Helicopters circling the city, combat planes roaring overhead; the streets, airports and public buildings patrolled by 13,000 police, soldiers, secret servicemen and spies, U.S. as well as Colombian.
The arrival of Donald Rumsfeld in Bogotá on August 19 did not portend anything but the further ratcheting up of imperial terror in South America. The day before, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe faced machine-gun fire from the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) when his helicopter approached Granada, Antioquia, a town that was destroyed by the FARC’s gas cylinder bombs on December 6-7, 2000. Since the FARC have sophisticated, up-to-date grenade launchers as well as machine guns and crude cylinder bombs, one wonders if, like nearly everything else in Álvaro Uribe’s presidency, the attack was not stage-managed to drive home the need for more resources to fight “drugs and terror,” so as to wipe out the FARC guerrillas, now held to be responsible for the country’s accumulated problems.
For the past several years, South America’s non-violent social movements-the Argentine piqueteros, the Brazilian landless, the Ecuadorian indigenous people, the Bolivian coca growers, Colombian and Peruvian trade unionists and community organizations-have offered a beacon of hope to the world, since they have blocked a series of neoliberal privatization efforts in the cities and held counterinsurgency in check in the countryside. As recently as nine months ago, there were reasons for relative optimism, since the movements had translated mass mobilization into electoral power: Lula and the PT had won in Brazil, Evo Morales and MAS had lost the Bolivian presidency by less than 1.5% but promised to form a formidable opposition, Lucio Gutierrez was going to have indigenous leaders in his government in Ecuador, Chávez was close to defeating the opposition in Venezuela.
Beginning with Plan Colombia, in the name of the war on drugs-which, after September 11, 2001, became the war on drugs and terror-the U.S. government responded to the growing challenge to the Washington Consensus: a military base in Manta, Ecuador, ‘Plan Dignity’ to eradicate coca in the Bolivian Chapare, a coup in Venezuela, offhand comments from U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that rocked Brazilian financial markets as elections neared. But the cornerstone of the U.S. approach to the hemisphere was to be found in Colombia, the world’s third most-important client-state after Israel and Egypt ($3 billion paid out since 2000). In late July 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives approved $731 million in FY 2004 for the Andean Regional Initiative (explicitly acknowledged as the continuation of Plan Colombia, under new auspices), two thirds of which will go to the Colombian government; more specifically, to its military and police.
Though the conjuncture remains fluid, hence subject to dramatic reversal, it seems that for the time being, the imperially aligned right has regained the upper hand everywhere in Latin America except Venezuela and Cuba. At the inauguration ceremony of President Nicanor Duarte in Paraguay on August 15, on the initiative of Álvaro Uribe, presidents of the South American republics-excepting Hugo Chávez-signed the “Declaration of Asunción,” a pledge of loyalty in “the war on drugs and terror.”
In effect, Lula has complied with his campaign pledge to meet IMF terms of fiscal austerity and renounced an independent foreign policy of the sort that Chávez has tried to forge (so far without success). Lula’s diplomatic profile was conspicuously low during Gulf War: The Sequel, and the signing of the “Declaration of Asunción” is nothing short of outright capitulation to U.S. foreign policy aims. Without Brazilian leadership in foreign and economic policy, smaller, less independent countries of the continent have scant room for maneuver. Like Lula, Lucio Gutierrez has recently risen to the top of the U.S. rankings of South American presidents, and he, too, signed Uribe’s pledge of allegiance. But he faces imminent confrontation at home with the very indigenous and urban popular forces that brought him to power, and may not last long. If he is overthrown, he would become the third Ecuadorian ruler to be deposed since 1999.
Lula, whose administration appears to be more stable than all others save Uribe’s, recently promised the MST he would use state power and resources to confront and overcome landlord resistance to agrarian reform. He would do well to keep his promise, since the landlords are politically isolated and, lacking close ties to financial and multinational enterprise, economically marginal relative to other fractions of the Brazilian ruling class. Their armed wing, responsible for the deaths of forty-three peasants in the past year, would be no match for the Brazilian army, as it lacks political legitimacy in the cities, where sympathy runs high for the MST’s legalist strategy and tactics of direct action. By implementing agrarian reform, Lula could avoid confrontation with the continent’s most powerful social movement without having to deliver anything but IMF recipes to his urban, working-class constituents.
