The morning that Alvaro Uribe was inaugurated President of Colombia, Yolanda Becerra, the head of a women’s group in a city controlled by right wing paramilitaries, said that “We expect to see the consolidation of a totalitarian model with the blessing of the U.S.”
A year later, her prediction seems to have come true.
Fascism’s first victims are always the poorest, most vulnerable, and most invisible people. In Barrancabermeja, where Yolanda Becerra lives, paramilitaries have been carrying out a campaign of “social cleansing” against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. In the city of Pereira, the first victims were the street vendors.
Pereira was once the vital center of a coffee growing region. But throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s economic globalization forced the price of coffee to drop. The bottom finally dropped out of the market when international lending agencies encouraged Vietnam to start growing coffee, and the Vietnamese flooded the market with massive amounts of cheap coffee. The area around Pereira went from producing selling sixteen million bags of coffee a year to selling ten million bags a year. Many coffee farmers lost their land.
The unemployed coffee vendors were forced to join those displaced by violence selling anything they could – candy, jewelry, newspapers, books – to tourists on the streets of Pereira. But the local merchants didn’t like the competition from street vendors, and tourists hated to walk down streets full of desperately poor people trying to sell whatever they could find; so in November of last year the mayor took a page from Rudy Giuliani’s book and announced an “urban renewal plan” to chase the vendors off the streets.
Throughout Colombia, there has been a crackdown on street vendors, with police in riot gear driving through the streets in big trucks, rounding up the vendors, jailing them for the night, and then extorting outrageous bribes from anyone who wants their confiscated merchandise back.
But in Pereira, things took a deadlier turn this year.
In late spring, the bodies of murdered street vendors began turning up in Pereira. Nobody knew and few cared who was responsible for the murders. (This is the same city where a few years ago a serial killer managed to kill over a hundred homeless children before being caught because the deaths of the homeless were taken for granted.)
In June the killers went public. On June 17, Jhon Carmona, a 36 year old man who had organized his fellow street vendors into a union, had his merchandise seized for the last time and was beaten by police before he was released. A few days later, he was picked up again when police swept the streets for vendors even though he wasn’t selling anything. A short while later, a group of men calling in street clothes came and began dragging vendors off the police truck and beating them with sticks. Jhon Carmona was beaten to death. The police did nothing to intervene.
The group issued a public statement, calling themselves the “United Ecological Foundation,” and announcing that they were going to “clean up” the streets of Pereira.
Reacting to the news, economist and social critic Hector Mondragon, himself a survivor or torture, beatings, and multiple assassination attempts, said:
“That is Fascism. It is what Hitler’s and Mussolini’s people did. It’s not just the repression of the state, but the repression of the people who beat and kill people. And this has the support of the state and even part of society.”
The beatings in Pereira grew out of an increasing tolerance for state violence on the part of the upper and middle classes and a dramatic escalation in repression.
In the months leading up to the beatings, the military began using paid informants to root out suspected “guerilla sympathizers,” taking these hooded informants from door to door in the slums of Medellin to point out people who were immediately dragged away. Disappearances increased by 100% in the department of Cauca. New anti-terrorism laws were passed that were written so broadly that they were used to prosecute nonviolent activists with no ties to the leftist guerillas of the FARC and the ELN. Leaders of the oil workers union were suspended from work and forced to attend “attitude adjustment” classes. Paramilitaries parachuted from military planes into a town in Arauca where they publicly murdered a pregnant teenager and butchered the fetus the ripped from her stomach – and in the wake of the attack U.S. Green Berets continued to provide training and support to the same brigade that flew the paramilitaries in. The military occupied hospitals, telecommunications facilities, and oil refineries to quell unrest in the face of immanent privatization of these state-run facilities and massive layoffs.
In a sense, this is nothing new. For years, the Colombian military has collaborated with illegal right wing death squads to terrorize activists and massacre people who have the misfortune of living on land coveted by oil companies, timber companies, dam builders, cattle ranchers, or cocaine traffickers. But this has happened primarily in the countryside and in the poor areas at the edge of the cities. Mondragon says that Uribe is now “Applying to the cities what had been applied to the countryside.” The wealthy and the middle class are no longer shielded from seeing what is done in their name, but they continue to support policies of repression designed to maintain their wealth, power, and privilege.
Uribe justifies these policies by invoking the war on terrorism, saying that he will do whatever is necessary to stop the FARC and the ELN from kidnapping people for ransom, sabotaging the infrastructure, and carrying out car bombings in the heart of Colombia’s cities. Meanwhile, he is in the process of “peace negotiations” with the most brutal terrorists in Colombia, the right wing paramilitaries, which many see as a thinly veiled attempt to legalize the death squads and bring their leaders into the political leadership of the country. His justifications bear a chilling resemblance to Fascist assertions that they had to suspend civil liberties in order to fight the Communist threat. But Uribe’s anti-terrorism legislation has a more modern model in the Patriot Act – he has adopted the basic principles of Bush and Ashcroft’s approaches to terrorism, and taken them ten times further because he can get away with it.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike justify the U.S. backing for Uribe by saying that he is a democratically elected leader carrying out a campaign against brutal terrorists. Certainly the FARC and the ELN are responsible for their share of brutality. And Uribe enjoys approval ratings in the high seventies. Of course those polls are taken by telephone or via the internet, luxuries in a country where over sixty percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. So what we know is that Uribe has the backing of the wealthy and the middle class.
Mondragon, who has seen 5,000 friends murdered by the military and the death squads over the past thirty years, responds to the voices of Washington, saying:
“Is it not Fascism because there was an election? Weren’t Hitler and Mussolini elected? What was Hitler’s popularity during the Holocaust? This is what Fascism is like. Fascism is popular. The middle class loves it. The enemies of the state are being eliminated. The streets of Pereira are being cleaned. And the middle class applauds. The city has never looked so good. The tourists can say what they said when they went to Germany in 1937: ‘Why do people speak so poorly of the government? Germany has never been so beautiful.’ Or Colombia.'”
Mondragon’s words have a chilling resonance in the U.S. Uribe takes his cue from the Bush administration. He can push further, but are the polices that different?
Giuliani succeeded in criminalizing homelessness in New York. Ashcroft, with the support of the Congress, has succeeded in stripping immigrants of the right to habeas corpus. The middle class is increasingly willing to give up its civil liberties in the war on terrorism, and the intelligentsia eager to give elaborate legal and philosophical arguments justifying the end of freedom. The war on drugs has led to the gutting of the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches and seizures and the criminalization of young Black men.
Colombia has descended into Fascism. Can its sponsor be far behind?
SEAN DONAHUE is Director of the Corporations and Militarism Project of the Massachusetts Anti-Corporate Clearinghouse. He can be reached at: email@example.com.