Colombia Today

The first thing you need to know about Colombia today is that there is an economic recovery underway.  Many, especially on the left, like to believe that whatever crisis is going on now is the final one and that capital is on its way out.  But in fact, these things are cyclical.  They provide the context in which electoral politics occurs.  The important thing for a government during an economic crisis is to find someone to blame for it.  During an economic recovery, that government tries to capture the benefits for its own constituency. 

Uribe’s government, for example, is ensuring that only the rich benefit from this recovery.  That is why I always try to show that in spite of the economic recovery, a decrease in unemployment, that basic food consumption is down.  Salaries have deteriorated severely.  If you look at the statistics on the way people are living today, it is impossible to make ends meet.  Unemployment has decreased but everyone who is working gets less hours on the job.  The only way people are finding to keep their housing is to eat less.  The figures on inflation use a basket of goods that is completely unrepresentative – they do not incorporate the prices of utilities like water or electricity.  They do not incorporate the increasing costs of education.  There are laws preventing colleges from raising tuition too much: there is an 8% annual limit.  But the Ministry of Education has designed various mechanisms to allow colleges to charge more, in books, in user fees, and so on. 

Health is becoming a major problem here.  The prices of medicines have skyrocketed because of intellectual property rules.  The pharmaceuticals are among the most profitable companies.  Since 1945, there was a basic medical insurance that included basic services and medicines.  But the obligatory packet of services has not kept pace with the times: anti-inflammatories, the most advanced antibiotics – many of these do not come with basic coverage.  The yellow fever epidemic killed many people this year, but it does not compare with malaria as a killer – and malaria gets no public attention.

People are feeling this pain in terms of their basic needs.  It is worth remembering that Uribe was elected with a degree of popular support.  He was accepted because he promised to fight the guerrillas.  Because of the propaganda against the guerrillas, because of the superficial analysis of the conflict provided in the media – and, to be fair, because of some of the actions of the guerrillas themselves – people were willing to accept someone who promised to end the war by way of force.   But if their approval was expressed in 2002 with Uribe’s election, their disapproval was voiced in October 2003 in the results of the referendum, which Uribe lost. 

New Mobilizations

This dissatisfaction has led to mobilizations, in spite of terrible repression, even in zones that were thought to be ‘pacified’.  On the Atlantic coast, for example, there are mobilizations every single day.  They only way you can find out about them is by reading the regional press.  The national press doesn’t cover them.  In Barranquilla, in Cartagena.  These demonstrations are around public services.  They are based in the barrios.  You see, the privatized utility companies in these cities have developed a new innovation: if 35% of the people in the neighborhood are not paying their utility bills, they cut the power to the whole neighborhood.  Some of these companies, like Union Fenosa of Spain, have contracts in Occupied Iraq.

In Cartagena, people who work in the tourist industry were told that they would have to take two buses – paying two fares – rather than the one they had been paying, because the routes had suddenly been changed.  They blocked the roads for seven days, and went even farther: they actually took over and trashed a police station on August 12, 2003.  In Barranquilla, similar mobilizations have taken place – and they have won their demands.  These are areas that are ‘controlled’ by the government and paramilitaries.  These were the clients of the elites.  They are also regions that had the highest abstention in the referendum: on the Atlantic coast there was 90% abstention in the referendum.  And in some of these towns, like Santa Marta, which is controlled by the paramilitaries, the left alternative, the ‘Polo Democratico’, didn’t even bother trying to run candidates in the municipal elections that followed the October referendum.  The ‘winner’ in Santa Marta’s municipal election was the spoiled ballot.

But where the Polo Democratico, or alternative political forces in general, did run candidates, these candidates had success.  I believe Angelino Garzon’s election as governor of the department of Valle de Cauca is more telling than Lucho Garzon’s election as mayor of Bogota.  Lucho Garzon made a point of sticking to ‘bread and butter’ issues and not discussing the armed conflict.  Angelino Garzon, on the other hand, specifically said he planned to open negotiations.  And he won by a larger margin than Lucho, with 61% of the vote.  The mayor of Barranquilla is helping those new movements in that city.  In Barrancabermeja, the movements mobilized in solidarity with the oil worker’s union, USO, with help from the Catholic church, right under the noses of the paramilitaries. 

