The Spectacle and the Movement in Colombia

Sunday, July 20th was Colombian Independence day, and hundreds of thousands of Colombians in 60 countries went out into the streets to call for the liberation of those kidnapped in Colombia’s fifty-year-long war.  In Pasto, the capital of the border province of Nariño, an elderly woman said she was present at the demonstration to plea for the liberation of all people being held against their will by all parties. One of the singers on the stage in the city’s main plaza where about two thousand people had gathered, took the opportunity to call for the “liberation of those kidnapped by hunger, those held prisoner by poverty, the street children, and those held prisoners by ignorance.”

But neither the sentiments of the singer, nor those of the elderly woman with whom I talked, were echoed in Colombia’s mainstream media. In the Independence Day event, as broadcast live over most stations, especially the large open air concert in Bogotá featuring the likes of Shakira, Carlos Vives and Dr. Krapula, the media chose to focus only on the kidnapped victims of the FARC. Meanwhile, the paramilitaries, which have theoretically been disbanded, still operate in large areas of the country and continue to be responsible for between 60 and 80 percent of political deaths and disappearances.

Most Colombians recognize multiple players in this war: the Colombian and U.S. governments; the oligarchy, whose greed has made Colombia, along with Brazil, a rival for last place in terms of distribution of wealth (65% of Colombians live in poverty); the paramilitaries, sometimes employed by local oligarchs, and other times soldiers operating out of uniform; and finally, on the other side, the leftist guerrillas who make up two separate armies, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Attempts to peacefully resolve the war in recent years have failed for various reasons. The president prior to Uribe, Andres Pastrana, had made what appeared to be serious efforts to negotiate with the FARC, but the guerrilla leader and co-founder of the FARC, “Marulanda,” made a major blunder and didn’t show up for the negotiations. My friend, Martha, a school teacher in Bogotá, told me that “that’s the image most Colombians have burned in their minds: Pastrana sitting at the table with a frustrated expression, waiting beside an empty chair reserved for Marulanda, who never arrived. That convinced most Colombians that the guerrilla weren’t interested in peace. That they only wanted to take power by force of arms.”

As a result of that debacle, which also had the effect of undermining Pastrana’s presidency, most Colombians voted for Alvaro Uribe, who ran on a platform of annihilating the guerrilla, a strategy he has pursued, with the help of the U.S. government, ever since taking office. People like Martha and Leonardo Perafán, of the Bogotá based Institute of Studies for Peace and Development (INDEPAZ),  hate to hear such talk, but they remain in the minority. Most believe that the annihilation of the FARC/ELN will bring peace to Colombia, but Leonardo disagreed. Even if it were true, Leonardo contended, “the FARC is far from defeated on the battle field. Go to the U.N. website and you’ll see that practically every day there’s an armed confrontation going on in the country. They’ve suffered blows to morale, certainly, but that doesn’t mean they’re defeated militarily. And a military defeat is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to pull off. The only solution is through negotiations,” Leonard said.

Nevertheless, negotiations seem to be another improbability, given the recent history of Colombia, in particular, the tale of the Patriotic Union (UP) of the 1980s-1990s. Leftist guerrillas at that time turned in their arms and took up the political struggle as the UP and within a few years between five and six thousand of their members had been murdered. In this context, Uribe’s proposal that in order for peace negotiations with the ELN to begin, the guerrillas must first enter a small area of the country and turn in a list of all their members. Given the collective memory of Colombia’s left and Uribe’s commitment to annihilate the guerrilla in Colombia, the ELN is almost guaranteed to refuse the offer. FARC, for its part, has stated there are no grounds for dialogue and it has petitioned to meet with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to consult on the process of the war.

I went to Popayán specifically to visit the offices of the Regional Indigenous Center of Cauca (CRIC) in hopes that someone there could help unravel some of the complexities of Colombian society and politics. Leonardo Perafán had spoken highly of CRIC, calling it the organization at the core of “Colombia’s most vital social movement.” In his office in Bogota Leonardo had pulled up images of CRIC members and their supporters, armed only symbolically with batons that show their status as guardians of the tribes, confronting a black wall of police in riot gear sporting shields and helicopters which shot live ammunition.

