A Way Out for Colombia

Justin Podur

Who in the U.S. benefits
from fumigating Colombians?” the man asked me pointedly in the crowded
community hall. The community was in a paramilitary-controlled part of
Putumayo. Putumayo is a southern department of Colombia where the guerrilla
insurgency is strong, where much coca is grown, where paramilitary massacres,
disappearances, and assassinations are frequent, and where Plan Colombia is
focused. It’s the focus of the U.S. military assistance and of the fumigation

It was a
painful question to face. But in some ways it wasn’t the most painful
question. We had been placed on the stage of this community hall, 20 of us
North American delegates facing about 100 members of this recently fumigated
community, so that they could tell us the impacts of U.S. policy on them. They
told us that the fumigation, which has airplanes spraying farmer’s fields with
Monsanto- made Roundup Ultra in order to destroy coca crops, has some effects
which could easily have been predicted. These include destroying food crops,
polluting the water, killing livestock, causing skin rashes, respiratory
problems, stomach illnesses, destroying economies. And we didn’t have to take
their word for it. They showed us all the destruction. Elsewhere in Putumayo
they showed us where the agricultural college was fumigated. We visited a
160-hectare yucca cooperative—that was also fumigated.

Now the callous
brutality of a policy can make a person angry. When you try to imagine the
options a farmer has in a place like Putumayo—grow coca and have a chance of
making ends meet (and be fumigated), or grow food crops and risk not being
able to make ends meet (and be fumigated)—it’s hard to think of what the
appropriate emotional response is. To hear from the U.S. Embassy that Roundup
Ultra is perfectly safe and hear Embassy staff imply: (1) that these
campesinos aren’t suffering from fumigation; (2) but are in fact inflating
health and environmental problems caused by the campesinos’s own ignorance in
handling agro-chemicals; (3) and are doing so in order to get money from the
U.S., as we heard, can take a person well into rage.

But there’s
something even worse than all this. And that was the defensiveness that most
of the campesinos had when they were talking to us. They would have had every
right to tell us to tell the U.S. to take its fumigation programs, and its
military aid, and its helicopters, and get lost, never coming back except to
apologize for all the destruction and plunder and maybe pay reparations.
Instead they insisted that they were hard-working people who didn’t want to
grow coca, but needed workable alternatives to coca production. They explained
how the “alternative development” component of Plan Colombia, whereby
campesinos get subsidies if they eradicate their own coca, was designed to
fail. It’s administered by neglectful organizations and not under the control
of the community. The aid comes in kind, not in cash, and has to be picked up
from town. Traveling to town is expensive and time-consuming, and much of the
aid money is eaten away in lost time and money traveling to get chickens one
day, chicken feed the next day, a water pump one day, and a hose another day.

Even though the
governors of the departments are lobbying against it, the U.S. and the
Colombian federal government seem to have set everything up for another round
of fumigation. As terrible as fumigation is, it’s just a pretext for something


The War
Against People

In Colombia our
delegation had the chance to talk to a wonderful activist named Hector
Mondragon. Hector is an economic advisor to many different people’s movements
in Colombia. For this work he has been imprisoned six times, tortured by a
U.S.-trained officer once, and threatened innumerable times. He sleeps in a
different bed each night and doesn’t announce his schedule in advance. He
says, without exaggeration, that he’s lost 5,000 friends to this war. While
the fact that he’s alive and he keeps fighting is an inspiration, the analysis
he presented to us was stark.

He told us how
the history of Colombia is one of elites pushing campesinos deeper into the
jungle in order to concentrate their own wealth and facilitate multinational
exploitation. He suggested we look not only at the complexities of all the
armed actors, the paramilitaries and guerrillas and armed forces and U.S. and
narcotraffickers, but also at who benefits from the violence.

are on land that is slated for canal-building, dam-building, and oil
development—and are being displaced and murdered in huge numbers. The black
population of Colombia is between 8-10 million in a total population of 41
million. Of that, an estimated 900,000 are displaced right now. The total
displaced population of Colombia is around 2 million, in another example of
black people suffering out of proportion to their numbers. Many of them were
displaced after 1991. The timing might have something to do with the fact that
their constitutional rights to their resource-rich lands on the coast were
guaranteed in the 1991 constitution, and that those who wanted to “develop”
those areas would, according to the constitution, have had to negotiate with
them in good faith and compensate them adequately.

people are on resource-rich lands—and are facing the same kinds of violence.
The massacres of the Embera people began after foreign companies acquired
energy interests on their lands in 1998. They, too, are a disproportionate
number of the victims of displacement.

