The Truth About Colombia’s New Emperor

‘We’re at war here’, said Luis, as we sat to share a coffee in one of Colombia’s most prestigious Law Schools. ‘Any talk of peace plays into the hands of the terrorists’, he developed. ‘It’s a lie and a distraction. You know they had their chance during the previous administration, and they wasted it. They don’t want peace. They want time to regroup and organize. Democratic security hit them hard. Now they say peace and human rights. Whoever listens to them now is naïve, or a collaborator’.

Luis’s message is clear and shared by many, perhaps the majority of Colombians: you don’t talk to terrorists; you hit them harder and keep hitting them until you knock them down. Peace talk, humanitarian agreements and so on are a dangerous distraction. It gives them time to breath. It follows that if you insist on talking about peace, if you are prepared to give the enemy a voice, any chance to prove that they are anything other than inhuman, no matter how good your intentions may be the fact is you take their side. This was the logic rehearsed by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez on Friday February 6th, when he publicly accused the tiny minority of Colombians who dare to disagree, of being ‘the intellectual bloc of the FARC guerrillas’. Without mentioning names, he said these intellectuals deliberately pretend that ‘democratic security’ achieves nothing. ‘These people keep talking about human rights all the time, just to frighten our soldiers and policemen’, he said. ‘The intellectual bloc of the FARC guerrillas goes to Europe and the United States and says: “Be careful! Uribe is Paramilitary. Do not approve his Free Trade Agreement. Uribe is Parmilitary and a human rights violator!”. But the intellectual bloc of the FARC guerrillas hit their heads against a wall of facts, because this is the government that has given back to Colombians their trust and confidence’, he added.

Clearly, not to all Colombians. A minority they may be, but a relentless one … and quite influential. It was thanks to them that earlier last week FARC decided unilaterally to free six people, among them policemen and politicians who had been in their power long before Mr Uribe became the sole purveyor of solid facts, unwavering confidence, and all other things sacred to his adoring Colombian fans. These policemen and representatives, systematically forgotten by administration after administration, including the present one, or remembered and abused every now and then for electoral purposes or during public acts of chest-beating, mass rallies that amount to no more than a huge collective act-out, were freed thanks to the decision of this minority of Colombians to reclaim their voice and use it. All they did was to address publicly and directly the FARC guerrillas through a series of letters, challenging the government’s pretend monopoly over the means to manage the conflict.

Make no mistake, these are no FARC sympathizers. Their letters contained the harshest criticism of FARC’s kidnapping practices and an absolute refusal to accept the idea that the cause of the people could be advanced through such means, or that they could be justified in any way by a self-appointed vanguard of the people. They speak of peace, but they are no naïve pacifists either. Their call for peace is militant, and their act makes explicit an absolute refusal to accept the government’s position that it is the sole holder of the means to deal with the conflict. In that sense, they reclaim force as their own.

By ‘means’, then, understand the means of force: languages and bodies. That is, the flesh and blood individuals who have suffered and continue to suffer because of the ongoing conflict and fight back: the kidnapped policemen and politicians, the 17 indigenous allegedly killed by FARC early this week, but also the body of Edwin Legarda Vasquez, husband of Ayda Quilcué, one of the organizers of the unarmed indigenous upraising that paralyzed the main routes of southern Colombia in December last year, shot dead by the Colombian army. For this minority of Colombians, about 25,000 of them now known as ‘Colombians for Peace’, these bodies and voices are also their own, rather than mere means to an end and the object of government’s or anybody else’s monopoly.

Furthermore, their position entails the acknowledgment that the government’s intent is, precisely, to ‘manage’ the conflict rather than solve it, and that this position is untenable and insufficient. In that respect, ‘Colombians for Peace’ challenge not only the government’s pretend monopoly over the means to deal with the conflict; their most significant challenge is to add an understanding about Colombia’s conflict that goes beyond the different and competing languages and perspectives. Put otherwise, they speak a truth about the conflict that extends over the different languages and bodies involved. They ask: ‘what does it mean to manage the conflict rather than solve it?’

Surprisingly, the answer to this riddle, this ‘public secret’, was revealed by Alan Jara, one of the politicians liberated last week. During the first press conference after his liberation, Jara declared that Uribe is convenient for the guerrillas because his stance generates crisis and creates divisions among Colombians, while the guerrillas are convenient for Uribe because without them, how could he accuse and stigmatize the minority that scares him so much? How could he turn human rights activists and scholars, journalists, members of the opposition, scientists, feminist leaders, and pretty much everyone who dares to disagree, by a sleight of hand, into terrorists? To ‘manage’ the conflict rather than to solve it means that the two parties have come to realize that their political existence and persistence depends on the existence and persistence of the other, and this in spite of or perhaps because of their loud protestations to the contrary, their alleged will to annihilate the opponent. Jara’s crucial suggestion is that the warriors continue to fight not because of their irreconcilable differences but rather because they are now too much alike. Without FARC there would be no need for ‘democratic security’, no need for the Uribistas’ extreme brand of right-wing politics, and hence no need for Uribe; and without Uribe, FARC has nothing left to justify its failure as a revolutionary vanguard.

