The Disastrous Economics Of Counterterrorism In Colombia

The ambassador of the United States demanded that the Colombian army call up its reserves; the Pastrana government said that it could not do so for lack of funds; but Uribe Velez’s minister of defense has announced that the new government will indeed call up 40,000 reservists. It will also create an intelligence network of one million civilians. The money will come from a budget ‘reform’ that will free several billion dollars for military expenditures, plus another amount to cover the resulting deficit in the national budget.

In the middle of an economic crisis that has lasted five years, Colombia has one of the highest unemployment rates in Latin America. Budget ‘reforms’ have been enacted by each of the past three Colombian governments. Colombia’s external debt has doubled in the past ten years and 82% of state tax revenues go to debt service.

With the budget dedicated to war and debt expenditures, the 7 points of social welfare that adorn Uribe Velez’s program of government are exposed for the pure demagoguery that they are. There is simply no money for social expenditure, unless you count the clients and friends of government officials and the new civilian intelligence network who will receive benefits from their patrons.

One might think that the military contracts will contribute to an economic resurgence, but most of those resources will be leaving the country to purchase expensive weapons and sophisticated equipment. At the same time the military expenditures will conflict with the promises Colombia has made in order to join the FTAA. Opening the country to imports has wrecked the agricultural and industrial sectors. The latest round of free trade agreements will deepen these effects and cancel any benefits from the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA).

The approval in the US Congress of Fast Track for free trade legislation puts Colombia first in line and threatens to convert it into one of the first south american countries absorbed in the system of north american free trade, two years before FTAA. In fact, Canada has also announced that it will sign a free trade agreement with Colombia.

How can one speak of ‘free trade’ when agricultural products from the US receive huge subsidies? Large landholders, like sugar producers, are affected by the new agreements, and they are already poised to take over the lands of small producers. This is already happening with the popular ‘panela’ (a concentration of sugar cane extract). The result will be further complications in the rural situation.

Uribe has claimed he will restore the Colombian cotton industry, but he hasn’t explained how he will make it compete with North American cotton. The plans for the cultivation of African palm continue, but these, too, will be uneconomical as international oil prices continue to fall. The more the agricultural system collapses, the more violence and illegal cultivation increases.

For urban inhabitants the outlook is still worse. Electricity prices are set to increase by 22-30%, in order to compensate for a reduction in subsidies and to promote privatization. On the Atlantic coast even before this increase in prices there was social conflict because poor communities couldn’t afford to pay the bills. Every single day there are conflicts between communities and the private power industry and there are often roadblocks. If prices go up throughout the country, this situation will become generalized.

For salaried workers a readjustment of quotas for pension payments and an increase in retirement age has been announced. This is to satisfy the financial sector and dip into the social security funds. There is also a desire to annul the collective agreements on pensions won by various sectors of workers, like oil workers and teachers. The new, private health system is on the verge of collapse because the state has not turned its funds over– it carries a massive debt with clinics and private hospitals.

Uribe’s counterterrorist program is different from the simple paramilitary terror applied to date. Besides making paramilitarism legal again, it is a comprehensive machine to relegitimate the ruling class and delegitimate the rebellion. This has been successful because of the guerrillas who increasingly affect the civil population, because of the manipulation of images in the media, and because of the supposed program against corruption that the government has promised.

Analyzing this project one sees that the objective is the extermination of opposition and independent sectors, with the reduction of members of Congress occurring simultaneously with the establishment of minimum voting percentages. The corruption that will supposedly eliminated by this measure will be that of parlamentarians, but at the cost of giving more power to the president.

The president is also taking over the granting of oil concessions, thus abolishing a source of regional corruption and establishing a source of presidential corruption. Freeing up the local ‘agrarian institutes’ likewise, done in the name of combating central corruption, will do so by strengthening local corruption.

All of these measures have a weak point that will cause the entire structure to collapse like a house of cards: the economic reality and the popular struggle that it generates. As has occurred in Boilvia, Venezuela, Atenco (Mexico), Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, there will come a day when popular mobilization will not be containable.

Unfortunately, with the politics of counter-terrorism, this mobilization could well be criminalized and repressed thanks to changes in legislation and the declaration of a state of Emergency. A successful repression in Colombia would only be a first step in repressing the whole continental movement against neoliberalism and FTAA. This would impede the construction of a mass movement against neoliberalism in Colombia and a real international solidarity.

Hector Mondragon is a Colombian economist and activist who advises peasant and indigenous organizations.

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