From 1948 to
1958, in La Violencia in Colombia, 2 million people were driven off their
lands and 200,000 killed. At the end of it, there were consolidated sugar and
cotton plantations in few hands. The current phase of violence has had 2
million people driven off their lands and land concentration has increased,
from 34 percent of the land in the hands of the top 5,000 landowners in 1994
to 48 percent in those hands in 2001.

There has never
been agrarian reform in Colombia. In fact, Felix Posada of the Center for
Latin American Popular Communication said there’s been “reverse land reform.”
Since the 1990s neoliberal opening of the country, 140,000 jobs were lost in
the agricultural sector. Colombia has a poverty rate of 56 percent, defined as
people living on less than $500 U.S. a year. In rural areas this figure goes
up to 86 percent. Between the neoliberal opening, a draconian IMF
restructuring of the economy, and the 24 percent unemployment (going up to 75
percent in some areas and sectors), it’s easy to conclude there is a war on
workers and campesinos. Add to this that there is a murder of a unionist every
3 days, and you’ll see this isn’t a war between armed actors, much less a war
on drugs, but a war against the people.


Humanitarian Intervention?

There is tremendous, and
growing, resistance to this kind of exploitation in Latin America, that is of
great concern to U.S. elites. There is the landless peasants’s movement in
Brazil, the Zapatistas in Mexico, Chavez in Venezuela, a strong indigenous
movement in Ecuador, people’s movements in Bolivia, an economic collapse in
Argentina. All this as the U.S. tries to force the FTAA through in a shortened
time span. To do so will require violence, as neoliberalism required. “If
neoliberalism came into Latin America in the boots of Pinochet’s military
coup,” Hector said, “the FTAA will come to Latin America in the helicopters of
Plan Colombia.”

But Hector
fears violence even worse than the violence of Plan Colombia is on the
horizon. “Human rights workers in Colombia have a sad story to tell,” he said.
“We denounce imprisonment and torture, and they respond by disappearing
people. We denounce disappearances, and they assassinate people. We denounce
assassinations, and they respond with massacres. What could be worse than
massacres? There is something worse and that is a direct military intervention
that would destroy the country and not solve the problems of the war.” He
fears a military intervention like that of Kosovo, justified as a humanitarian
intervention, whose real intention is to discipline the popular movements of
all of Latin America.

I couldn’t help
but remember the argument I read in Z two years ago when the bombing of
Yugoslavia began, that in order to be consistent the U.S. would have to bomb
Colombia as well. If the U.S. was bombing Yugoslavia because Yugoslavian
paramilitaries were creating refugees and conducting massacres, it would have
to do the same to Colombia because Colombian paramilitaries were doing the
same thing. It served well to show the hypocrisy of the U.S., because bombing
Colombia seemed so implausible. But today it’s something Colombians fear.

When I was in
Colombia a report came out of human rights abuses in the guerrilla-controlled
demilitarized zone. The U.S. Embassy staff was excited about the report and
talked about the need to “bring the FARC to the negotiating table” by winning
military victories. I asked a military officer in the Colombian military if he
thought there was a negotiated solution to the conflict and he told me that if
the guerrillas had wanted peace they’ve had ample opportunity to negotiate.
The only encouraging news from the U.S. Embassy was when they said Colombia
was too big, much bigger than Kosovo or El Salvador and harder to control, so
they didn’t think a “peace force” would be able to function in Colombia. But
if they attack, it will be in the tradition of U.S. interventions and the
tradition of this cowardly war. They won’t be attacking human rights violators
or any armed actors for that matter. They’ll be attacking the civilians in
guerrilla controlled zones. From the air, from a safe place from which they
can test their expensive equipment and experimental weapons on unarmed

