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Colombia's war and Venezuela's foreign policy
[First published Jan 24/08. Updated Jan 29/08.]
Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who has accused social activists of 'terrorism', refused them protection against paramilitary killers, and sent troops and police against protesters, has called for a march against Colombia's guerrillas, the FARC, on February 4, 2008. This government-organized initiative is an attempt to polarize the country. To not join the march is to be accused of supporting kidnapping and terrorism. This is also what the Colombian President accuses Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, of, because Chavez helped to negotiate the release of three Colombian hostages held by FARC. Meanwhile, Uribe's war politics eclipse paramilitarism, the free trade agreements and their destruction of Colombia's economy, the millions of internally displaced, and the ongoing attack on social movements.
There has been some coverage in the US of the Colombian humanitarian accord talks, brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, which recently saw three of FARC's hostages released. In early January, the NYT reported charges “flying” of Chavez's “failure” to achieve the humanitarian accord. Ultimately the three hostages were released, though Colombian officials, the US, and the mainstream press responded by accusing Chavez of interfering in Colombia's internal affairs. This article will explain the Colombian context and what Chavez was, and is, probably trying to achieve with the humanitarian accord. The release of the hostages was a very positive development, for reasons that will be discussed below.
Colombia's war has gone on for decades. Some date it from 1964, when the FARC was born out of a government offensive against Liberal guerrillas. It is also possible to date it from 1948, when a Liberal politician (Jorge Eliecer Gaitan) was assassinated beginning a wave of political violence between Liberals and Conservatives that lasted for years, killed hundreds of thousands, and displaced millions (called “La Violencia”, which ended with the creation of a National Front in 1958 that shared power between the two parties). Peasants formed armed groups to defend themselves and their lands from the bands of the landlords and the military. The peasant groups became the guerrillas. The landlords' bands, joined later by drug traffickers, became the paramilitaries, who worked closely with the military and continued to displace peasants, afro-Colombians, and indigenous people from their lands and destroy social organizations and labor unions in the cities. Paramilitarism, with its massacres and displacements, benefited multinational corporations and landowners who ended up with the resources and territories, and pacified populations.
The US has been involved in it from the beginning. Fr. Javier Giraldo, author of “Colombia: the Genocidal Democracy”, argued that the paramilitary strategy itself came from the US with “Mission Yarborough”, begun by a visit of US General William Yarborough to Colombia in 1962 (1). At the time, the US advocated the use of terror to fight “communism” throughout Latin America, and trained and armed Latin America's soldiers to do so, and did so itself, in places like Cuba. In more recent decades, the US has given helicopters, sent military “advisors”, and of course more recently dispatched private contractors from MPRI, Dyncorp, and other mercenary companies (2). Today, Phase II of Plan Colombia is evolving, with the same regional targets (Venezuela and Ecuador), the same methods ("counternarcotics" and counteirnsurgency) and the same brutal effects.
Each year of war has seen more people displaced, more assassinations and massacres, and more control of the government and economy by multinationals and paramilitaries. Because the main effects of the war are suffered by the people, peace, through a political solution that addresses the social injustices that fuel the war, is a popular idea in Colombia. At several points in the war's long history, people have mobilized for peace. The popular desire for peace is frustrating to both armies in the civil war. The theory of guerrilla war suggests that the people should mobilize with the guerrillas towards victory. The government and the US counterinsurgency seeks to co-opt the people into informing, isolating, and fighting the guerrilla.
Much hinges on the type of peace and what might be won through negotiation. To demobilize, the guerrillas would require an end to paramilitarism, reintegration for themselves, and social change. But this would require a massive change. Past attempts by guerrillas to negotiate or join the political process have ended with massacres of demobilized guerrillas (the Union Patriotica in the 1980s was the most dramatic, but other groups like M-19 had the same experience), so the guerrillas have no reason to trust the establishment's good faith. The establishment can sincerely claim to want peace, but it seeks peace through the destruction of the guerrillas and any other opposition (social opposition is often publicly denounced as being “linked” to the guerrillas and individuals are then targeted for murder by paramilitaries).
