Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid



The two major leftist
guerilla groups in Colombia, the FARC and the ELN, or Fuerzas Armadas
Revolucionarias de Colombia and Ejército de Liberación Nacional, are not very
much discussed in the apprehensive ranks of the American left. The left has
decried the escalating American military intervention in Colombia with its
discredited pretext of the “war on drugs,” and has appropriately drawn attention
to the corporate interests in the exploitation of the country’s oil resources,
but by and large has shrunk from contending with the armed groups contesting the
U.S. neoliberal agenda.

 

The
Insurgents


These two groups are the
FARC, a resilient quasi-government whose communist roots half a century ago were
in urgent need to create a safe haven for the rural campesinos against the
depredations of partisan warfare in the period known as la violencia; and the
ELN, a charismatic guerilla army inspired by the Cuban Revolution and Che
Guevara’s dream of a Latin American socialism united against American
imperialism.

The FARC and the
ELN should be in the minds of the citizens of the United States, particularly
those who have struggled against corporate domination inthe domestic arena.
After all, the U.S. Special Forces have been in Colombia, on and off, since
1964. The Vietnamization of American military operations in the 1960s ratcheted
up the level of repression in the U.S. training of its Colombian enforcers.
Today, Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Egypt
and Israel.

In at least some
basic ways, the FARC and the ELN have been true to their mandates. The FARC,
befitting a force that controls nearly a quarter of the countryside, taxes all
exported goods, including coca. The more insurrectionary ELN regularly blows up
the pipelines that funnel petroleum from the countryside into the tankers of Los
Angeles-based multinational oil company Occidental Petroleum. They destroy power
lines to protest the privatization of the country’s energy sector. The ELN poses
a significant obstacle to the one-sided compact the political and economic
ruling class in the United States has arranged with its accommodating local
elite clients in the region: unimpeded corporate access with no accountability
to the indigenous population.

The oil in
Colombia is not the vast reserve that might allow the United States to continue
its gross consumption of fossil fuels and maintain its global dominance. But it
is the example that the FARC and the ELN set in actively defying corporate
domination that make them a threat to the U.S. ruling class and subject to
military reprisal.

The FARC and the
ELN have been reviled by liberal non-governmental organizations and mass media
across the political spectrum for profiting from the international drug trade,
in addition to extortion, kidnapping, and—most disturbingly—for the murder of
civilians who attempt neutrality in the escalating conflict with paramilitaries.
Hardly anyone suggests that the guerilla forces’ transgressions and human rights
abuses are as egregious as those of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC,
a paramilitary group that massacred at least 37 campesinos in the second week of
October in the departments of Valle de Cauca and Magdalena—a group that is, by
its own admission, heavily involved in cocaine trafficking.


War, even
guerilla war, is an unsavory enterprise and its violence debases all
parties—even in the struggle to wrest a new social order from an old, oppressive
system. In Colombia, there is not a revolutionary movement that animates the
latent social-democratic yearnings of the North American and European left in
the way the Sandinista revolution of Nicaragua did in the 1980s. Even so, it
doesn’t take a painstaking study of social history to comprehend that the FARC
and the ELN are qualitatively different from the repressive thugs who defend
private interests, that is the paramilitaries, in Colombia. But in the affluent
American capitols of the Imperium, the armed combatants on the left are
considered in moral equivalence with the paramilitaries. They are effectively
isolated from international sympathy.

 

An
Impatient State Department


The U.S. State Department,
on October 15, essentially signed a death warrant for the FARC and the ELN.
Ambassador Francis X. Taylor, coordinator of the state’s Counterterrorism
Office, announced that the FARC and the ELN would be given the same treatment as
the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11.
Taylor all but announced a direct American military intervention when he said
the United States would use all means, including “where appropriate—as we are
doing in Afghanistan—the use of military power.”

Taylor, along
with Rep. Cass Ballenger, a North Carolina Republican who has long kept a
paranoid eye on Latin America, has been drumming up an ominous rattle of
permanent and expanded conflict. On October 10, before separate committees in
the House of Representatives, the two remarked ominously and portentously on the
existence of agents of the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatist group
ETA training the FARC in tactics of urban guerilla warfare; of Hamas and
Hezbollah training in the remote border region between Brazil, Argentina and
Paraguay. Rep. Ballenger suggested that the FARC-controlled area of Colombia “is
being used as a safe haven to train and harbor terrorists.”

In other words,
the die has been cast. Just at the moment the drug war began to lose its sheen,
a new pretext for aggressive American militarism has been conveniently supplied.