That’s not the
only nightmare I’ve had about Colombia. The fastest-growing armed group in
Colombia is the Autodefensas Unidas Colombianas, the paramilitary. They’re up
to 8,000 and growing. There’s a little checklist a European historian friend
of mine drew up for me on “prerequisites for a fascist takeover.” One
prerequisite on the list is a group of armed thugs that becomes a political
movement. Another is that this movement have the support of elites and sectors
of the military. A third is that it present itself as the right-wing solution
to the country’s problems—whether those problems are unruly workers or unruly
peasants. The last is the complicity and silence of the international

Corporation is no stranger to laying out nightmare scenarios and helping to
make them happen. They do just that in their “Colombian Labyrinth”
(www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1339/). The most interesting portion of this
document is the eight scenarios they envision for the future of Colombia. They
present eight scenarios, but if you read carefully, there are only four.
Scenario one is a “successful peace agreement.” Scenario two is called
“turning the tide,” in which the guerrilla insurgency is defeated. This is
actually the same as scenario four, called “the Peruvian model,” which RAND
admits involves the government brutally crushing the insurgency without regard
for anybody’s human rights. Scenarios three and six are called “stalemate” and
“FARC Takeover or Power Sharing,” also the same. Scenario five is
“Disintegration,” and scenario seven is what the U.S. really wants,
“Internationalization of the Conflict.”

RAND goes on to
advise the U.S. administration to stop fiddling around with counternarcotics
and go ahead and fight the counterinsurgency war it so badly wants to, and
enlist the help of the neighboring countries to do so. “The United States
should … reexamine the utility of distinguishing between counter-narcotics
and counter-insurgency assistance and consider providing assistance to improve
Colombia’s conventional military capabilities” (chapter 10, page 2). But the
most telling line in the report has to be “The U.S. program of military
assistance to El Salvador during the Reagan administration could be a relevant
model” (chapter 10, page 3).

Whether it’s
Hector’s nightmare, the AUC’s project, or RAND’s advice that comes to pass,
the global economic project will be fulfilled. Manuel Rozental of the
Canada-Colombia Campaign talked to me about this in Toronto. “There are two
obstacles to the FTAA in the Americas,” he said. “The first is the people on
the land with rights to the land and the resources. The second is the
organizations that increase the costs of production. The theory of competitive
advantage is based on cheap resources and cheap labor. Empowered people raise
the cost of both. So the strategy is quite simple—remove the people, and
dismantle the organized opposition.”

Caught between
the insurgents and their project, the paramilitaries and their fascist
political project, the Colombian military, and the U.S. violence, are the
people of Colombia, people like Hector. They’re reaching out to us to build a
bridge. Will we be able, together, to stop the war on drugs? To stop the kind
of “development” that’s destroying Colombia? To stop the humanitarian
intervention before it happens?


The People’s

I didn’t go to Colombia
looking for understanding, although it was there for me in the form of
razor-sharp analysts who do their work under fire. I didn’t go looking for
hope either, although I found some of that too, in the very same people. What
I went looking for was credibility, and priorities.

I wanted to be
able to face those who claim human rights workers are tools of the insurgency.
I wanted to be able to stare down the argument that the only solution to the
conflict is the continuation of the war, which isn’t a war between guerrillas,
paramilitaries, and the armed forces, but a war of people with guns against
people without them, and a war of people with power against the earth itself.
I wanted to know what Colombians thought were the most urgent priorities for
North American activists.

What I found
was extraordinary people like those of the Centro Unitaria de Trabajadores
(CUT), a union central who told of the war against Colombian workers, a war
prosecuted by straight violence as well as by the economic restructuring,
privatization, and unemployment wrought by globalization. People like Afrodes,
the organization of the Afro-Colombian displaced, who told of how they are
being displaced from their resource rich lands even as the constutitional
guarantees of their rights to those lands come into effect, to make room for
megaprojects. People like the Organizacion Femenina Popular and the Ruta
Pacifica de Mujeres, who talked about the impacts of the war on women and
their readiness to become authors of peace.


