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Against Fear and Invisibility


The struggle of Colombians is a struggle against fear and a struggle against invisibility. These are two of the worst weapons used against Colombians.  Fear, because it causes the silence elites need to fulfill their agendas.  Invisibility, because of its isolating effect: people cannot fight alongside, or build solidarity with, those they cannot see.  In this article we bring you two movements who are exemplary in their struggles against fear and invisibility:   The Popular Women’s Organization (Organizacion Femenina Popular), and the Black People’s Process (Procesas Comunidades Negras).

The Struggle Against Fear

On April 8, 2002, another member of the Popular Women’s Organization (OFP) was assassinated by paramilitaries in Barrancabermeja.  His name was Diafanol Sierra Vargas, and in addition to being a member of the OFP, he was also the director of the Foodworker’s Union (SINALTRAINAL) Local in Barrancabermeja.  The paramilitaries broke into his house, dragged him outside, and shot him in front of his family.  It is unclear whether he was killed for his union activities or his support for the OFP.  It is clear that he was killed for his participation in social movements.  This is only the latest of a long string of murders on this front of Colombia’s dirty war.  One one side of this particular conflict are the 12,000 armed men of the paramilitary Colombian United Self-Defence (AUC) with advanced weaponry and training that is funded by drugs and comes to them via the Colombian Army from the United States of America.  On the other side of the conflict are the unarmed women of the OFP, the popular women’s organization, based in Barrancabermeja.

What could these women have done to bring the wrath of one of the most vicious armed groups in the world against them?  The answer is the title of their last communiqué: ‘women will not be silent.’  They are not, and they have not been.  The struggle of the OFP is the struggle against fear.  It’s no wonder that they enrage the paramilitaries and their backers in the government and the US.  Fear is, after all, a terrible weapon, and the OFP is involved in taking that weapon away.

Let’s go back to August, 2001.  The women of the OFP organized an international mobilization to converge on their base city of Barrancabermeja in the Magdalena Medio department of Colombia.  The slogan: “It is better to exist with fear than to cease to exist because of fear.”  Thousands from all over Colombia and the world came to join the OFP.  They marched, sang, danced, partied, cooked, ate, and went through the city taking back the public spaces from the paramilitaries who control the city.  They did this, and then the mobilization ended and they awaited the reprisals.  The reprisals started immediately– indeed, during the events themselves– with the women’s houses of the OFP being burned to the ground and the members threatened.  But the OFP continues to fight, continues to speak, and refuses to be afraid. 

Barrancabermeja and the women’s movement

When the Spanish colonizers came down the Magdalena river to Barranca 500 years ago, they left the place alone.  It was just too hot, and there were other prizes to be had (stolen, in fact, but that’s another story).  But in the 1940s, the curse of poor countries the world over was found there.  The oil that was found attracted American corporations.  The corporations needed the same things they always needed: the land from which to take the resources and the people to use to do it.  So while ‘La Violencia’ was filling the land requirement by pushing people off of their lands all over the country– in Santander, in Antioquia, and the Caribbean– some of the displaced ended up in Barranca to fulfill the labour requirement, and work for the likes of Texaco and Shell in the oil fields.

The resource town became a multicultural region of migrants, mostly poor, unrooted men, who found the best jobs at the refinery and spent the quick money on the services that sprung up with the boom.  Somehow, in the process, a community was established that became a center of social movements in Colombia.

There were many currents.  The first, perhaps, was the oil worker’s union who, abused, against aggressions and assassinations organized and joined the largest, strongest, and oldest union in the country.  Another was the Liberation Theology of the 1960s, those rural priests who adopted the ‘preferential option for the poor’ and tried to live and serve according to their principles.  Still another was the original guerrilla Army of National Liberation (ELN), inspired by the Cuban revolution to take up arms against a ruthless elite.

And another current, in this most machista of oil boom towns, was one of the most incredible feminist organizations in the hemisphere.  At their founding thirty years ago, the OFP declared that hey shared the commitment of the men– who were their brothers, husbands, and sons– to social justice.  But they demanded reciprocity.  They would join the struggle, on equal terms, and work for social justice, and for women’s rights.

In Spanish ‘Popular’ can be translated as ‘popular’ or as ‘people’s’.  It is in this latter sense that the OFP’s name should be understood, because the OFP is truly a women’s organization and a people’s organization.  The OFP works all over the Magdalena Medio region, and its constituency is a truly cross-class alliance of women.  In it are women who argue and agitate for peace; who build schools and develop popular education programs; who work and organize in unions; who have done some of the best research on sexuality, and more.  They are the strongest peaceful people’s movement in the region, and there is no stronger symbol of their strength than the Casas de la Mujer, or ‘Women’s Houses’.

The Casas de la Mujer showcase the OFP’s approach: they are houses, rooted physically, tangibly, in communities.  They are houses of education, a community infrastructure from which women go out into the field to do their work. 