So there is a new situation in Colombia.  And it is not, as much as we might like it to be, the result of years of patient work by the social movements.  The people in power in this country realize that the reason for the change is their own actions. 

Paramilitary Divisions

In Medellin – Uribe’s heartland – the new mayor is pushing for a Truth Commission.  This seems to me to be key.  People say that there can be no peace in this country while the paramilitaries are free.  But it is a mistake to think that putting a few of them in jail, or a lot of them in jail, or even killing them, would solve the problem.  In fact, this is the sort of thing the United States would happily do.  They would happily assassinate Carlos Castano, the supreme paramilitary commander, and then present themselves as saviors who delievered Colombia from this monster (who they created).  What is important is that the truth come out, that the connections be exposed, that the forces and people behind the paramilitaries – in the army, and in the elite, and in the US – be exposed.  If the paramilitaries were to make a truly full confession, about who they worked for and what they did, that would be worth far more than long jail terms.

The prospect of a Truth Commission could help divide the paramilitaries.  In fact they are already divided.  There are those in the paramilitaries who believe that the war has already been won, and that it is now time to harvest what they have won.  The key zones of the country are under their control.  They succeeded in privatizing the phone company (TELECOM), in passing the labor ‘reform’, devastating the labor movement, with the help of paramilitary terror.  And yet in these very zones, the paramilitaries have begun to fight their own backers, and each other, over the harvest.

Have you read in the newspapers about how the ‘army’ is killing ‘paramilitaries’ every day in Casanare and elsewhere?  What is happening is this.  The Bloque Cacique Nutibara (supposedly demobilized), which is linked to Castano’s Autodefensas Unidas Colombianas (AUC), is fighting the paramilitary Bloque Metro in Antioquia over this corridor.  The same thing is going on in the Rio Meta area, Guaviare and Casanare, with the Autodefensas de Casanare-Meta fighting the AUC, with the army intervening on the side of Castano’s AUC.  In Casanare itself, the inter-paramilitary fighting has gotten to the point that the government has left parts of the region under the control of the guerrillas.  With the army fighting on the side of the AUC, the media can present any deaths on any side as successful army combat against paramilitaries.

So there is this fighting over the harvest.  And meanwhile, in Europe, Colombia’s elites learned that the fighting over the harvest was premature.  The paramilitary project has run up against two problems.  The first, is its own contradictions, as I mentioned.  The second is the legal and international difficulties they face as they try to legalize paramilitarism: it will be difficult internationally, even with allies.

The Mafia Connection

Uribe’s trip to Europe illustrates the difficulty.  You would think that Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi would be a natural friend of Uribe’s.  So why didn’t Berlusconi receive Uribe during his tour of Europe? 

Berlusconi’s regime was having trouble because of the Parmalat scandal.  Looking around for some way to turn the heat down, they decided to do some high-profile busts of the mafia.  They had been infiltrating the Italian mafia for some time.  One of the infiltrator’s from the Italian police, got quite high in the organization.  So high that his job involved traveling to Colombia. 

The connection between the Colombian paramilitaries and the Italian mafia is Salvatore Mancuso, a paramilitary commander who is also part of a mafia family – and, incidentally, was trained in Israel as a military pilot.  I read an article by a fine Belgian journalist (Frank Furet, in banc public 126, janvier 2004) about one of the agrarian mafias to which Mancuso’s family belongs.  The article said that mafia concerns itself with three things: First, they use violence to force the sale of good properties in wealthy areas, which they then acquire (the Colombian paramilitaries do the same).  Second, they pressure farmers to cultivate olives in order to benefit from government subsidies (substitute ‘African Palm’ for ‘olive’, and the Colombian paramilitaries do the same).  Third, they do marijuana cultivation (substitute ‘coca’ for ‘marijuana’, and the Colombian paras do the same).  Mancuso is trained as an agrarian economist.  If you were to study, you would probably find a connection with the CIA as well.  In this sense there is a conflict between the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration: The CIA recently published a report where they unequivocally stated that fumigation is not stopping coca cultivation and that Plan Colombia was a failure in that regard. 