The Way Out

The people and their
organizations are the way out of this conflict for Colombia. After hearing, in
the villages of Putumayo, that everything is set for a new round of
fumigations of campesinos in the winter, it’s hard to think of anything but
stopping that horror from happening.

The way out is
a negotiated solution with civil society at the table with decision making
power. The Guatemalan peace process gave civil society an advisory capacity,
and some of the problems with that process come from the limited role assigned
to civil society.

negotiations will also have to rehabilitate the armed actors. Ninety-seven
percent of murders go unpunished in Colombia. This impunity will have to end.
Otherwise there will be a repeat of the 1980s, when the FARC guerrillas tried
to “go legitimate” and form the Union Patriotica political party, a success at
the polls that was systematically destroyed by assassinations by the military
and police of about 3,000 party members and leaders. The same thing happened
to the Army of Popular Liberation, the EPL, who sued for peace in 1991 and by
1994 had 274 members killed. The intellectual and material authors of the
crimes against humanity being wrought against Colombians will have to be
brought to justice. Some kind of truth commission will have to happen.

The war on
drugs, and the prohibition, will have to end. Prohibition makes the price of
drugs artificially high. An editorial in El Tiempo in November 1999
compared the prohibition of cocaine to the prohibition of alcohol in the
1920s. Prohibition caused the prison population to expand from 32.4 per
100,000 in 1910 to 41.8 per 100 000 in 1926. It caused alcohol production in
Canada to double from 1925-1928. It corrupted the justice system, empowered
criminal syndicates, and bred tremendous violence. Faced with these problems,
the U.S. government realized in the 1930s that prohibition had to end—for
alcohol. But it’s not willing to do the same for other drugs. Drugs are still
too valuable of a pretext for controlling populations of poor people of color
at home and campesinos abroad. This has to change. A lack of development makes
growing coca the only sensible choice for campesinos. Treating drug addiction
as a crime and not a health issue prevents a reasonable program for reduction
of demand. Legalization, control, and education in the U.S. and true
development in the producing countries will have to happen.

The economic
model that makes this conflict inevitable has to change as well. The model of
exploitation and exclusion has to be replaced with an economy based on
equitable cooperation and inclusion. There are such models and alternatives
being built in Colombia right now, and the people trying to build them are
being slaughtered.

That’s what the
CUT identified as a high priority, talking to us in their office that
overlooks Bogota— through bulletproof windows. A chance for unionists, who are
killed at a rate of 1 every 3 days, to flee the country for a while when under
threat, to return to do their work later. I wondered whether it might make the
killers think twice if every Colombian unionist who was threatened could go to
North America and be replaced by a North American unionist for a little while.

Manuel Rozental
and Sheila Gruner of the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign talked to me
about short-term tactics for resistance. If we could make assassinations,
massacres, and disappearances counterproductive, we could keep social
organizations alive long enough to have a fighting chance. Manuel suggested if
a community under threat could displace to another community under threat,
make connections, and return home, rather than displacing to the city, this
would be a step to making displacement counter-productive. The Campaign is
going to develop a platform for solidarity to facilitate these kinds of
strategies and actions starting with a delegation to Colombia this August ().

In October, the
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is planning a mobilization to force
Ontario’s conservative government from office. They are a community
anti-poverty organization that has made the connection between globalization
and the economic model being applied to the world and the poverty,
unemployment, and social devastation occurring in communities all over the
hemisphere, even the first world. They are ready to bring the anti-capitalist
globalization struggle home. The next round of anti-capitalist globalization
protests in North America will be in Washington DC in September. This may not
sound related to Colombia’s struggle, but it is. Because it is unlikely that
there will be a real end to the violence in Colombia as long as capitalist
globalization expands. And it’s unlikely that capitalist globalization will
stop expanding until the struggles are brought home, to fight poverty and
racism and destructive development as OCAP (and so many other community
organizations) is trying to do. But if these struggles do succeed, and if
solidarity actions are made strategic as the Canada-Colombia Campaign
envisions, maybe we can make our way out of this mess.

Podur works with the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign. He maintains ZNet’s
Colombia pages (www.zmag.org/crisescurevts/colombia/colombiatop.htm) where
many of the sources of this article appear in full.