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The other kind of violence


“Violence in Colombia” is such a popular topic of study that there are hundreds of articles, books, and essays with that title. Some, written by people who call themselves ‘violentologists’, are very good, and very serious. Others are less so. Most all of them focus on the conflict between the armed forces and the guerrilla insurgency. Many also discuss the implications of the drug trade and drug trafficking. The more serious ones discuss the problem of paramilitarism. The best ones of all discuss the role of multinational interests, including the United States and multinational corporations, in fueling the conflict.

Almost none of them, though, tell the story of the quiet, appalling violence that poor people live through, and would continue to live through even if all of the ‘violence’ that makes Colombia famous were to suddenly disappear. But there is violence being done here. And a good ‘violentologist’, someone who is interested in fighting ‘terror’, might find a whole host of violence and terror far from the battlefields.

In Cali, Colombia, last week, a 16-year old girl named Paola delivered a baby. Paola got to Cali the same way many young people do—by being displaced from her home town by paramilitary threats. More than 2.5 million Colombians have made their way, mostly to the outskirts of the larger cities, in this way. She was already pregnant when she was displaced.

In Cali, Paola found herself without financial resources, family support, or anything—either for herself or for her baby. She walked to the office of a government office– ‘the peace management office’, as it is interestingly called. She walked there for two reasons: 1) she didn’t have bus fare and 2) she was told by the office when she called that it was healthy for pregnant women to walk.

Paola delivered her child at a Cali hospital, and friends of hers scraped together some money to purchase clothing for the baby, as well as syringes and rubber gloves for the hospital staff (not provided by the hospital). One of these friends, Maria Eugenia, tried to register Paola. When Maria said Paola was displaced, the hospital staff said: “sorry, but everybody says that they’re displaced so they don’t have to pay.” The fee? More than $200 US, a fortune for a displaced young Colombian woman. When Paola’s friends asked what would happen if she couldn’t pay, the staff shrugged. It was clear that Paola and her baby wouldn’t be allowed to leave the hospital until their bill was paid. The trouble was that the government’s health coverage for the displaced pays the first $20 and no more—an innovation introduced in Colombia’s latest budget.

In the end, Paola escaped from the hospital for the same reason that we know her story. Among her friends were activists who were able to pull together enough money to bail her out (of a hospital) and to send an email out to supporters outside. There are at least 2.5 million stories like Paola’s, happening every day.

A 16 year old displaced woman who has just given birth to a baby can be locked in a hospital for not having money to pay for the delivery because health coverage for displaced people has been cut off.

Are there ‘counter-terror’ operations in the works, to deal with this? If you are waiting for ‘health care for young mothers as counter-terror’, you could be waiting a long time.

One example of the ‘counter-terror’ that does exist happened just before Paola’s baby was born, on February 23, 2003. On that day, in a rural community called Meseta in Choco, two young indigenous men: Evelio Sanapi Sintua (23 years old) and Fernando Antibia (21) left on a hunting trip at 6am. When they didn’t come back the next day, the community formed search teams. One search team found an army patrol, who reported that two indigenous had been captured. When the search team talked to the officer in charge, they were told that the men had been killed, and that the bodies could be found in another municipality.

Another example: the national oil company, ECOPETROL, is in a process of collective bargaining. As part of the negotiations, the government has barred union leaders from company premises, and on February 21, the army occupied the oil refineries of Barrancabermeja and Cartagena, injuring hundreds of workers.

A third example: Since February 14, the army has been shelling communities in Northern Cauca—in the municipalities of Jambalo, Toribio, and Corinto, and part of Caloto. The excuse is the presence of the FARC, but the mostly indigenous population has issued a bulletin stating that they would rather not be shelled. That population is being targeted not for any FARC presence but because they have successfully built their own ‘life projects’, land reforms, and structures of governance that are autonomous from the government. Like the workers at ECOPETROL, they are being punished for their resistance.

These kinds of violence aren’t unique to Colombia.  All over the world, there are young mothers who have not had the health care they need on account of privatization, IMF recipes, profit-driven public services, and the humiliation of the poor.  There are other governments that deploy their armies to shell communities, break unions, and assassinate innocents.  The ‘violentologists’ are doing a disservice to Paola, Evelio and Fernando, the workers of ECOPETROL, the peasants of Cauca, when they ignore their stories– not only because this is a huge source of violence that hasn’t been studied enough, but also because it might have some relationship to the other kinds.

Justin Podur maintains ZNet’s Colombia Watch pages. He can be reached at justin.podur@utoronto.ca

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