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Setting the Stage for an Encounter at the Colombia-Venezuela Border

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On February 23, The U.S. and Colombian governments together tried to push humanitarian supplies from the Colombian border city Cúcuta into Venezuela. The humanitarian aid was a Trojan horse that, in theory, would confront Venezuelan security forces with a dilemma. These would supposedly step aside or desert. A take-down of Venezuela’s socialist government would follow. But the soldiers, police, and people’s militia remained loyal to the emancipating legacy of President Hugo Chávez. They blocked the trucks and the façade shattered.

Fire consumed a truck heading for the border. The rubble contained aid material but also whistles, gas masks, steel cables, spikes, and wires. Anti-government rioters in Venezuelan streets would go without.   

Colombia is a U.S. proxy warrior. It’s a partnership prepared over the course of decades, one that is dangerous for the neighborhood and central to U.S. pretensions in the region. An understanding of why the alliance is strong and how it persists may shed light on the context of the Cúcuta incident and on what’s to come.

The flow of money is one aspect. According to a report, “The United States is Colombia’s largest trading partner” and “U.S. exports to Colombia in 2017 [were] valued at USD 13.3 billion.” U.S. direct investment of $2.2 billion exceeded that of all other countries in 2017. The U.S. ultra-rich have soul mates in Colombia. Millionaires there numbered 21,900 in 2007, 35,900 in 2012.  One percent of Colombians own 40.65 percent of the wealth there. Colombia’s income inequality is second in the world only to that of the United States.

Two big items cementing the alliance are: ideological solidarity manifesting as anti-communism and high marks earned by Colombia in Washington for reliability in advancing common goals. Its ruling-class is well-known for stopping at nothing to stay in power.

President Alfonso López Pumarejo governmentdid advance liberal reforms in the 1930s. Otherwise, big landowners have controlled Colombian politics with an assist recently from business moguls. The post World War II roll call featured a proto-fascist, President Laureano Gómez; a military dictator, Gustavo Rojas; an assortment of reactionary Conservative and Liberal Party presidents; and the extremist Alvaro Uribe. His protégée Iván Duqueis president now.

Colombia’s army murdered some 2000 striking banana workers in Ciénaga on December 5-6, 1928. JorgeEliécer Gaitán, hero to aroused Colombian masses, was murdered April 9, 1948 under strange circumstances. From 1986 on, dark forces murdered 5000 members of the Patriotic Union electoral coalition, mostly Communists.  Since 2016 assassins have taken 431 lives of activistsincluding labor leaders and community organizers.

The targeting of leftists has been standard fare in the United States, but without the blood. Resurrecting red-scare, President Trump recently in Miami delivered a diatribe hitting at Venezuela and socialism.

In a show of anti-communist collaboration, the United States brought 20 Latin American nations to Bogota in 1948 to set up the Organization of American States. They took the pledge to fight communism. The first OAS secretary-generalColombian was Alberto Lleras Camargo,a future president. Colombian troops joined U.S. forces in the Korean War, alone among their Latin American peers.

Colombia’s government battled the Marxist-oriented FARC insurgency from 1964 until 2016.The U.S. government supplied its partner with military equipment, personnel, and advice – and, between 2001 and 2016 with $10 billion. Civilians and combatants killed in the war totaled 220,000. But the United States remained aloof from peace initiatives of the last decades of the conflict. Its military settled into seven Colombian bases.

To receive U.S. military aid, the Colombian army had to demonstrate the good use it had been put to. For display purposes Colombian soldiers, eager to please, dressed the bodies of civilians they had killed in the uniforms of FARC rebels, minus the FARC rebels. They were showing the goods to their U.S. masters. The dreadful sham – 10,000 bodies have been found in all – lasted from 2002 until 2010.

The Colombian government has implemented only bits and pieces of the peace agreement ending the conflict. Prominent FARC peace negotiator Jesus Santrich, wrongly imprisoned, faces extradition to the United States. Fearing the same, head FARC negotiator Iván Márquezis on the lam. Over 500 former insurgents, captured as prisoners of war, remain imprisoned. The money faucet is still open:  “U.S. government agencies have poured nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars into Colombia since 2017,” reports Tracey Eaton.

In both countries abuse and neglect ravage the underclass, and campaigns for social justice frighten reactionaries imbued with anti-communism. Yet upper echelons in the United States may even take perverse reassurance from social ills in Colombia. To the extent that resistance there is ineffectual, they probably attribute such favorable results to suppression. And the suppressors gain credit as reliable allies because they are good at what they do.

Social distress is indeed overflowing. In La Guajira, a Colombian state bordering Venezuela, 5000 Wayúu Indian children died of starvation during the past 10 years.  Over 58 percent of the people live in poverty, 25 percent of them in extreme poverty. Buenaventura is a seaport on the Pacific coast and a profit center. People there are 90 percent African-descended and 80 percent poverty-stricken (41 percent live in extreme poverty). Some 71 percent have limited access to water; 40 percent, no access to sewage; and 65 percent, no jobs.

In Cúcuta, with 750,000 people,” as historian Renán Vega Cantor observes, “40 percent of the people can’t pay basic expenses; 70 percent work in the informal sector; 25.3 percent have no access to drinkable water. The poverty rate is 40 percent … and the income for one percent of the population derives from illegal sales of contraband goods from Venezuela.”

Ironies abound. On February 23 Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro broke diplomatic relations with Colombia. Simon Bolívar, inspiration for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, in 1819-1830 headed the nation called “Gran Colombia.” Today’s Colombia and Venezuela were part of it. It had a constitution, the “Constitution of Cúcuta.”

Almost 200 years ago, Bolívar proclaimed that the United States was “destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty.” Soon Karl Marx would identify capitalism as the true responsible party.

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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