Colombia Border Trouble


To understand the current crisis in Northern South America, it is important to recognize what most books and classes on Colombia state from the outset: the geopolitical importance of Colombia to the interests of the United States in the region. In recent years, Colombia has been recognized as one of the last and most hard-line outposts of neoliberalism in Latin America. Others may arguably include countries like Chile and Paraguay, or even Peru; but the shifts towards more progressive governments backed by popular social movements have been widely seen as a reaction to years of dictatorships and pragmatic leftist political parties that, once in power, were as pro-free market as the dictatorships that had imposed neoliberalism with an iron fist in the first place. More recently, countries like Venezuela and Bolivia have promoted people power backed by social movements that have represented at least one alternative to the inevitability of rich and poor, abundance and misery, and have broken at least a few fingers in the ‘invisible hand’ that, it is claimed, answers all of life’s problems.

Without getting too much into that discussion (though mentioning it because it is a part of this story), we can certainly say that, for years, Colombia has been the US’ most eager ally in the region: receiving billions of dollars in ‘aid’ for the ‘war on drugs’ and the ‘war on terror’, and more recently, challenging (through force and the threat of force) the revolutionary processes currently underway in Venezuela. Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, has been the staunchest US ally in the region, his discourse mimicking that of the Bush administration. But he takes it a step further. He liberally labels his political opposition ‘terrorists’ or ‘communists in disguise’, and has promoted as the only viable path to peace in Colombia the military annihilation of the FARC (the oldest and strongest armed insurgency in the continent). Talking with Colombians, one will almost always hear about Uribe’s animosity for the FARC as stemming from the murder of his father at their hands, a personal vendetta. Recall George W. Bush’s comments while making his long-discredited case for invading Iraq: "Saddam Hussein planned to kill a US president [his father]."

Uribe has always maintained the stance that he would never negotiate with the FARC. Aside from denying the reality of an armed conflict in Colombia ("We don´t have a war in Colombia. We have a terrorist problem"), Uribe refuses to recognize FARC as a social and political actor. No matter how disgusting their crimes (murders of innocents, kidnappings, drugs, etc.), no matter how despised they are by most Colombians today, they remain a social and political actor. Recently, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez did what Uribe and the US would never do: he recognized the FARC through giving them what is known in international law as ‘belligerent status’. This meant that they would have to follow the norms of war (insofar as they exist… Let’s assume they do) described by the Geneva Convention and so on. Chavez’ reasoning was not that he supported the FARC, though much of the media is zealously reporting this, but that it was a concession he would grant to them in order for them to release some of the hostages they’ve held in captivity for years. There are thousands of Colombian politicians and citizens held by the FARC, an issue that mobilized thousands against the FARC this past 4 February. But it was Chavez (and Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba), not Uribe, who made the necessary first steps in securing the unilateral release of two groups of hostages in the last two months – huge steps towards a humanitarian accord and a negotiated solution to the conflict. However outlandish his comments may be, Chavez was the ‘unstatesman-like’ statesman who actually acted on the wishes of the millions who marched on 4 February, not Uribe.

But like I mentioned, Uribe is not interested in a negotiated solution. Upon the release of the first group of prisoners by the FARC, Chavez and Cordoba bargained for an area in which the prisoner release could occur. The reaction of the Colombian government was to bomb the place, nearly killing the Senator Cordoba. The Colombian journalist, Claudia López, wrote an article in El Tiempo, Colombia’s national paper, not too long ago, describing the recklessness of Uribe in pursuing military rescue over negotiation. The article was aptly titled, "How many more dead, Mr. President?" Here´s a link: http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/819/61/

What does the humanitarian accord have to do with what happened over the weekend? Last week, Cordoba and Chavez again negotiated the release of four Colombians without the support of Uribe. The Colombian president had absolutely nothing to do with it. And the released prisoners said so. The comments of the released on the news that day expressed their utmost gratitude for Chavez and Cordoba, for the families of the kidnapped, who are opposed to Uribe’s doctrine of military rescue for obvious reasons – the hostage survival rate is not great. The parents of Ingrid Betancourt, the ex-presidential candidate and most high-profile hostage (held for 6 years and counting!), have been described by some neoconservative opinion writers in El Tiempo as ‘enemies of the state’.

The day of the last hostage release, I was in Manizales watching the news on TV. Earlier that day, I was chatting with a lady who worked where I was staying. She declared herself to be an Uribista and totally hated Chavez. I agreed with her on some points, but waited to see what the released prisoners would have to say. When their comments came up, she came to me excitedly: "Watch this!" One by one, they thanked Chavez and Cordoba and said nothing of Uribe. She turned to me and said, "you know I hate Chavez, but look what he’s done for Colombia. Just look!" I quipped, "and Uribe?"

For two days, the news was all about the released hostages, stories of their ordeal, of the state of Ingrid, and the unprecedented advances being made. But Uribe could say nothing. He had nothing to do with it.

