On August 7, 2002, mortar attacks hit the inauguration ceremony of President Alvaro Uribe, symbolizing a new phase in the Colombian conflict. Evading the 20,000-strong force of soldiers and police guarding the capital during Uribeâ€™s big day, and operating undetected by U.S.-supplied helicopters and radar jets, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) launched nineteen 120mm mortar shells, killing 21 people in the vicinity of the presidential palace. Since his inauguration, Uribe has responded by using U.S. military aid not only to target leftist guerrilla groups, but also to protect the economic interests of U.S. oil companies operating in Colombia.
Uribe came to power following failed peace negotiations and in the face of a rapidly escalating armed conflict. A majority of voting Colombians (but less than one quarter of eligible voters) elected the former governor of Antioquia to lead a military campaign against the countryâ€™s illegal armed organizations. While many Colombians may have supported his preposterous search for peace through revitalized war efforts, they could not have foreseen the extreme measures that Uribe would take during his first few weeks in office. The newly inaugurated president declared a 90-day â€œstate of unrestâ€ on August 12, which allowed for emergency military rule and granted himself decree powers for the duration of the period.
Uribe put forth his first military decree on September 10, allowing for the creation of â€œZones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation,â€ where direct military rule would replace existing local government and where arrests and searches without a warrant could be carried out by military authorities. Gustavo GallÃ³n, head of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, argues that these arrests allow government forces to target civilians inside their homes, an additional tool to the violent tactics of intimidation and repression the government already exercises in the streets. â€œIt is clear that this government sees suspects on every corner,â€ said GallÃ³n. â€œIt sees possible guerrilla collaborators in every human rights activist, union leader and journalist.â€ In addition to legalizing the detention of civilians, the decree restricts the movement of foreigners by monitoring and often prohibiting the travel of human rights workers and journalists within Colombian territory.
With this extension of military rule have come drastic economic reforms. In order to finance military expansion, Uribe has put forth reforms that will free up large tracts of the national budget for military expenses. These include a decree reducing all public sector salaries by 30 percent. He has also proposed a reduction in overnight and overtime wages, and an increase of the retirement age. Taken together, Uribeâ€™s attacks on labor, human rights activists, civilians and foreigners, as well as his plans to inflate the military budget, serve the interests of international financiers and investors, create the economic climate necessary for the implementation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and protect the foreign-dominated oil and gas fields.
The quest for oil lies at the center of Colombiaâ€™s current web of violence. Colombia is the seventh-largest supplier of oil to the United States and the potential for increased extraction is immense. Although production has soared over the last decade, from 100,000 barrels per day in the 1980s to 844,000 in 1999, only 20 percent of Colombiaâ€™s potential oil regions have been explored. In 1997, in an effort to decrease dependence on Middle-East supplies, President Clinton announced a policy shift that began focusing on Colombia and Venezuela as prime source countries.
However, securing further oil extraction from Colombia meant clearing armed insurgents, indigenous communities and peasant farmers from both current and potential oil and gas fields. Peasants and indigenous Colombians, whose presence prevents the successful exploitation of natural resources in certain areas, are easily evicted through campaigns of terror and massacres. This has been the case in recent years, with a daily average of 1,029 people being internally displaced in 2001, largely in areas of untapped oil and gas reserves. Displacement is often achieved through murderâ€”Colombiaâ€™s rate of political assassinations sits at fifteen per day, with the victims being mainly unionists and human rights activists.
The guerrilla groups, on the other hand, have directly challenged the oil industry. In an effort to discourage oil investors from further exploitation, and to sabotage the Colombian governmentâ€™s economic stability, the guerrillas, particularly the Army of National Liberation (ELN), regularly bomb pipelines and kidnap oil executives and their employees. One frequent target has been the 483-mile CaÃ±o LimÃ³n-CoveÃ±as pipeline, which carries some 35 million barrels of oil per year for the California-based Occidental Petroleum. Between 1982 and 1999, rebels attacked Occidentalâ€™s pipeline 586 times, spilling 1.6 million barrels. In 2001, the pipeline was attacked 170 times, shutting down the flow of oil for a total of eight months.
As Colombian professor and peace advocate Gonzalo SÃ¡nchez points out, violence in Colombia has historically been concentrated in the zones of greatest economic expansion. After successful lobbying by British Petroleum, Occidental, Exxon, Shell and Elf Aquitane, the Clinton administration released $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia in 2000. The hardware and training delivered was allocated primarily to the guerrilla-infested southern provinces of Putumayo, CaquetÃ¡ and Meta, an area rich not only in mineral resources, but also, conveniently, host to much of the countryâ€™s cocaine production. Under the guise of a war on drugs, the United States boosted the militaryâ€™s presence in a region of untapped oil reserves, hoping to clear the way for future extraction.
In the post-September 11 escalations of military spending and blind anti-terrorist campaigns, the United States changed its rhetoric and tactics, assigning $94 million in counterterrorism aid to train and equip a â€œCritical Infrastructure Brigadeâ€ consisting of 1,000 Colombian troops to protect Occidentalâ€™s CaÃ±o LimÃ³n pipeline. The Bush administration also released an additional $42 million in military aid soon after Uribeâ€™s inauguration, claiming that the Colombian military had demonstrated a significant effort to improve its human rights record. Consequently, it is not surprising that Uribe has exercised his new powers of decree to openly protect foreign oil companies in Colombia. The first two Zones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation have been strategically established in oil-rich areas in which Occidental, Chevron, Harken and Repsol currently hold contracts.
While Uribe is successfully courting multinational corporations and foreign governments through the use and abuse of emergency powers, his economic policies and escalation of the war are already beginning to backfire. On September 16, the first major mobilizations against Uribeâ€™s policies and reforms brought hundreds of thousands of people into the nationâ€™s streets. A combined effort by government employees, peasants and students brought much of the capital to a standstill and displayed powerful resistance in cities across the country. In BogotÃ¡, 150,000 government employees staged a 24-hour strike, closing oil refineries, airports, hospitals, courts, schools and government offices. Throughout Colombia, more than 100,000 peasants ignored military and paramilitary threats and marched against the economic reforms and the implementation of the FTAA.
Colombian economist and activist HÃ©ctor MondragÃ³n warns, â€œAnother wave of popular mobilizations is approaching.â€ Such a movement is necessary to halt the economic reforms and to reverse anti-democratic military decrees. But activism in support of the Colombian population must be taken-up beyond the countryâ€™s borders and adopted by the unwitting accomplices of conflict. In short, those who support the military escalation in Colombia through their patterns of consumption and silence toward their own governmentâ€™s policies must take an active role in ending military aid and decreasing U.S. dependence on the liquid catalyst of war.
Simon Helweg-Larsen is a Canadian freelance author on Latin America who has spent a number of years living, working and travelling in the region.