A Quick Visit

President Alvaro Uribe badly wanted to show Colombians his only recent success: Bush’s re-election. But the US President had only three hours to visit the only supporter of his strategic project in South America.

The truth is Mr.Bush has other priorities. Uribe asked at the Davos Forum in February 2003, when US troops were just leaving for Iraq, that they go to the Amazon in Colombia. Bush signalled at the APEC meeting in Santiago de Chile that the next target would be Iran and after that North Korea, or maybe Syria. The politics of going from one war to the next is useful, but getting out of Iraq isn’t happening any time soon nor is Colombia’s turn anywhere close to first in line. Bush, in his very short stay in Cartagena, barely promised to keep Plan Colombia going and look for ways to ratify and expand it.

Uribe’s difficulties are obvious. Rapid triumph over the guerrillas is even less likely than Anglo-American victory in Iraq. Since fumigating 11 hectares eradicates 1 hectare of coca, the eradication of coca would require fumigating another 1.5 million hectares. Plan Colombia could become eternal and in Republican Party circles they are asking if the money isn’t being thrown away. For the first time polls are showing that the Colombian President’s popularity is falling: “El Espectador” (a national newspaper) hasn’t said much about it since their claim that he was the most popular President in the world.

Most complicated for Uribe is the resurrection of the mass movement, awakening anew to question the fundamentals of the government’s policies and oppose Uribe’s re-election. The movement has said no to “Free Trade”, to constitutional reforms, and to “democratic security”. The Indigenous Minga from September 13-16 and the strike on October 12, where 700,000 workers stopped working and 1 million demonstrated, energized the victorious truck driver’s strike that lasted three weeks and gave continuity to the oil worker’s strike and other worker strikes that took place in May and June.

Uribe didn’t count on this uprising, especially after years of annihilating union, campesino, and indigenous leaders. The defeat of the government in the constitutional referendum and local elections in October 2003 was not an isolated case, but the base on which the social movements recovered their confidence, demonstrating that the opposition to Uribe is not a species in danger of extinction and that it Uribe’s vaunted 80% popularity rating was a complete fraud.

Uribe’s only alternative was to hitch himself to Bush. The media have obliged, turning Bush’s rapid breeze through Cartagena into a “historic event”.

Uribe is trying to get some of the magic of the victorious image of the emperor to rub off on him. “Don’t think Uribe’s sun has set – a great power is lifting him up!” seems to be the message. The emotion has reached its apotheosis: “Bush has called our president his FRIEND!”

The enchantment didn’t last long and quickly became disillusion. Bush said nothing about Uribe’s respectful petitions for the bilateral free trade agreement between the two countries (TLC), especially whether the US would allow Colombia to continue to protect the few agricultural products that it is still allowed to protect, and whether the US could be dissuaded from insisting that all Andean countries open their food markets completely as a prerequisite to signing the agreement.

This is the crossroads of the Bush-Uribe marriage, when each set of in-laws is demanding contradictory things of the other. Bush’s economic base is the duo of big exporting companies (specifically agriculture) and multinational petroleum companies. The latter’s demands are reflected in Plan Colombia, but for the former imposing free trade on their terms is fundamental.

The former are convinced that the key to their prosperity is the big subsidies they will receive and the opening of Latin American markets. All these interests have taken a second tier to Bush’s religious supporters who portray him as a moral man of God, but they are understood and explained by senators like Chuck Grassley of Iowa who explains clearly how the security of the US depends on destroying the agriculture of Mexico and South America.

Uribe’s ‘family’, by contrast, consists of the large Colombian landowners who seek the support of the US in the form of “democratic security” to support their interests. They want Plan Colombia to defend the latifundista status quo. How can narco-terrorism be defeated if free trade doesn’t protect the large Colombian landowner and the owners of palm and sugar plantations? What is the point of destroying the guerrillas and illicit cultivation if it even the big landowners and ranchers are going to lose?

Not only unions, indigenous, campesinos and small business owners are mobilizing against free trade, but now big landowners grouped in Fedegan and the owners of large agricultural enterprises have written a letter to Uribe criticizing the government negotiators at the Guayaquil round for giving up too much to the US, retreating from fundamental positions and betraying counterparts in Ecuador and Peru. The problem Uribe lived in Cartagena was simple: the Americans said that there would only be more Plan Colombia if US agricultural companies got what they wanted from the free trade agreement.

Bush’s great electoral success has become a boomerang for Uribe. It’s the captain, not the sailor, who gives the orders. Uribe has to march to Bush’s drummer on the TLC and that will destroy the cement that holds his government together. The only support he will have left are the transnationals and the latifundista sector that isn’t interested in production, the land speculators, who have been the ultimate benficiaries of the paramilitary violence that has displaced 3 million campesinos.

Uribe is thus accelerating the complementary part of this scenario: the megaprojects that are the infrastructural skeleton of the free trade agreement. He has announced that Colombia will join Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) and invited the President of Guatemala, PPP’s principal promoter and expert in reaping the benefits of genocide against indigenous and campesinos to push forward the agenda of land speculators and multinationals.

In connection to this enterprises in the department of Antioquia are planning electricity projects with Panama, where the ultimate destination is the United States. Uribe is working to finance a natural gas pipeline in the same region and lengthen the Pan-American highway, opening up the Darien Jungle on the Panamanian border. He’s called this the “ecological highway” (!)

After failed military and electoral coups against Chavez in Venezuela, the anti-Chavez strategy has changed to terrorist attacks in that country, like the latest assassination of Venezuela’s prosecutor Danilo Anderson who was investigating people involved in the coup against the government. By way of such terrorism, Uribe and the transnationals have forced Chavez to join the schemes for continental megaprojects like the natural gas pipeline of La Guajira. In Venezuela there are already many who understand that these concessions are the Achilles heel of the Bolivarian process. Chavez knows that Plan Colombia is at its heart a plan to attack Venezuela, but the saying goes that “if you close the front door to the tiger, the wolf may enter from the back.”

Uribe is the docile instrument of Bush but there are other trips this week that could form a bloc against the emperor: Chavez in Spain, the Chinese president in Argentina, Brazil and Cuba, Russia’s president in Brazil, Vietnam’s President in Argentina. Chile has a leg on each horse. Latin America is hesitatingly re-joining global politics on its own terms even as Uribe unhesitatingly continues to act as the US catspaw.

[translated by Justin Podur]

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