Then, on Saturday morning, the news came that ‘Raul Reyes’, reportedly the FARC’s second in command and chief negotiator, had been killed by the Colombian armed forces in a masterfully executed operation along the border of Ecuador. Uribe claimed that it was a small operation that did the job and left. Later that afternoon, the truth was revealed. Uribe had lied. What they are now reporting: the Colombian military intercepted a satellite phone call made from a FARC camp across the Río Putumayo that divides the two countries. With the confirmation that the call was made by ‘Raul Reyes’, they launched an air strike, dropping a number of cluster bombs in Ecuadorean territory, followed by a blitz of bullets to take out any survivors. An unconfirmed number of people were killed, including ‘Raul Reyes’, whose body appeared on Colombian newspapers, a la Che Guevara. A victory for Uribe and a confirmation of his military strategy. Just a small problem with dropping bombs on another country. Uribe came out saying that he reserved the right to attack any state that "harbours terrorists". Sound familiar? Ecuadorean and Venezuelan troops were rushed to the Colombian border. Clearly, Uribe was going Bush.

The current situation and its gravity are well-known, given the amount of international media attention now fixed on the region. The fact is that Colombia violated Ecuadorean sovereignty, and Correa is justifiably angry. According to El Tiempo, however, 83% of Colombians are in favour of Uribe’s actions. This is worrying.

Suddenly, the Colombian government has secured itself a victory against the FARC, as if there will not be another possible replacement in the guerrilla army with numbers in the thousands. Uribe’s military doctrine has been proven and justified by the ‘war on terrorism’, ALL US presidential candidates back his actions (though they might not feel the same if the US were attacked while another state pursued terrorists), and in many ways I am reminded of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon (Justin Podur’s most recent commentary on Znet most compellingly makes this parallel. Link: http://www.zcomm.org/zs/commentariespace/3403 ).

A computer that magically survived the cluster bombs has appeared in the hands of the Colombian government. It was apparently the property of Raul Reyes. The accusations are now flying. Correa and Chavez are now reportedly linked to the FARC. Ecuador has broken diplomatic ties with Colombia, and Venezuela has expelled the Colombian ambassador. The TV says that Chavez gave $300 million to the FARC, while El Tiempo reports that the money was offered. Quite a significant discrepancy, especially given that Uribe has announced that he will bring charges to the International Criminal Court against Chavez for "supporting genocide." Oh, what thought must be going through Uribe’s head, for human rights groups in Colombia have long been campaigning to bring similar charges against him for his dirty war against trade unionists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, social movements, and his political opposition, among others. That is not even to mention the ongoing ‘para-politica’ scandal that has seen several of his political allies sent to jail for proven links to paramilitary death squads. Many more are facing charges; yet the president remains the Teflon Don.

But then there’s what has been lost.

Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa was quoted in El Tiempo yesterday:

"I’m sorry to tell you that the conversations [with Raul Reyes] were moving towards liberating 12 hostages in Ecuador, including Ingrid. Now, they are connecting us to the FARC… Cynics!"

And Venezuelan Chancellor Nicolás Maduro:

"Venezuela will stand with Ecuador… Nobody, nobody will surprise us. We are confronting crazy people obsessed with war."

There is no doubt that things are tense. There are reports that travel between Colombia and Venezuela is impossible for civilians. The Ecuadorean border crossing is seemingly less tense, though in rural areas along both frontiers, troops are mounting. Newspapers are saying that divisions have never been so greatly felt since the 1830s. These three neighbouring countries were once, along with Panama, one: Gran Colombia. Now they are at the point of destroying each other with none more the winner than the economic powerhouses in the north of our hemisphere and across the Atlantic in Europe.

What has been pointed out frequently by progressives following these events is that a war among these countries will not be good for any of their citizens. Colombia would not benefit, nor would Ecuador. The only winner would be the US, whose administration has been desperately searching for another chance to disrupt Venezuela’s revolutionary process since the failed 2002 coup and the 2004 recall referendum. What seemed like a victory for proponents of a humanitarian accord would only last for a couple of days. Too much good press for one of the most vocal opponents of US power in the region was too quickly turned into a regional crisis and imminent war.

The humanitarian accord, supported by millions of Colombians and others around the world, is being undermined by hawks in Washington and Bogotá. The challenge is to counteract the view that the military incursion into Ecuador had nothing to do with the current distraction away from a negotiated peace in Colombia. These events were not mutually exclusive. The mobilization planned for March 6, a mobilization not only against the FARC but also for a humanitarian accord and in support of the victims of state and paramilitary crimes (where the statistics of crimes against humanity by far outweigh the crimes of the guerrilla), is also a target of this distraction.

As we learned through the example of the Falklands War (started by embattled leaders in Britain and Argentina at the time), when things aren’t going so well internally, these sorts of distractions are particularly useful for leaders that are useless. It is necessary that misguided patriotism not get in the way of serious popular demands for a humanitarian accord, a negotiated solution, and the addressing of the problems that led to the conflict in the first place. If anything, we must now be more clearly aware of who is not interested in negotiating a peaceful future.

Salento, Colombia, 5 March, 2008

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