in the US benefits from fumigating Colombians?" the man asked me pointedly in
the crowded community hall. The community was in a paramilitary-controlled part
of Putumayo. Putumayo is a southern department of Colombia where the guerrilla
insurgency is strong, where much coca is grown, where paramilitary massacres,
disappearances, and assassinations are frequent, and where Plan Colombia is
focused. It’s the focus of the US military assistance and of the fumigation
was a painful question to face. But in some ways it wasn’t the most painful
question. We had been placed on the stage of this community hall, twenty of us
North American delegates facing about a hundred members of this recently
fumigated community, so that they could tell us the impacts of US policy on
them. They told us that the fumigation, which has airplanes spraying farmer’s
fields with Monsanto-made Roundup Ultra in order to destroy coca crops, has some
effects which could easily have been predicted. These include destroying food
crops, polluting the water, killing livestock, causing skin rashes, respiratory
problems, stomach illnesses, destroying economies. They showed us all the
destruction. Elsewhere in Putumayo they showed us where the agricultural college
was fumigated. We visited a 160-hectare yucca cooperative– that was also
the callous brutality of a policy can make a person angry. When you try to
imagine the options a farmer has in a place like Putumayo– grow coca and have a
chance of making ends meet (and be fumigated), grow food crops and risk not
being able to make ends meet (and be fumigated)– it’s hard to think of what the
appropriate emotional response is. To hear from the US Embassy that Roundup
Ultra is perfectly safe and hear Embassy staff imply that these campesinos
aren’t suffering from fumigation but are in fact inflating health and
environmental problems caused the campesinos’s own ignorance in handling
agro-chemicals in order to get money from the US, as we heard, can take a person
well into rage. Consider that such a fumigation is entirely illegitimate, given
that US-grown tobacco kills orders of magnitude more people and isn’t fumigated
and neither are California vineyards, another source of a dangerous killer drug,
and you might be stunned into silence, as I was.
there’s something even worse than all this. And that was the defensiveness that
most of the campesinos had when they were talking to us. They would have had
every right to tell us to tell the US to take its fumigation programs, and its
military aid, and its helicopters, and get lost, never coming back except to
apologize for all the destruction and plunder and maybe pay reparations. Instead
they insisted that they were hard-working people who didn’t want to grow coca,
but needed workable alternatives to coca production. They explained how the
‘alternative development’ component of Plan Colombia, whereby campesinos get
subsidies if they eradicate their own coca, was designed to fail. It’s
administered by neglectful organizations and not under the control of the
community. The aid comes in kind, not in cash, and has to be picked up from
town. Traveling to town is expensive and time-consuming, and much of the aid
money is eaten away in lost time and money traveling to and fro to get chickens
one day, chicken feed the next day, a water pump one day, and a hose another
day. Hearing a campesino say he would be happy to grow products other than coca
if they had a market and if they wouldn’t be fumigated, that must have been the
worst thing of all.
no, I really can’t say that either. Because things get still worse in Colombia.
Because even though the governors of the departments are lobbying against it,
the US and the Colombian federal government seem to have set everything up for
another round of fumigation. And because, as terrible as fumigation is, it’s
just a pretext for something worse.
Colombia our delegation had the chance to talk to a wonderful activist named
Hector Mondragon. Hector is an economic advisor to many different people’s
movements in Colombia. For this work he has been imprisoned six times, tortured
by a US-trained officer once, and threatened innumerable times. He sleeps in a
different bed each night and doesn’t announce his schedule in advance. He says,
without exaggeration, that he’s lost 5000 friends to this war. And while the
fact that he’s alive and he keeps fighting is an inspiration, the analysis he
presented to us was stark.
told us how the history of Colombia was one of elites pushing campesinos deeper
into the jungle in order to concentrate their own wealth and facilitate
multinational exploitation. He suggested we look not only at the complexities of
all the armed actors, the paramilitaries and guerrillas and armed forces and US
and narcotraffickers, but also at who benefits from the violence.
Afro-Colombians are on land that is slated for canal-building, dam-building, and
oil development– and are being displaced and murdered in huge numbers.
Indigenous people are on resource-rich lands– and are facing the same kinds of
violence. From 1948 to 1958, in ‘La Violencia’ in Colombia, 2 million people
were driven off their lands and 200 000 killed. At the end of it, there were
consolidated sugar and cotton plantations in few hands. The current phase of
violence has had 2 million people driven off their lands and land concentration
has increased, from 34% of the land in the hands of the top 5000 landowners in
1994 to 48% in those hands in 2001.
Hector knows US policymakers don’t care about the health effects of drugs on
American citizens. He knows they’re using drugs as an excuse to intervene in
Latin American politics. US elites are concerned with geopolitics and regional
security. It has always been about exploiting Latin American labor and
extracting Latin American resources, using whatever violence and pretexts are
needed to do so. There is tremendous, and growing, resistance to this kind of
exploitation in Latin America, that is of great concern to US elites. There is
the landless peasants’s movement in Brazil, the Zapatistas in Mexico, Chavez in
Venezuela, a strong indigenous movement in Ecuador, people’s movements in
Bolivia, an economic collapse in Argentina. All this as the US tries to force
the FTAA through in a shortened time span. To do so will require violence, as
neoliberalism required. "If neoliberalism came into Latin America in the boots
of Pinochet’s military coup," Hector said, "the FTAA will come to Latin America
in the helicopters of Plan Colombia."
Hector fears violence even worse than the violence of Plan Colombia is on the
horizon. "Human rights workers in Colombia have a sad story to tell," he said.
"We denounce imprisonment and torture, and they respond by disappearing people.
We denounce disappearances, and they assassinate people. We denounce
assassinations, and they respond with massacres. What could be worse than
massacres? There is something worse and that is a direct military intervention
that would destroy the country and not solve the problems of the war." He fears
a military intervention like that of Kosovo, justified as a humanitarian
intervention, whose real intention is to discipline the popular movements of all
of Latin America.
couldn’t help but remember the argument I heard at Z two years ago when the
bombing of Yugoslavia began, that in order to be consistent the US would have to
bomb Colombia as well. It served well to show the hypocrisy of the US, because
bombing Colombia seemed so implausible. But today it’s something Colombians
Caught between the insurgents and their project, the paramilitaries and their
fascist political project, the Colombian military, and the US violence, are the
people of Colombia, people like Hector. They’re reaching out to us to build a
bridge. Will we be able, together, to stop the war on drugs? To stop the kind of
‘development’ that’s destroying Colombia? To stop the humanitarian intervention
before it happens?