Of course Colombia contrasts sharply with Brazil. Uribe represents a politically ascendant, landed fraction of the ruling class invested in extensive cattle ranching and narco-financed, paramilitary counterinsurgency. Though the AUC paramilitaries have been on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist groups since September 10, 2001, Uribe officially began a “peace” process with them last month; U.S. Embassy Political Officer Alexander Lee, and Stewart Tuttle, head of the Human Rights Section, met in secret with AUC representatives in early May. The U.S. government has since proposed to spend $3 million to “disarm and demobilize” the 13,000 AUC fighters under the control of Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso. Mancuso-who, along with Castaño, has been convicted in absentia for war crimes and is wanted for extradition on charges of smuggling 17 tons of cocaine into the U.S.-has said that since it is politically willing to try to eliminate the guerrillas, Uribe’s government has made the paramilitaries irrelevant.
A proposed bill-supplementary to a proposed referendum that would amnesty the paramilitaries-would allow paramilitaries to avoid prison by paying indemnities to families of people they massacred or murdered; or, in some cases, through public service. If sworn into law, the proposal would reinforce impunity in a country where 95 per cent of homicides go unpunished. And people like Castaño and Mancuso would become Senators or deputies in Congress, while their foot soldiers become government spies or “peasant militiamen and women.”
Meanwhile, teachers and other trade unionists, community leaders, human rights workers, independent journalists and academics; petty drug dealers and consumers, the homeless, transvestites, homosexuals, addicts and street kids; all are being murdered, though in much smaller numbers than peasants. The six Afro-Colombians murdered outside Buenaventura by the AUC in early July, for example.
Or the four young Guajibo women, one of whom had her fetus hacked out of her stomach and thrown into the nearby river, raped and killed in the Betoyes reserve in Arauca in May. The perpetrators, according to Guajibo survivors, were soldiers from the 18th Brigade’s Navos Pardos Battalion, wearing AUC armbands and coordinating with the ACC, a “dissident” paramilitary block that has opted out of “peace negotiations” with Uribe.
As for making peace with the FARC, “if they break the will of these rebel groups, that’s when negotiations will work,” a Colombian military official told Jim Garamone of the American Forces Press Service.
Uribe’s imperial backing is nearly unlimited, as demonstrated by Rumsfeld’s visit, as well as visits from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, on August 11, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick on August 8. Myers declared that Uribe had achieved significant victories (shades of Vietnam?), compared Venezuela to Syria, and called Colombia a “staunch ally” in the war on drugs and terror, indicating very clearly the Pentagon’s vision of foreign policy for the region. For his part, Zoellick promised Uribe that Colombia was next in line for a bi-lateral trade agreement similar to the one the Bush administration recently reached with Chile. The message to the rest of Latin American rulers was simple: follow Uribe and you will be rewarded.
In Bolivia, it is evident that Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, perhaps the shakiest of South American presidents, has adopted a rigid posture on Uribe’s end of the political spectrum, reciting neoliberal mantras, claiming that the armed forces represent “the pillar of democracy,” and re-appointing Carlos Sánchez Berzaín-whose face, more than any other, is associated with the counterinsurgent violence of February 12-13-as Minister of Defense. Though Uribe has not gone along with the frame-up of Colombian peasant leader Francisco “Pacho” Cortés in Bolivia, Pacho’s case is nevertheless in keeping with the Uribista strategy, which creates bogus links between social protest, terrorism and drug trafficking; links that conveniently obscure systematic, high-level connections between drug trafficking and the political right in order to curry favor with the U.S. government.
Though the right may have re-taken the political initiative in South America for now, it remains to be seen whether its narrow and unimaginative vision can be imposed on Bolivia, much less the rest of a continent whose peoples have proven most resistant to the long night of the neoliberal reich.
FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. A Spanish version of this story originally appeared in Pulso, a Bolivian newsweekly. The September issue of New Left Review features a story by Hylton on Colombia: ‘An Evil Hour’: Uribe’s Colombia in Historical Context.” He can be reached at: email@example.com.