All this is good
news for Bell Helicopter Textron, the Fort Worth, Texas-based defense contractor
turning out Huey II helicopters to escort the aerial fumigation planes in the
department of Putumayo, along with their Connecticut partners Sikorsky
Corporation who produce the Black Hawk helicopter. Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky
have together received $328 million over the past year for their contribution to
the Colombian war effort.

 

The
AUC


The inclusion of the AUC
in the State Department’s rogue’s gallery of “foreign terrorist organizations”
gives the appearance that the anti-terrorism war applied to Latin America is an
impartial, non-ideological exercise. However, long-time observers of military
conflict in the region express doubts that the AUC will be significantly hobbled
by its new “terrorist” status. One skeptic is Stan Goff, a retired Special
Forces operative who trained the Colombian armed forces in the early 1990s.

 “It defies
credibility that the Colombian military will attack the AUC,” says Goff. “It’s
about as likely as one squad of the Los Angeles Police Department attacking
another.” Goff attests to the Colombian paramilitaries’ role as an irregular
division of the official armed forces who carry out its more brutal
repressions—in active collaboration that supplies the all-important escape hatch
of deniability. This is a well-worn path in Latin America—familiar to observers
of Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador—of state-sponsored fascism and
privately-funded vigilantism.

In a report
issued in early October, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged that
the Colombian Army’s U.S.-trained 24th Brigade, stationed in Putumayo, works
with and receives money from the AUC.

In 1996, HRW
exposed a 1991 order to integrate the paramilitaries into the Colombian Armed
Forces intelligence operations: Directive 200-05/91. The report suggests that
this order was made at the instigation of the U.S. military.

Despite
Colombia’s disastrous human rights record, a U.S. Defense Department and Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) team worked with Colombian military officers on the
1991 intelligence reorganization that resulted in the creation of killer
networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting
guerrillas. Eyewitnesses have linked the new network run by the Colombian navy
to the murders of at least 57 people in and around the city of Barrancabermeja
in 1992 and 1993, in incidents documented here.


Since then, there
has been no effort to reform the Colombian military and, in fact, President
Andres Pastrana signed a bill last August to relax government oversight.

 “The point is,”
says Goff, “if we give money to the Colombian military, it ends up in the hands
of the paramilitaries.” Goff, an organizer with the North Carolina Network for
Popular Democracy, has written poignantly of this slippery arrangement in his
memoir, Hideous Dream—published earlier this year by Soft Skull Press—a
denouement of a 24-year career in the U.S. military concluded bitterly in the
1994 invasion of Haiti as he came to terms with himself as a self-described
“budding Red.”

Whether to wage a
war on all the forces of destabilization or to war against the challengers of
the neoliberal system is the question for the designers of U.S. foreign policy.
The State Department would like to market its escalation under the
ideologically-neutral rubric of “counterterrorism,” but Ambassador Taylor tipped
his hand in an October 15 address to the Organization of American States in
which he announced, “We date the advent of modern terrorism from 1968…when
revolutionary movements began forming throughout the Americas.”

 


Progressive Responses


The liberal-left addresses
the situation in Colombia by highlighting the displacement of indigenous people
and Afro-Colombian communities by U.S. multinational oil companies, avoiding
identification or sympathy with the guerilla forces who offer the most serious
challenge to the rapacious greed of the parties of corporate domination.

A case in point
is Witness For Peace. An ecumenical Christian organization monitoring human
rights abuses in Colombia, Witness For Peace provides a reliable marker of the
shift of strategic loyalties on the left. In the 1980s, the group made a
significant impact against the human rights abuses of the Nicaraguan Contras.
Observing that the Contras were loath to turn their guns on American citizens
for fear of displeasing their sponsors in the Reagan administration, the group
effectively placed themselves in the countryside to minimize atrocities. For the
North American left in the 1980s, the socialist project of the Sandinistas was
something clearly worth defending against the U.S.-sponsored Contra bid for
elite counterrevolution.

Ten years after
the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas and the triumph of the United States in
the Cold War, Witness For Peace is ambivalent on the merits of socialist
revolution in Colombia. The situation there, according to the organization’s
website, bears only a superficial comparison to earlier struggles between
leftist guerilla movements and right-wing paramilitaries in Guatemala and El
Salvador. In contrast to those conflicts, according to Witness For Peace, FARC
and ELN operate without significant popular support and the paramilitaries are
only somewhat tied to the regular army.

