Object Lessons from the Case of Francisco Cortés

To start with good news, I was dead wrong: Claudio Ramírez and Carmelo Peñaranda, the compañeros with whom Francisco “Pacho” Cortés was arrested in Bolivia on April 10, 2003, have taken the hardest way out. They refuse to exchange their freedom for false testimony about Pacho and the international “narcoterrorist conspiracy” which is allegedly afoot in Bolivia. Having been released briefly, Claudio and Carmelo were given a summons to return to Chonchocoro Maximum Security Prison. Carmelo Ramírez and Claudio Peñaranda are not yet on the lam, but their lawyer announced that they would be if their Habeus Corpus petition is rejected (which it will be, and soon). ¡Adelante compañeros! Suerte, y disculpen las calumnias, sí?

Also, for the first time, Evo Morales and MAS have agreed to break the silence they have so carefully maintained around Pacho’s case (excepting Senators Filemón Escóbar and Antonio Peredo); this was the main result of the visit of an “international humanitarian mission” organized from Bogotá and Brussels, and composed of Jose Bove; Afro-Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba; Fray Holguin, a Brazilian deputy from the PT; Gloria Flores, a Colombian human rights activist with MINKA; and Rafael Alegría, a Honduran who currently heads the Vía Campesina, of which Evo Morales is a leading member.

But here the bad and the ugly begin. First, the agenda organized for the mission by Pacho and activists from the defense committee was discarded in favor of one designed by Evo’s minions, who, prior to the arrival of the mission, had never visited Pacho, much less made an effort to coordinate with his defense committee. Hence from the beginning, the mission was subject to the sort of underhanded opportunism associated with the old Left of the 1970s and 80s, and was bent to serve the ends of Morales and MAS. In Evo’s electoral calculus, Pacho’s case is of minimal importance at most. Because Pacho’s defense committee has worked closely with Filemón Escóbar, whom Evo has recently accused (implausibly, as even Escóbar’s many enemies agree) of collaborating with the US Embassy, the mission was dragged into internal strife that threatens, as Escóbar has cogently argued, to tear MAS apart from within.

Or was the mission rigged from the outset to secure collaboration from Morales, and isolate and marginalize the defense committee and Escóbar? Though it is impossible to know with certainty– and while some, like Jose Bove, were disgusted with Morales’ political maneuvering– the mission’s organizer, Belén Torres, appears to have been in contact with Morales and MAS before she arrived. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain the reception she received at the airport, her pleasure at the “strategic alliance” formed with Morales and MAS, or her refusal to coordinate with– or even acknowledge– Pacho’s (now defunct) defense committee.

The degree of cultural imperialism and political elitism displayed by the mission’s leadership took the Bolivian members of the defense committee by surprise. Through previous efforts to co-ordinate with Colombians in Bogotá and Europe revealed implicit racist assumptions regarding an “Indian” country like Bolivia, no one was prepared for so much arrogance, ignorance, and paternalism, which dovetailed a bit too neatly with MAS’s characteristically rank opportunism– matched by that of leading figures from the NGO world– to have been mere coincidence.

Viewed from another angle, the miscommunication, mistrust, and lack of coordination can be explained in terms of incompatible political strategies, tactics, and visions of social change. In classic vanguardist fashion, the mission was organized from above and outside, and its political objectives were initially hidden from brother and sister activists on the ground in Bolivia (more shades of old Left shenanigans). The anti-globalizers, lacking any clear sense of the particularities of the Bolivian context, sincerely believed that by bringing international pressure to bear, they could secure the immediate release of Cortés. As Torres put it the night before she returned to Belgium, “I’m really disappointed, because I if you’d asked me before I got here, I would’ve sworn that Pacho would be free today.” Torres, Alegría, and others seem to be under the illusion that in the brave new world of globalization, not only multinational capital but also the anti-globalization movement has outflanked nation-states, which are assumed to have lost the centrality they had acquired in the postwar ‘Golden Age’ of capitalism.

Hence, as various members of the mission expressed, it came as a rude shock when the Vice-Minister of Justice assured them that the best he could do was get a minimum sentence of three years, while President Carlos Mesa, though clearly sympathetic and wary of international outcry, pointed out that as the head of the executive branch of government, he could not legally interfere with the judicial branch. Given the obstacles that stand in the way of Pacho’s freedom, it is difficult to comprehend the uncritical, self-congratulatory, and self-deceptive nature of the mission’s final meeting. Now that the mission’s gone, the chance the Morales and Co. will lift a finger to help Pacho or Andrés is slim. If they do, there will plenty of foot-dragging. As Foucault once said, even the best theories can’t guarantee good practices, but bad theories are demonstrably counter-productive. It is going to take much more than “humanitarian missions” led by prominent anti-globalization activists to excarcerate Pacho Cortés.