In this sense, the fact that FARC has been around for such a long time is not a testimony to their endurance and tenacity but the opposite: since the true aim of a revolutionary group is to disappear and be replaced by the popular block it supposedly has helped to organize, its endurance as a purely militaristic unit (with all the consequences that follow from long-term involvement in the maintenance of an army of considerable size, with a hierarchical structure, and some measure of territorial control) testifies to its inability to carry the revolution to the end, its loss of political nerve. Conversely, the fact that successive Colombian governments always claim to be on the brink of recovering their ‘sovereignty’ over the entire territory, but at best this only means that some more or less well-off city dwellers can actually go to their fincas or countryhouses during the weekend, or drive to the Caribbean coast at the end of the year as part of a caravana, a motorcade led by armored tanquetas and heavy military presence on the main roads, entails that in the best of cases governments have the illusion, not the substance of empire.

This is the truth that ‘Colombians for Peace’ have dared to state. Ditto for the journalists Hollman Morris and Daniel Samper, suring and after last week’s liberations. In a Gaza-style attempt to stop any journalists from actually doing their job, Uribe’s government ordered a cordon sanitaire around the theatre of operations. And a theatre it was; since government provided neither the initiative (this belongs to ‘Colombians for Peace’, among them persecuted Senator Piedad Córdoba) nor the effective means (put forth by the International Red Cross and the government of Brazil), it collaborated as best it could. It provided the theatrics, the appearance of control, in the form of a military ring around the area, a secretive attitude towards journalists, and Air Force presence above 20,000 feet. In the process, as denounced by journalist Daniel Samper, it almost derailed the entire agreement, perhaps willingly; it also created the conditions that endangered the life of Radio France International correspondent Hollman Morris, a name already well-known to the authorities. Morris was inside the zone already, daring to give voice to the different actors of the conflict for a History Channel documentary. He does this, unlike most other journalists in the country, by actually going to the theatre of operations, with all the risks this implies, depending on his microphone and his camera rather than on a government’s press release.

Apparently, this is already bad enough. On top of that, he happened to be in the place where the liberations where going to occur, together with journalist Camilo Raigozo, of the left-wing weekly Voz. Whether he was there because he was given the coordinates, in which case he would be more intelligent than the government’s Intelligence, or just by coincidence, as he insists was the case, is irrelevant. What is relevant is to understand that his presence threatened the government’s attempt to monopolize and manage the information. He challenged the government’s pretend ‘control’ over the languages and bodies involved in Colombia’s long lasting conflict, FARC’s not entirely dissimilar gesture. In short, his real ‘crime’ was having disrupted the theatrics of the proceedings, based on secrecy and manufactured consent, thereby revealing the actual impotence of the parties.

These journalists, and ‘Colombians for Peace’, behave somewhat like the child in the fable about the Emperor’s New Clothes. They add truth, and the truth they add is threatening to power. But this isn’t the usual case of dissenters speaking truth to power; those in power and their sympathizers, allegedly a majority of Colombians, now converge in the protection of public secrecy. Rather, it is by refusing to participate in the theatrical montage of a war without end supporting the illusion of sovereignty and empire that they allow in a subversive truth: an emperor with no clothes on the one side, an armed force with no political teeth on the other. How then can we explain the prolonged duration of the conflict? How then to explain the intensification of the conflict? To find an answer we must listen to what the victims themselves say, Alan Jara for instance, whose statement was immediately dismissed by Uribe’s government as an example of Stockholm’s Syndrome.

With them, we shall conclude that what really threatens Uribe’s party, as much as the other party, is the actual possibility of an end to the conflict, since the absence of ‘their’ conflict would mean that they would have to start to think politically, that is to say, in terms of how to make the revolution a realistic project and what that could possibly mean, or else, to advance the progressive agenda contained in and announced in the Colombian constitution that Uribe has sworn twice to protect, but has somehow managed to sidestep with impunity not once but many times, in the name of ‘democratic security’. The latter is the name for the all-or-nothing war policy at the heart of government’s discourse –a policy that in its few moments of clarity seems reminiscent of Carl Schmitt’s doctrine of the katechon: the ‘decider’ who in the state of emergency replaces the Legislative and the Judiciary in defining what passes as the law, under the pretext of the defense of the realm against all sorts of harbingers of the end of days.

Americans got a taste of what that means under Bush Jr., and what a bad taste it was. They have now rejected it irrevocably. Colombians, on the other hand, seem intent on having Uribe para rato; at least for as long as he, ‘and there‘s no other but Him’, as my friend Luis would say, can stop the end of days from happening. Uribe is ready to change the Colombian constitution once more, and/or allow one of his appointees to rule for a while in order to guarantee the continuity of ‘democratic security’; the point is to keep up the appearance of democracy amidst fears of potentially apocalyptic threats, not its form and substance. A Sovereign gesture, as the crown jurist of the Third Reich would surely point out.  However, as Walter Benjamin observed while debating Schmitt, what the Sovereign decider really fears is not the coming of the catastrophe he himself announces in order to remain in power and seek its deferment. What the Sovereign fears is last judgment, pronounced, in this case, by a minority of Colombians whose persistent defiance, in the face of real threats against their lives, remains a source of hope and inspiration.

OSCAR GUARDIOLA-RIVERA lectures on international law and human rights at Birkbeck College, University of London. He sits at the Steering Board of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. He is the author of Being Against the World: Rebellion and Constitution (2008).