In any case this Italian undercover agent, during one of his trips to Colombia, was actually kidnapped by the paramilitaries.  The paras said the Italian mafia owed them money and they would not release him until they were paid.  The strange outcome was that the Italian government paid the Italian mafia so the mafia could pay the paramilitaries so that the agent would be released.  The arrests happened shortly after that.  The Colombian attorney-general’s office tried to minimize the Mancuso connection, saying that there was no evidence and that it was some ‘Italian Non-Governmental Organization’ that had denounced Mancuso.  That ‘Italian NGO’ was the Italian police.  The whole episode was sufficiently embarrassing that Berlusconi decided he couldn’t afford to be publicly associated with Uribe.

The US was forced to react: it made sure the paramilitary commanders were on its ‘terrorist list’, for public relations purposes.  You may have read that the Attorney General’s office recently attacked Spanish High Court Judge Baltazar Garzon.  Why?  Because Baltazar Garzon demanded that the Colombian government show all its cards as far as the paramilitaries are concerned.  Spain doesn’t want to get mired in the scandals that could come should the US decide to abandon Uribe and paramilitarism.  Garzon specifically mentioned extradition.  The US is planning to extradite the guerrilla leader Simon Trinidad, but extradition in general makes the paramilitaries nervous.  That is what motivated Carlos Castano to publish his autobiography, ‘My Confession’.  Colombian law says that if someone is wanted for crimes in Colombia and internationally, they have to serve their punishment in Colombia before they become eligible for extradition.  Castano’s intention was to confess to enough crimes in Colombia that he would be wanted for terms of 70 or 80 years, making him ineligible for extradition. 

The requirements of the paramilitary strategy are coming into conflict with the US regime’s fantasy vision of the world, which includes a fundamentalism when it comes to drugs.  But there is a political calculation happening here.  Under the presidency of Ernesto Samper, the guerrillas experienced growth.  They were not repressed as hard as they had been before or since at the time.  The reason was that they were being allowed to build up so that they could be attacked as a greater threat down the road.  The same thing was done to Pablo Escobar.  He was very useful to the US for a while, for financing the Central American wars.  Then, when he outlived his usefulness, they killed him.  They could easily do the same for Castano. 

Constitutional Changes

After the failure in the referendum, Uribe is looking at other ways to change the Constitution with increasing desperation.  The antiterrorist articles in the drug law are an example.  The drug law provided for expropriation without compensation: ‘the extinction of dominion’.  It used to be based on drugs, but now it is to be changed to focus on political aspects.  You could be expropriated, for example, if you are ‘against social morality’, for example ‘against the socioeconomic order’.  That is, if you are a socialist, or belong to a campesino organization calling for land reform, you can be expropriated.

This is all an attempt to reverse Law 200 of 1936, the greatest achievement of campesino struggle in this country.  That law provided for ‘extinction of dominion’, but under very different circumstances.  The law argued that property was a social function, as opposed to an absolute right as in Roman law.  If agrarian land is not being used, is not productive, it could be expropriated for the social good.  The second key clause was the ‘land-to-the-tiller’ rule: if a campesino has been working a piece of land for 10 years, she can claim the right to that land.  This 10-year rule, has turned out to be a problem for the displaced.  If you are displaced by violence, and you can’t get back in 10 years, you lose the title to the land.  A third aspect is that the state recognizes title to a land if that title can be demonstrated to have come from at least 1916, or before, in an uninterrupted line.  The idea there was to prevent the state from simply giving someone’s land to someone else or manufacturing titles. 

In 1944, the ‘land-to-the-tiller’ clause was held up, making it only legally binding by 1957.  During that period, 1944-1957, about 2 million people were displaced by the violence of ‘La Violencia’.  Then in 1957 the dictatorship used a military order to annul the ‘land-to-the-tiller’ clause and the 10-year rule, freezing the land thefts of ‘la violencia’ in place.  These conquests, a kind of ‘land-reform-in-reverse’, were solidified and legitimized by Law 160 of 1994.  The law of ‘extension of dominion’ contained an article that, with little fanfare, killed the rest of Law 200, acting as a charter of rights for absentee landlords.  A law passed in 1991 says that you lose your property if you’re outside the country for 5 years.  This follows the Chilean model, which expropriated those exiled by the dictatorship.

