruction as a significant economic power. Still, the more famous figure, who is Ho Chi Minh, died before the triumph, as did José Martí in Cuba and a host of other revolutionary leaders in varied contexts.
Among them we may include the FARC’s head-in-chief, Alfonso Cano, who was assassinated just over two years ago (though not with high-tech bombs). I went to his burial. It was a chilly November day in Bogotá, and a group of us spent the afternoon at a new cemetery in the northwest of the city called “El Paraiso.” Even dead, Cano was a hot potato. The government had been nervous that a student march a few days earlier would try to recover the body as it passed by the hospital where it was kept. On the day of the funeral, Cano’s mostly right-wing family scooted the corpse around so that supporters couldn’t attend the ceremony. In the end, those of us loyal to Alfonso Cano and his ideals had to hold an improvised ceremony in front of some closed doors where we knew his body was kept. After midnight, when we had left, the family deposited the body in an unmarked grave.
Our chants in honor of Cano included one that goes: “They are afraid of your shadow, afraid of your memory, afraid of you remains” and another: “Whoever dies fighting, lives in every one of us” – chants that are typical of the Colombian communist movement. It was a fitting homage for a man who had begun his political career in the JUCO (communist party youth), abandoning an easy middle-class life to join the struggle for social justice. Sometime later, reading a book by Carlos Lozano, I would learn cruel details about Cano’s last days. In fact, the FARC’s leader was assassinated by the government during the very peace process that he himself initiated. Chased across a large swath of Colombia’s Cauca department, Cano was finally cornered near the village of Suarez and shot in cold blood.
What kind of government feels this is correct? “Playing hard ball” or “being realistic”… whatever euphemism you look for, one comes back to the grim cynicism of the U.S. imperial system that no longer worries about a moral position, not even a moral facade. The double-talk embodied in the language of the Nazis that Hannah Arendt exposed (“final solution,” “change of residence,” “special treatment”) has its parallel in the Pax Americana, and a similar glossary should be made. For example, “war on terror,” or “war on drugs” often means simply war on people. Again, “failed state” is a state that the U.S. has weakened or hopes to weaken. On the other hand, “National security” and “Homeland security” refer to national militarization.
The Post’s article, despite including some highly questionable opinions of the author, lifts the veil on another one of these euphemisms: “cooperation,” for a Latin American country, means subordination. The Nazi term for bringing into line “Gleichschaltung” could be brought back to describe today’s imperial system of conformity and collaboration that reaches across national frontiers and includes newspapers, armies, justice systems, etc. The system is always made tighter. A recent article by the FARC’s Pablo Catatumbo reminds us that even Chiang Kai-Shek, who did of course collaborate with the U.S., would not give up the command of troops. The Colombian government has taken this recent step. What’s more surprising is that it hardly bothers to hide it.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.