“There were several wounded and one killed in this demonstration,” he told me, clicking through images of the wounded and one picture of a hand holding bullets. “These are some of the bullets that were being shot from the helicopters,” Leonardo explained.

It’s not only the police that members of CRIC have to contend with; they are also caught in the war between the paramilitaries and the FARC. The paramilitaries have thus far confined themselves to the murder of mestizo union and campesino activists but the paramilitary presence, along with the presence of the FARC, still make the state of Arauca one of several zones of conflict.

In the offices of CRIC, in a large building without a sign, I met with Jorge Caballeros, a good-humored, bearded mestizo with a twinkle in his eyes, who looked to be in his early to mid-sixties. Jorge thinks that Sunday’s march, called “The Second Independence” was just a media event backed by the government, in particular, the Ministry of Culture, big businesses and cultural organizations, a spectacle aimed at further weakening the FARC and covering up what he calls the “hundreds of thousands of victims kidnapped by the paramilitaries.”

“They’re kidnapped, because their cadavers haven’t turned up. So, for instance, we have the hundred murdered in Naya [paramilitary/military massacre in Cauca in April, 2001]. We know they’re dead; forty bodies were recovered, but where are the other hundred-odd people who are missing? They’re technically kidnapped,” Jorge says. These “kidnapped,” and hundreds of thousands more, weren’t favored with a march on Sunday, July 20 and they will likely never receive national attention.

Jorge finds it ironic that Colombia will be celebrating Independence Day this year, given that it has now signed the Free Trade Agreement with the US. “July 20 is the anniversary of Colombia’s independence from Europe in 1810, but today Colombia isn’t independent. It is submitted to neoliberalism; it’s submitted to the United States; it’s submitted to the policy of “democratic security” which really are international policies to favor international capital.”

Jorge points to evidence of this in the recent “rescue” of Ingrid Betancourt, a joint operation between the Colombian military, U.S. intelligence agencies, Israeli advisors, French and Swiss intermediaries whose roles are still unclear and now, it seems, even the International Red Cross.  “It seems that the international community was quite clear about what was going on, and not just the intelligence agencies,” Jorge says. “These deceptions [referring to the illegal use of the symbols of the Red Cross as a cover for the rescue, and numerous lies about the operation] raise all sorts of questions. First of all, what is the role of the international community in the internal issues of the peace [process]?”

Even as Colombians make new appeals for the release of those thousands of kidnapped victims of Colombia’s war, Jorge believes that the way Uribe conducted the “rescue” operation of Betancourt and the others, in particular the use of the Red Cross as cover for a military operation, will virtually condemn the remaining victims of kidnapping to perdition. “The Red Cross accepts the apology [from Uribe] but now they’re compromised. No one will trust them in the context of this war here because they’re infiltrated. And this is an enormous crisis, especially for those who have been kidnapped. They’re in great risk now. It seems intentional, that is, that there is a great deal of interest that those who have been kidnapped not reappear alive. And if the international community doesn’t respond in some way to this breach [misappropriating the symbols of the Red Cross] it’s going to be terrible for international law.”

“And we also know that the FARC is infiltrated; but if the FARC is infiltrated what are the autonomous armed political projects of the FARC if they know they’re infiltrated? Now that we, and they, know that the FARC is infiltrated, we have to wonder about the origins of each action, if it’s their own autonomous political action or the action of the infiltrators.”

“Colombia is suffering a crisis of institutionality,” Jorge says.  “And so the DAS (Departamento Administrativa de Seguridad, Colombia’s secret police) is also infiltrated, as we all know, by narcotraffickers. Sixty five percent of the Colombian congress is infiltrated by “parapolitica”(paramilitary politics). The national government is infiltrated by special interests with whom they made irregular and illegal agreements so as to stay in power, and it has thus lost its legitimacy.”