In addition to the changes in land laws, Uribe wants to change the justice system.  There have been a tremendous number of detentions and mass roundups under Uribe.  Each of these detentions has required a judicial order.  With proposed changes in the law, such an order will no longer be needed.

A key article in the 1991 Constitution says that international law applies in Colombian territory.  In order to legalize the paramilitaries, that will have to change.  A major obstacle in making these changes has been the Constitutional Court, which retains its independence.  Uribe wants to make it possible to punish the judiciary or law enforcement for making errors – effectively ending the independence of the judiciary. 

Another crucial protection in the 1991 Constitution was the ‘tutela’.  A ‘tutela’ is a complaint that any citizen can bring against the government or a private actor under the constitution.  The government has to respond immediately, in 10 days, to investigate and compensate.  It is flawed, it is unevenly applied, but it has been used repeatedly to protect indigenous rights: the Embera, and many others.  One of the first things Uribe’s Interior Minister, Londono, tried to do, was make the Tutela only apply to Chapter II (and not Chapter I) of the Constitution.  Chapter II deals with individual rights.  But indigenous rights, indeed any group rights, are in Chapter I.  Environmental rights are in Chapter III.  Of course, corporations are ‘individuals’, and they will continue to get Tutela protection.  This change is in process, being debated, now.  Another proposed change to Tutela is to make it inapplicable to any plan that is approved at the National level (so, a Tutela could no longer be used against a hydroelectric dam project that would displace the Embera).  If there is no room in the budget, then there is no Tutela protection.  Yet another change: before Tutela could apply against private actors or the state, but it is to apply only against the state.  The result: a landowner could use Tutela to protect his property against indigenous claims, but the reverse could not occur.  A multinational could use Tutela to defend a patent. 

Yet another reform proposal is the reform of ‘territorial entities’.  The pretext is to reduce bureaucracy and save money by merging departments (note: Colombian departments are like US states or Canadian provinces).  Merging, for example, Narino with the Valle del Cauca.  Today, the national government provides transfer payments to the departments.  These changes would make the departments ‘self-financing’ and reduce transfer payments.  But what the changes really mean is the end of territorial autonomy.  The real idea is to create a situation like you have in the US, where each state is the playground of one or two multinationals.  The regional elites want bigger blocks of land to sell and bigger megaprojects to give away.

The reform of territorial entities is the death sentence for indigenous rights in the constitution as well.  The constitution recognizes indigenous reserves as territorial entities like municipalities, departments, and so on.  This was the proposal that the indigenous groups brought to the constitutional convention in 1990.  The traditional elite tried to change it at the last minute, and came very close to doing so.  The indigenous simply walked out – and they weren’t bluffing!  So they passed the indigenous proposal, under that threat, in the Constitution of 1991.  But now they are trying to change it again.  How?  By making territorial entities subject to the recognition of the national government.  The indigenous claim is that the entities existed prior to the national government and that the national government must recognize them.  In 1991, the indigenous accepted that bargain: if the government recognized the indigenous, the indigenous would give a kind of recognition to the government as well.  But the proposed reform is that the government can make and unmake territorial entities at will.  So, the government can say to an indigenous group, if you let the oil corporation into your reserve, you can have entity status, but if not, you cannot.  A related proposal for change is jurisdiction over the subsoil.  The 1991 Constitution gives territorial entities some rights to the subsoil, but Uribe wants to change it so that it is a strictly national jurisdiction.  I have been advising indigenous organizations, if this passes, to walk out.  Not to rise up in arms, nothing like that, but just to remind the government that the 1991 Constitution was a mutual recognition.  If the government has decided not to recognize the indigenous, then the indigenous can do the same. 

The government is going to try to get this through the March and December sittings of the legislature.  If it passes, the 1991 Constitution is dead.  That Constitution was capitalist, to be sure.  But it was also democratic.  It offered possibilities for the defense of rights.  Uribe’s reform is a proposal to become an authoritarian state, again.