By the 1980s, Barrancabermeja had reached something like its current population of 300,000 and began to become the violent, contested place it is today.  The paramilitaries were born here at this time, founded, then as now, on an alliance of landowning ranchers and drug traffickers.  This was the territory of Pablo Escobar and ‘El Mexicano’.  The Magdalena Medio was, in fact, the laboratory of the paramilitary strategy and murder by murder, massacre by massacre, they destroyed the social movements and the people’s hopes in the region.

By 2000, most of their work was already done. There was a full siege of the city in which paramilitaries and the Colombian Army were working openly together.  The only strongholds that remained in the city were those of the OFP.  As the paramilitary take neighbourhood after neighbourhood, the OFP continues to resist.  How do these battles look?  How does the OFP face off against the paramilitaries?  One tactic of the paramilitaries is to knock on the door of a house where suspected ‘guerrilla collaborators’ (a label attached to anyone sympathetic to a social movement of any kind) live, and move in, demanding food, money, taking rooms, threatening violence.  The woman of the house goes to the OFP’s local Women’s House, and the OFP go to the house and tell the paramilitaries to leave.  If the paramilitaries do not leave, the family is moved into the Women’s House, leaving the paramilitaries to terrorize an empty house.

But the paras can adapt their tactics.  They have begun to burn the Women’s Houses down.  The last burning was December 2001.  The last murder of an OFP supporter was April 9, 2002.  The situation is urgent, and international accompaniment by the Peace Brigades International and the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the solidarity movements here, have made a huge difference.

The OFP administer projects.  They have developed community organizing processes that enable them to mobilize huge numbers, to make democratic decisions, to put forth proposals for economic and social policy changes.  They have a sophisticated analysis of the social system and a commitment to alternatives based on a different set of values.  They are known, visible, and credible and they are an example of the kind of people who could solve Colombia’s problems if the war and the lies about drugs and terror did not make them invisible.  While in the wealthy countries class and feminist politics are too-frequently thought of as opposed to one another, the OFP are clearly against capitalism and clearly against sexism.  The wisdom they can offer to social movements here is summed up in our rough translation of another one of their beautiful slogans: ‘Women blind to class are stupid.  Men blind to sexism are assholes.’

If they win their fight against fear, they will win a victory for all of us.  That means their fight is ours, too.

The Struggle Against Invisibility (1)

Four hundred years ago African slaves, brought to Colombia by the Spanish, escaped and founded communities on the Pacific Coast called ‘Palenques’.  They were never enslaved again.  On the coast, they created something new: an Afro-Colombian culture, a balance with the land, a way of organizing community life.  They were far from the centers of national power, and their isolation meant they didn’t get the benefits of national ‘development’.  By every economic measure, the Afro-Colombians were poor and neglected.  Even though Palenques like San Basilio were independent for a hundred years before Colombia gained its independence from Spain, the Afro-Colombians did not have a share in the Colombian nation.

When that nation did find them, however, it was not to invite them to contribute their diverse ideas and projects to the national life.  It was instead to attack them again, and push them off their lands in horrific ways, to make way for a new kind of ‘development’: one that required the lands, resources, and labour of the Afro-Colombians, but not the Afro-Colombians themselves.  As a result, the Pacific Coast has become a theatre of Colombia’s war, where economic interests and their armed auxiliaries face the remarkable, determined resistance of the people and their own organizations.  One of the organizations of the Afro-Colombians is called the ‘Black Communities Process’ (PCN). 

The second week of April 2002 marks the anniversary of the Easter Week massacre of Afro-Colombians that occurred April 12, 2001.  This was one of the worst massacres in Colombian history, and one that, unlike the spectacular kidnappings or assassinations by the FARC guerrillas (that are also criminal and much smaller in scale) went essentially unreported in the North American media.  It’s a shame that it went unreported, because it is a dramatic story that typifies paramilitary massacres in Colombia. 

It is a story of paramilitary incursions and threats, followed by repeated warnings and pleas to the authorities who refused to respond, followed by a massacre, followed by the flight of many members of the population of the community.  The one exceptional thing about this massacre– a massacre in which no one even knows how many died, but estimates are around one hundred– is that some of the paramilitary perpetrators were briefly arrested by the army.  In fact they were not arrested.  As they left the scene of the massacre by boat, they encountered a storm.  They were rescued by the army.  Instead of saying they’d just rescued mass murderers, the army opted to claim they’d arrested them.

Of Colombia’s approximately 9 million Afro-Colombians, about 1.4 million are from the Pacific Coast regions.  They are vastly disproportionate among the displaced, and the Afro-Colombians of the Pacific are hit particularly hard.  The current wave of massacres is aimed at clearing the Pacific Coast of its black population, and has succeeded– 70% of Colombia’s 2.4 million displaced are Afro-Colombian.  Afro-Colombians are 20-25% of the population of the country. 