The irony gets richer: Pacho’s best chance lies in the helping hand of Lula, as the delegate from the PT proposed. Lula’s administration has been working with the Cortés family and its lawyers in Bogotá. If Lula grants political asylum to the Cortés family, Mesa may be tempted to pressure the Minister of Government to annul the trial proceedings, which have been characterized by consistent disrespect for the Bolivian constitution and penal code. That is, since the liberation of Cortés is not on the agenda of Bolivia’s social movements– with which the mission never made contact– without the intervention of another nation-state, Cortés will continue to reside in San Pedro Minimum Security Prison for some time to come. The US Embassy is not eager to see Pacho released.

But aren’t Evo Morales and MAS representative of Bolivia’s social movements? Two dates marked by massive, leaderless urban insurrections-February and October 2003-suggest otherwise. As anyone who lived through them knows, neither Morales nor MAS provided leadership, and were conspicuous only in their absence. A more serious question would concern alternative strategies of liberation for Pacho.

Which brings us to the pre-history of the “humanitarian mission” and the “strategic alliance” achieved with Morales and MAS. Through Belén Torres, Pacho’s son, Andrés Cortés, made contact with Pedro Marset, a deputy representing Spain’s IU (Izquierda Unida) in the European Parliament in Brussels. In a meeting with Filemón Escóbar, Andrés Cortés, and another member of Pacho’s defense committee in January, Marset agreed to pay $15,000 for a legal team, which had been arranged by and coordinated with the committee. The legal defense fund was to go through Senator Escóbar’s office to Pacho’s legal team, excluding the two lawyers– one contacted by the Colombian Embassy, the other a long-time militant of ADN, a far rightwing party that served as the political vehicle of former dictator Hugo Banzer– who had bumbled their way through the case. They had been unable to get Pacho brought from Chonchocoro Maximum Security Prison (4,200 m) down to San Pedro in La Paz (3,800 m).

As soon as Torres and the Colombian NGOs working on Pacho’s case got wind of the money, they made sure it passed through their hands, and Evo Morales, along with prominent defense lawyer Mary Carrasco, disputed the funds with Escóbar and Pacho’s new legal team. Needless to say, not a penny went to the team, which, working with Pacho’s defense committee, managed to get Pacho transferred to, and settled in, San Pedro by mid-March. Dr. Rogelio Mayta and his team achieved in less than two months what the other lawyers had not achieved in nine.

So who has the money now, Torres and the Colombian NGOs, or Morales and Carrasco? Why wasn’t any of it used to reimburse Pacho’s legal team for its successful efforts to get Pacho transferred to San Pedro? Who paid for the mission, and how much did it cost? Why were these issues were so scrupulously excluded from discussion and debate? The answers will probably remain unknown. In the end, they are less important than the differences in strategy, vision, and praxis alluded to above.

Like the Zapatistas in the 1990s, the rank-and-file of Bolivia’s social movements, resurgent since April 2000, have a way of doing politics based on transparency and bottom-up, democratic self-organization, two dynamic elements of a tradition of indigenous insurgency that stretches back to the 1770s. The emphasis on collective, horizontal leadership and rank-and-file participation contrasts sharply with the most unsavory aspects of politics of the old Left, notably the cult of personality and caudillismo, which MAS has so successfully reproduced. The search for the seeds of a new society amidst the rot of the old is ongoing, but one has to know where to look in order to see it. Had the anti-globalizers arrived with no agenda other than to free Pacho Cortés, and had they stayed for more than three days, they might have learned something from these mostly anonymous people’s movements, which have much to teach us all. As one of the stalwarts of Pacho’s defense committee put it, “Who do they think they are? This is Bolivia. You don’t just come here and step on people like that. We’re not objects to be used, we’re people.”

*Though I take full responsibility for the views expressed in this article, they stem from collective discussion, analysis, and self-criticism– prominent and highly positive features of the short, unhappy life of the Committee to Liberate Francisco Cortés. I would like to thank my Bolivian, Mexican, Colombian, and French comrades in the Committee, who shall remain nameless, for framing my critique, and for teaching me about politics.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. He can be reached at forresthylton@hotmail.com.

Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.