In March, a
Witness For Peace delegation took pains to emphasize to U.S. embassy officials
in Bogotá that they did not support the guerilla insurrection in Colombia, but
they were not naïve about the negative effects of U.S. policy in Latin America.
Witness For Peace’s approach to solidarity emphasizes meeting with community
leaders and human rights workers, though not with the armed actors in the
guerilla struggle who are directly contesting the power relations of the
country’s economic system. Their protest against U.S. military intervention
comes out of their conviction that justice comes with peace or at the very least
becomes more possible with peace, in contrast to the premise that struggle is
necessary to achieve a just peace.

Some North
American leftists have stepped out firmly in support of the guerillas. Jessica
Sundin of Colombia Action Network traveled directly to the FARC-controlled area
in the south of the country, to find out for herself the reality of the
insurgency. Relating her impressions in the journal of Freedom Road, a
Marxist-Leninist organization based in Chicago, Sundin said, “The FARC is made
up mostly of campesinos and poor peasants, the most exploited people in
Colombia. They say that the FARC is the only way to make a better life for
themselves, their families, and for all Colombians.”


Offering an
analysis that is hard to dispute, she insisted, “History shows that there are no
open legal doors to social change in their country. The traditional parties make
decisions that serve the interests of a handful of rich that rule the country.
The members of the FARC want to turn that around, to have a new Colombia that is
run by the majority.”

Against the
prevailing view that the FARC is part of the endemic cycle of social violence in
Colombia, Sundin attested, “Since the area has been under FARC control, it is
without a doubt the safest place in the country.”

Not all North
American groups on the left ascribe such socially progressive attributes to the
insurgents. The Friends Peace Team Project, a Quaker group in San Antonio,
estimated last year that guerilla groups were responsible for around 50 percent
of the forced relocations in Colombia. In March 1999, the murder of Ingrid
Washinowatok, a Menonminee Indian from Minnesota, along with two companions was
widely attributed to the FARC. Washinowatok had recently arrived in Colombia to
help establish an U’wa language school to help the indigenous group build a
cultural resistance to the occupation of tribal lands by Occidental Petroleum.
The death of the three activists prompted a campaign by the American Indian
Movement to pressure the FARC to accountability.

 


Aggressions Toward the Rich


Alma Guillermoprieto, who
has covered Latin America with perceptive insight and no small amount of
compassion for the New Yorker, casts an impassive gaze on the FARC and
the ELN. But writing from an essentially bourgeois standpoint, Guillermoprieto
recounts how a group of upper-class friends agonized over a trip to the beach
under the threat of kidnapping by the ELN. The kidnappings are a thorn in the
side for the wealthy since the ELN sets up roadblocks where travelers are
sometimes forced to wait for hours unless a quick computer database search
reveals that they have insufficient income to qualify for abduction.

Recently, these
episodes have reached an outrageous level of disregard. On September 30, former
Culture Minister Consuelo Araujo was found shot to death after being held by the
FARC for less than a week. Araujo’s death, along with the polarizing events of
September 11 in the United States, has strained peace talks between the
government and the rebels practically to the breaking point.

In fact, on all
sides of the conflict, violence has escalated precipitously, with police and
peasants being targeted and with children dying as an unintended result of
FARC’s explosion of an oil pipeline in the northern department of La Guajira, as
reported by the Washington Post.

On October 24,
Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, announced that the United States
would seek to extradite the FARC, the ELN, and the AUC. Colombian generals and
right-wing paramilitary leaders now speak of the zona de despejada as “the
Afghanistan within Colombia.” Conservative editorialists in Bogotá thunder that
Colombia needs to follow the United States’ example and take harsh measures
against the leftist “terrorists.”

Clearly,
Colombian elites and their U.S. sponsors see the opportunity to wipe out the
guerilla movement for good and end the 37-year civil war. No doubt, the
insurgents also see this as a critical time to push forward. This is the shape
of the permanent war to come: an escalating spiral of retaliatory violence with
each side invested so deeply that surrender becomes unfathomable.

Perhaps for the
United States, the war in Colombia will become a nightmarish entanglement in
which we will wonder at what point we might have had a chance to extricate
ourselves. For the displaced majority of Colombia whose economic survival has
become increasingly tenuous, the time when popular struggle might have loosened
the grip of the elites must nearly seem to have receded into the dusk.

The signs are
ominous that the FARC and the ELN have been marked by the U.S. State Department
for destruction. In that confrontation, all sectors of Colombian society will be
submerged in a bloodbath. Opponents of the U.S. “anti-terror” war in the United
States must know that this aggression also will be committed in the name of
American patriotism. The Colombian revolution and perhaps the viability of a
left-wing opposition in North America hang in the balance.
                                    Z

Jordan
Green is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina, currently
working as an editorial and research associate at the Institute for Southern
Studies.