The United States guarantees positively and efficiently to New Granada, by the present stipulation, the perfect neutrality of the Panama isthmus, by which the free transit from one to the other ocean will never, for so long as this Treaty exists, be interrupted, nor slowed, and, following this, guarantees in the same way the rights of sovereignty and property that New Granada holds over the said territory.
Article 35, Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Navigation and Commerce, December 12 1846.
The acceptance of the military presence of the US in Colombia by the governments of the country was renewed by Laureano Gomez in 1952 but dates from much earlier in 1846, when the first government of Tomas Cipriano de Mosquera docilely accepted a treaty that frankly, if not cynically, mixed economic and commercial matters with the deployment of troops. This treaty, like previous ones, did not speak of "bases" but tacitly allowed the presence of troops every time the US thought that the "neutrality" of Panama or the "free transit" through the isthmus or the "sovereignty and property" of Colombia were in jeopardy.
The artisans opposed the treaty and on October 4 1847 founded the Democratic Societies to stop "free trade" and defend national production. In 1854 the artisans’ revolutionary attempt, presided over by Pijao President Jose Maria Melo, was defeated. In the Panama isthmus the rage of artisans ruined by foreign merchandise and of local carriers ruined by the Panama railroad triggered the "Watermelon War", a riot on April 15, 1856 that started when an American refused to pay for a slice of watermelon and ended in clashes between Panamanians and Americans and over a dozen deaths. It was the pretext for the first American military intervention on September 19 1856.
Other military interventions by the US in Panama occurred on December 7 of 1860 following another brawl; on March 9 1865 after a revolt caused by the removal of a governor; and a more serious intervention on April 1 1885 to suppress a rebellion against Rafael Nuñez that began when the Colon fire was attributed to the rebels. The North American Armada was not limited to Panama in those days. The ship Parahaton made its presence felt on the shores of Cartagena, on the pretext of "protecting the US consulate, citizens, and interests", when that city was besieged by rebels. Daily communication with US troops who landed from the ship hindered the rebels and helped the Nuñistas, even as another American warship, the Alliance, captured the ship with which the rebels were about to complete the siege. The foreign military intervention decided the war in Nuñez’s favor. Nearby, General Palacios, a Nunista, took advantage of the victory to go to Tubara and seize the Mocana indigenous reserve in the hope of taking the natural gas contained below it.
In 1902, during the War of a Thousand Days, American troops came back, this time to stay. On November 11 1903 they ended up with the canal and separated the Panama isthmus from Colombia. Six months before, the indigenous leader of the Panamanian revolution, Victoriano Lorenzo, had been shot.
On the Panamanian side, the new Republic cancelled the June 4, 1870 law that recognized the Kuna indigenous territory, as well as the first recognition of an indigenous territorial entity in Colombian history, the Comarca Tulenega. The Inananguina sailadummat proposed to maintain integration with Colombia and demanded respect for the Comarca territory. In 1915 Panama created the Inspectorate of San Blas, which negated all indigenous autonomy and handed land concessions to banana and mining companies throughout the territory. On February 25 1925, the triumphant Kuna Revolution, led by Nele Kantule, began and in 1938 the Kuna had reconquered recognition of their Comarca.
The recent rise in oil prices has revived America’s appreciation for its strategic relationships with countries in the Middle East and reminded us why we came to their defense in the Persian Gulf War a half-world away. To me, there is an indisputable parallel to the situation in our own back yard: the crisis in Colombia… the United States went to war with a powerful enemy partly to stabilize a major oil-producing region. We worried that Iraq would attack Saudi Arabia, an ally and one of the United States’ largest oil suppliers. Where is that same concern with Colombia today?
Paul Coverdell, "Starting with Colombia", Washington Post April 10, 2000 A21
Senator Paul Coverdell was no mere commentator. Before he died, he designed the new hemispheric strategy founded on satisfying US petroleum needs. He emphasized about Venezuela like "our largest exporter of oil". He compared the situation of our region with that of the Middle East and considered that the new Venezuelan government and the growing indigenous and popular movement in Ecuador threatened regional stability and US energy supply. He defended Plan Colombia and the presence of the US in Colombia as necessary instruments, at least as important as making war on Iraq.
Two years later on February 12 2002, present Minister of Defense Gabriel Silva noted the new strategy of the US and the role assigned to Colombia: "The combination of a sensitive increase in risk to extra-regional supplies of petroleum, coupled with a progressively more and more hostile and messianic regime in the main supplier in the Americas, has forced U.S. government to secure alternative sources of oil. This is the crossroads in which Colombia appears as a new strategic priority. The geopolitical re-evaluation of our country as a trusted source of energy creates a series of opportunities that we should not waste."
Mr. Gabriel Silva titled his article in El Tiempo "Petroleum for Security", hoping to deliver Colombian oil until "Colombia be able to supply 10% of US consumption". For the moment, there is no such amount of Colombian oil. Coverdell’s vision is actually much more concrete: the oil that Colombia can deliver is from Venezuela.
For all its concreteness, Coverdell’s vision is as absurd as it is limited and short-term, but the experience of the military presence in Panama shows that its real effects, "free trade", investments, all kinds of natural resources, are multifaceted and can only be understood on the scale of decades: 1846 was only concluded in 1903.
"The government will lend to the contracting Companies, by bodies of armed police or public forces when necessary, the protection required to prevent or repel the hostility or attacks of the savage tribes who dwell in the regions that are part of the land subject to this contract."
Chaux-Folsom Contract, clause 29, subsection b: March 4 1931
In a letter to Congress, Quintin Lame protested the contract between the Colombian government and Gulf and Mobil at the expense of the indigenous Bari people: "The government has committed, at the request of Gulf, to attack with force, with the army and police, the Indians who live and have their crops in the Catatumbo region… the tribes, with whose cause I have always been in solidarity, and now more than ever, when because of the ambitions of a company made up of foreigners and a few badly advised Colombians, find themselves attacked, destroyed, their property plundered."
Treaties, foreign troops, local troops, contracts, concessions, plunder… the people pay. The elites trade territories and natural resources for security, their security, the guarantee that the foreign powers will intervene to maintain the status quo.
Bases to fight against the FARC? No, bases thanks to the breaking of the FARC, their defeaths and their strategic failure that has become a tragedy for popular struggle, that has allowed the strengthening of the extreme right that now controls the government and permits Coverdell’s vision to become reality.
In no case are these bases to finish with narcotrafficking. Plan Colombia has shown that the cultivation and production of coca doesn’t decrease (or grow) with fumigation or eradication, but along with the business cycles in price. When the price goes up, so too does the power of the mafia (like today) and production increases despite fumigation (as in 2006 and 2007). When the price goes down, production falls too (as in 2008).
The bases are to take the oil, the gold, industry and agriculture. To contain the mass civil resistance of the people. To repress the mobilizations of the "savages who dwell in the regions that are part of the territories" of any of the contracts of the transnationals, "by bodies of armed police or public forces when necessary."
This article originally appeared in Actualidad Etnica. It was translated from Spanish by Justin Podur.