Spillover into the region

They are in the process of testing out the Colombian model for the rest of the region.  The overthrow of the regime in Haiti by paramilitary violence has just happened, and they are turning without pause to Venezuela.  80 Peasant leaders have been assassinated in Venezuela, and an AUV (Autodefensas Unidas Venezolanas, a Venezuelan paramilitary group) has been formed with help from Colombia’s paramilitaries.  A doctor, Pedro Doria, who was a socialist and an advisor to peasant movements in Venezuela, was assassinated.  For demanding an investigation into Doria’s death, his father was also killed, on February 29.  Three unionists from the Bolivarian movement were killed along with a member of a co-op, this year.  There have been assassination attempts against the indigenous organization, CONAIE, in Ecuador, and the assassination of ecologist Angel Chingre took place there in November 2003.  An indigenous organization in that country, Pachakutik, experienced a very-Colombia-like raid, in which their computers were stolen.  In Bolivia, the murder of a mayor in Mojos, Beni, by a municipal employee in who wasn’t being paid was used as a pretext by the hacendados to persecute the movement in the region, a movement aided by a group of nuns, who are being repressed as well.  Because of an international reaction, the Bolivian government had to intervene to protect the nuns, but the pattern is there.  In Brazil, there has been severe violence against the Landless Peasant’s Movement, against the indigenous, with 44 leaders killed.  In Honduras, there have been assassinations and threats against movement leaders.  In Mexico, the Zapatistas called on people all over the country in 2001 to set up autonomous municipalities.  One mayor in Morelos tried to do so.  The immediate response was the arrival of paramilitaries in the region – and unlike Chiapas, no guerrillas to protect them.

There is a wave of movements in the region that is almost uncontainable.  In Venezuela, wave after wave of attack – coup, strike, referendum – fails and fails again.  In Brazil, the MST is holding back from attacking Lula, not because they lack the strength, but because they are patient.  The same is true for the indigenous movements in Ecuador and Bolivia.  In Bolivia they overthrew a president.  They could easily do the same in Ecuador.  But their thinking is this: they want to construct something, not keep overthrowing Presidents.  They could overthrow Mesa in Bolivia but who would come after?  So they have adopted a strategy of trying to build power at the grassroots.  In Argentina, Kirchner is adopting policies that are to the left of Lula in Brazil.  Why?  Because he likes to?  No, because he can’t contain the popular pressure of the movements.  And right here in Colombia, after everything that they have been through, after everything Uribe threw at trying to pass the referendum, he lost. 

The mayor of Bogota is of the movements, so are many mayors all over the country now.  This in spite of the repression and in spite of the guerrillas campaign against mayors: they promised to assassinate any serving mayor who didn’t step down.  The movements did not listen to them.  They certainly didn’t listen to the government.  Both groups are losing ground politically, and are unable to defeat each other militarily.  I think that sooner or later another round of negotiations will ensue.  Lopez Michelson, a member of the Colombian elite and one of Uribe’s strategists, has said as much.  He has come out against Uribe’s war.  The trouble for Uribe is that he believes his own propaganda.  If there is a negotiation, it is Uribe and his constituency that is going to be sacrificed: he is the old landowning elite, the paramilitary connected elite. 

There are these two tendencies at work.  On the one hand, the rest of Latin America is looking more and more like Colombia, with violence, paramilitarism, and ‘dirty war’.  On the other hand, Colombia is looking more like the rest of Latin America, with popular movements surging and winning gains.  Both of these things are happening.  The strength of Colombia’s movements in this context of repression is amazing.  Imagine their power if the repression was not so severe.  The women’s movement and the oil workers in paramilitary-controlled Barrancabermeja continue to resist.  The labor movement has been savagely attacked, but what the unions have lost could be made up in the movements for services in the barrios in places like Cartagena and Barranquilla. 

The ‘dirty war’ strategy is the attempt to contain these movements, here and elsewhere in Latin America.  The US has thrown a tremendous amount of resources at Colombia to try to win the battle here.  That is why the tension here is so terrible.  If Uribe’s project fails, the whole project for the region will fail, and there will be more room to maneuver for the movements of the region.

* This is a transcription of an informal talk given by Hector Mondragon in Colombia, to a handful of people, not in public.  Notes taken by Justin Podur.

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