The timeline and the geography of the massacres tells the story of the interests at work.  The roots of the paramilitary massacres in this region and against this population are in political changes in the early 1990s.  The first: in the 10-year period from 1990-2000, Colombia experienced a neoliberal opening of its economy and the IMF/World Bank structural adjustment that poor countries are so familiar with.  This featured, as it always does, a reduction in public spending, the privatization of state enterprises, an orientation towards export, labour market ‘flexibility’.  These translated into unemployment, poverty, food insecurity, social conflict, and generalized misery.  Food imports grew seven-fold over this period.

The second major change was the new constitution of 1991.  The participatory process of the Constituent Assembly included indigenous and Afro-Colombian rights, collective title to lands– in many ways it is one of the most progressive constitutions in the world today.  It rejected the model of nation-building on an exclusive foundation of Creole-mestizo culture, recognizing that Colombia was a diverse, multiethnic, and multicultural country and recognizing Afro-Colombians as a ‘distinct ethnic group’ with a right to territorial autonomy and development according to their own cultural values.

The Afro-Colombians, as well as the indigenous (and with their help) organized for this constitutional process.  They formalized their customary rights and community land-use rules, to create ‘community councils’ who could assume the administration of the collective title granted to them in the constitution.  The PCN was a part of this process: going into the communities, drawing maps, building organization. 

But as the PCN was making its development plans, building on tradition and the new constitution, the neoliberal opening brought its own logic and its own plan for the development of the region.  In this version, the rivers would be dammed for hydroelectric power or turned into canals for transporting the resources of the interior to pacific markets.  Coastal communities would become beach resorts with mega-hotels, forests would be harvested for timber, and gold would be extracted from the river valley.  There were plans, too, for tapping the genetic diversity of the region for pharmaceuticals.

This project of development was the total opposite of the Afro-Colombians’ own project, and it had an additional problem: because of the new constitution, the Afro-Colombians had the legal right to the territory they were on.  This meant that a legal strategy for getting at the territory wouldn’t work.  For those elites who envisioned a Pacific Coast full of megaprojects and with Afro-Colombian and indigenous existing only to be a disciplined workforce for the hotels and free trade zones, there was another strategy available– that of massacre and forced displacement.  So what the Afro-Colombians gained through their organization for the constitutional process, they lost in the dirty war.

The massacres started in the most politically organized and advanced areas: moving down the coast, hitting areas often at the very moment collective title was to pass to the communities.  Riosucio, Anchicaya, Yurumangui, and the Naya rivers suffered massacres.  Anchicaya is now a community that has collective title and no one living there.  Collective title, however, expires legally if the community is not there to claim it– a legal device that strengthens the incentive for paramilitaries and their backers to destroy and depopulate the communities.

PCN activists report that the massacres are following an economic logic, that the paramilitaries are operating with the support of the military, and that the government has consistently failed to protect them.  Their work now is in trying to develop a strategy to resist this onslaught, even as they continue to develop their own ideas of the kind of Colombia they want to build.

The PCN has its own ideas about the war, for example.  While they would never compare the guerrilla insurgents to the paramilitaries who are responsible for their displacement and murder, Afro-Colombian activists have been assassinated by FARC, and the PCN does not feel that the insurgency represents them or their ideas of self-determination and territorial autonomy.  They have struck their own balance with nature, and they have their own gender politics.  The PCN draws on the matriarchal tradition of the Afro-Colombian communities and many of its leaders are women– it is on this base that they seek to construct their version of feminism.

Those leaders are being targeted and assassinated.  One of the PCN’s urgent plans is to find a way to protect leaders within the territory.  Those leaders who are not killed are forced to flee, weakening the organization and making it that much easier to depopulate the region.

Another plan of the PCN is to develop food security.  Part of the paramilitary strategy is to besiege communities, blocking their access to the outside– and to food.  To stay on the land, the PCN wants to try to develop better local agricultural self-sufficiency.

Still another idea is for communities under threat of an impending massacre to move, but not to move to the shantytowns of huge cities like Medellin or Cali, but instead to move temporarily to nearby communities, remaining near their lands and preparing to reoccupy them.

They have identified several areas where North Americans can join in their work.  One is in protective accompaniment.  The presence of international observers in the communities can act as a deterrent to state and paramilitary violence, as it does in places like Chiapas and, recently, Palestine.  Fighting for a moratorium on foreign investment in conflict zones would interrupt the economic logic of the war: if companies are not allowed to invest and profit from the massacres and displacement, the incentive to commit these crimes disappears.  The PCN’s vision of Afro-Colombian autonomy does not preclude solidarity.  Far from it: to the PCN autonomy and solidarity are partners, and equally indispensable.

Justin Podur and Manuel Rozental are members of the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign (http://tao.ca/~ccsc)

(1)   Based on interviews with PCN activists Eva Grueso and Pablo Leal

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