“It can’t yet be claimed with certainty that the [Colombian] intelligence service has infiltrated the international community but all this is to say that all these institutions have lost legitimacy. And so there is no institutional legitimacy (institucionalidad) nor political proposals that haven’t been infiltrated and all the government can do is make pay-offs. All that is left, then, is that everyone expects nothing more than a pay-off.”

“Given this, the only coherent position to take, it seems to me, is civil disobedience.”

In a time when all other institutions have lost all legitimacy, the social movements, Jorge believes, are “of supreme importance for autonomy, participation and democracy in the country.” Moreover, he maintains, they’re the only institutions with any legitimacy left in the country despite all attempts of the Colombian government and mainstream society to discredit them.

“As the guerrilla continues to weaken in Colombia, the social movements will gain greater autonomy.” He mentions a series of meetings, events and actions planned for the upcoming week: a Permanent People’s Tribunal organized by many sectors of society in Bogota and dealing with the multinational corporate control of the country, massive mobilizations of indigenous people around a whole set of issues, including the liberation of the earth from the production of “biofuels” which Jorge calls “necrofuels.”

“The problem with such media spectacles [as the July 20th Independence Day mobilization] is that they make the actions of civil society invisible.” He points out that the indigenous movement’s land seizures, sacred rituals undertaken to rename and reclaim ancestral lands, large mobilizations, what Jorge calls “permanent mobilizations” of the social movements throughout the country, like the gathering this past weekend in nearby Silvia, to oppose the privatization of water, will all be eclipsed by the July 20th media event.

“The nationwide actions of Colombia’s vital social movements will also be eclipsed by the “War on Terror” between a military of 500,000 and a guerrilla of 30,000 and those in the social movement who push too hard will be included by the government in the list of the “terrorist.” “Capitalism is in crisis: it’s no longer turning a profit. Where there’s no crisis, there’s no profit. So it always needs a crisis, doesn’t it? And so it has conveniently concocted “terrorism” as the new crisis, and it attempts to link the social movements to this enemy,” Jorge says.

Jorge’s views are consistent with statements by Professor Mario Morales, interviewed in the current issue of the Colombian weekly, “Polo.” He says that, in the absence of a real ideology, those supporting Uribe today can only make the argument that “ ‘now we can go out to our place in the country, and before, we couldn’t,’ as if all the country could travel or had country homes and vehicles… It’s so powerful, this orchestration and simplification,” he says, “that it’s a rule of political propaganda: simplification and the single enemy.”

Nevertheless, the current crisis may be unmanageable, even by such an astute and crafty master of propaganda as President Uribe,  especially given the mobilizations of the social movements in Colombia and throughout Latin America. “Indigenous people everywhere are rising up,” Jorge says. “In Chile, the Mapuches are demanding their land. Look at Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador. In Venezuela indigenous rights are finally being recognized. All over Latin America, there’s real possibility for change. We don’t always have to be in crisis. People are beginning to wake up. The desperate cry of the original people (originarios) is awakening people to the authoritarian aspirations of the governments of the world. There’s hope. This is what the indigenous movement of Cauca offers: the recomposition of authority, the recomposition of social participation, the recomposition of seeds, the recomposition of markets based on an exchange of values and not of prices,” referring in the last instance to the new markets developed in Cauca based on trade without the use of money.

In particular, the social movements of Colombia have distinct contributions to offer the continent in the wake of the 1991 constitution when a space was opened in Colombian society to the indigenous people, thanks in large part to demobilized guerrillas of the M-19 (April 19th Movement) like Navarro Wolf and others who contributed to the writing of the document. “Unlike other countries in Latin America which are still copying the European model of building party structures, Colombia, starting with the indigenous movement, is building a movement at the base, by means of the power of community, political projects build from the community in which the decision of the community will be the decision of the government. You find this same thing in the Zapatista writings, as well as the Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil.”

“You might not hear much about Cauca because most of what is happening here isn’t visible.” Jorge pauses and smiles. “But our movement is very much alive.”

CLIFTON ROSS, translator and co-editor with Ben Clarke of “Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews from the Zapatista National Liberation Army,” is the writer and director of “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out,” a feature-length documentary released May 20 of this year and available from PM Press ( He can be reached at