Social Unrest as Obstacle to Colombian Military Intervention in Venezuela

Photograph by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist R.J. Stratchko – Public Domain

Rightwing Colombian governments, obedient to the United States and unhappy with socialist Venezuela, have provided muscle behind the U.S. push for regime change there. What are the capacities of Colombia to intervene militarily in Venezuela? The mainstream and alternative media offer little in this regard. The argument here is that political instability in Colombia is standing in the way of that country’s military forces intervening more than is presently the case.

Colombian paramilitaries, numbering 15,000, are operating in 10 western Venezuelan states. Most of them work foor cooperate with landowners and businesspeople. They control travel routes, local economies, food supplies, and even health care and schools. Crossing a border porous in both directions, they engage in narco-trafficking, smuggling of goods and people, private security, arms-trafficking, kidnapping, casinos, currency trading, land theft, illegal mining, terrorism, and military combat. They arrived in Venezuela in 1997.

In the early 1960s U.S. military advisors recommended that Colombia’s government use paramilitaries to combat leftist insurgencies. According to one analyst, they are “recruited by and received training from the Colombian military and intelligence … The military and the paramilitary groups worked in coordination to root out entire populations.” Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory blames paramilitaries for causing 94.754 deaths in Colombia, mostly of civilians, over the course of 50 years.

Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño supposedly“met with140 Venezuelan businessmen and landlords [in 1997] ato create a paramilitary structure similar to the one he led in Colombia.” A reporter quoted Castaño as saying, “We have people issuing instructions in Venezuelan territory. We maintain communications.”

Paramilitary attacks in 2003 prompted a report that “120 campesino and indigenous leaders had been killed” over four years.” Venezuelan authorities accused 116 paramilitaries whom they arrested in 2004 of preparing to assassinate President Hugo Chávez.

Colombian paramilitaries were responsible for a wave of political murders in early 2010, and by 2015, 200 more Venezuelans had been killed. Authorities arrested groups of them in 2013 and 2017. In Caracas presently they carry out selective killings of leftist political activists.

Colombian journalist Fredy Muñoz claims that the rightwing opposition “uses them to carry out the cruelest actions, like selective assassinations, setting young people afire, or destroying state infrastructure.”  Colombian paramilitaries are known to have coordinated the opposition’s violent street demonstrations (the “guarimbas”). They trained someof those participating in the assassination attempt against Venezuelan President NicolásMaduro on August 4, 2018.

In contrast to regular military forces, paramilitaries are self sufficient, low- profile, and inexpensive. They offer advantages in carrying out destabilization, which is their main mission. They infiltrate rather than invade, thus facilitating the glossing over of violations of international norms.  And moving large military units into Venezuela would present major logistical and administrative challenges. In fact, Colombia’s military is very large.

Regular military personnel number 511,550. Military expenditures in 2018 consumed $9.7 billion. Taken as a percentage of GDP, Colombia’s military spending in 2017 was tops by far in Latin America. The U.S. government has long provided military assistanceSince 2000 it’s provided equipment, training, and over $10 billion in funding and has based troops, military contractors, and military planes there.

But one other problem stands in the way of Colombian military intervention in Venezuela: troops deployed to Venezuela would be letting go of duties in Colombia.

The Colombian Army has long carried out operations within Colombian borders, the banana-workers massacre in Magdalena in 1928 being a prime example. Recently military thinkers all over have been working to justify domestic military activities. For example, “Prism,” the journal of the National Defense University, calls upon armed forces anywhere to be able “to resolve national crises [such as] civil disturbances” and to deal with challenges to “domestic and regional security and stability.” And Juan C. Correa, a Colombian Army officer studying at the School of Advanced Military Studies in Kansas, examined “stability operations.”  According to his thesis, they are the means through which Colombia could “achieve a long-standing deterrence against terrorist and criminal threats.”

Colombia’s Army may indeed be prioritizing the home front. New elements of instability recently have emerged there and civilian and military leaders presumably are not blind to them. They are: the accentuation of class-based divisions, antagonisms, and suffering and, secondly, an ongoing wave of protests. Here are the facts:

Between January 2016 and March 27, 2019, 498 people were killed. They included 113 community leaders, 18 political movement leaders, 9 labor leaders, 7 environmental activists, 6 land claimants, 5 human rights defenders, 31 indigenous leaders, 28 peasant leaders, and 24 Afro—Colombian leaders. Since the signing of the peace agreement between FARC insurgents and the government in late 2016, murderers have hit more than 129 former FARC guerrillas and 431 social and community leaders (some of whom having been accounted for above).

During the last 10 years, 5000 Wayúu Indian children died of starvation in La Guajira state; 58 percent of people there live in poverty, 25 percent of them in extreme poverty. The poverty rate for residents of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast is 80 percent; 41 percent live in extreme poverty. And, 71 percent have limited access to water; 40 percent, no sewage; and 65 percent, no jobs. Half oColombians live on less than $6 daily; 4 percent, on less than $2 daily. In 2015 Colombia ranked 11th in the world for income inequality.

In early March indigenous people in southwestern Colombia convened a Minga (The  Quechuan word means “collective effort for the common good”). Over 15,000 people gathered in Cauca and went on to block the Pan-American Highway between Popayán and Cali for 25 days.  In mid April President Ivan Duque refused to meet with them. Anti-riot police and Army elements were in place and the dead and wounded mounted.

Protesters demanded land rights, no more discrimination, and autonomy in organizing health care and education. They denounced failed implementation of the government-FARC peace agreement, and as reported by Virginie Laurent, called for “shared struggle” in favor of a “radical shift in Colombia to combat the marginalization and exploitation of the majority of the population.” The Minga reached out to non- indigenous allies.

The National Civic Strike of April 25, joined by activists from dozens of organizations including the Minga, featured marches, assemblies, sit-ins, and highway demonstrations throughout the nation. The “other Colombia,or deep Colombia” was standing up for “defense of life and defense of autonomy – that is to say, national sovereignty,” reported Nelson Lombana Silva, writing for the Communist Party website. They were protesting the killings; assaults on unions, agrarian rights, and public education; failed implementation of the peace accords; free rein for paramilitaries; U.S. military bases in Colombia; and U.S. “use of national territory in attacking Venezuela politically and militarily.”

At some point, and maybe now is the time, a nationwide revolutionary upsurge is due. It would be the first time since 1948.

That year Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a socialist, was on track to become Colombia’s president in 1950. He had led the Colombian agrarian masses against the violence an ultra-conservative government had used in defending big land holdings. An assassin killed Gaitánon April 9 1948. The government blamed communists and opened the door to extreme violence that would last for decades. Repression became the norm.

At the end of 50 years of war against FARC insurgents, hopes were high for peace at last and for solving grave social problems. But the peace agreement is in shreds, violence continues, and political processes are stuck. High officials probably assume that revolutionaries are re-thinking options. Seeking to prevent further descent into instability, the government, logically, would want regular troops to remain in Colombia where they are needed rather than being deployed in Venezuela.

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


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