Despite these factors, the popular desire for peace has forced the establishment to negotiate with the guerrillas several times. The most recent formal talks occurred in the late 1990s. Part of these talks was the granting of a demilitarized zone around San Vicente de Caguan to the FARC guerrillas. Plan Colombia was set in motion in this context, while talks were ongoing and a demilitarized zone was in place. It was first presented as a plan for peace, with aid money to flow to agricultural programs and alternatives to the narcotics economy. It was progressively rewritten and changed until it became a counterinsurgency plan. Two years and several billion dollars later, in 2002, the establishment felt strong enough to end negotiations and attack the demilitarized zone. They capitalized politically on the FARC's most unpopular tactics, such as their use of inaccurate bombs that kill innocents, their kidnapping of civilians and declaring politicians and social leaders military targets, in claiming the FARC was not serious about peace. The FARC's abuses and their unresponsiveness to people's needs has contributed to popular weariness with them.
When, in 2002, Alvaro Uribe Velez came to power in Colombia, the prospects for a negotiated solution were reduced much more. With a personal vendetta, a landowning background, and the governorship of one of the most violent paramilitary states in his background, Uribe constantly accused his political opponents of terrorism and pushed through constitutional changes designed to hand more of the Colombian economy over to multinationals. He initiated a 'peace process' with the paramilitaries, essentially legalizing their thefts and murders, and in recent years many of his political colleagues have ended up in jail for working with paramilitary killers (3).
Plan Colombia and Uribe's rule were enough to kill the last attempt at a political solution to the conflict. This outcome has served US interests in the region in several ways. Within Colombia, as described above, the war provides a pretext for attacking all social movements and resistance, and a cover for displacing peasants from resource rich territories that end up in the hands of multinationals and landowners. More than this, however, Colombia's war and the close relationship between the US and the Colombian military have provided the US with a base from which to monitor, and attack, Venezuela, a major oil producer with an independent political project of its own.
Chavez's rule in Venezuela coincides with the rise and fall of the last peace process in Colombia. He came to power in 1998, the same year the demilitarized zone was declared in Colombia. He was Venezuela's President through the declaration of Plan Colombia in 2000 and its implementation, and then through the years of Uribe's rule in Colombia.
Throughout those years, analysts have argued that one of the true targets of Plan Colombia was in fact Venezuela, its oil, and its revolutionary process (4).
And indeed, border incidents and troubles over the past several years, as well as tensions between Chavez and Uribe, have shown that Colombia is a base for attacks on Venezuela. In March 2003, Colombian 'irregulars' raided across the Venezuelan border and were answered by bombing from the Venezuelan air force (5). About a year later (May 2004), dozens of Colombian paramilitaries were arrested on a ranch near Caracas on a terrorist plot (6). Some later confessed and were charged, while others were returned to Colombia. Around the same time as the paramilitaries were infiltrating Venezuela (March 2004), Colombia made a high-profile announcement that it was going to acquire several dozen tanks, from Spain, for posting on the Venezuelan border (7). The deal had been made under Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, however.
The socialist Prime Minister that replaced him, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was not an enemy of Venezuela's Bolivarian process and cancelled the deal under Venezuelan pressure. Chavez and Uribe met shortly after the cancellation of the deal, were photographed smiling and embracing each other, and made jokes about the tanks (Uribe said: “Please Hugo, lend me some little tanks?”) But then in December 2004, the Colombian government kidnapped a FARC leader, Rodrigo Granda, from Venezuela and took him back to Colombia. Venezuela could not allow this violation of sovereignty and Chavez demanded an apology from Uribe. Venezuela stopped sending power to Colombian towns, closed the border, and declared that Colombians would henceforth need a visa to visit Venezuela. That crisis cooled down by late January 2005, but the days of friendly play in front of the cameras between Chavez and Uribe had ended.
In 2007 Chavez got involved in trying to broker a humanitarian accord between the government and FARC. Rodrigo Granda had been released by the Colombian government and was helping to try to negotiate the accord. With consent from the highest levels of Colombia's government and in direct contact with Liberal (opposed to-Uribe) Senator Piedad Cordoba, Chavez's initiative was to try to get talks going again.
The first confidence-building measures would be the release of 45 of the FARC's high-profile kidnap victims. The FARC wanted a return of a demilitarized zone in the zones of Pradera and Florida and the release of 500 FARC prisoners held in government jails. A humanitarian accord was far from a political solution, but it was certainly a prerequisite for one. In early November 2007 the FARC promised 'proof of life' for its kidnapped prisoners, including the most famous one, Ingrid Betancourt, a 2002 green party presidential candidate with dual-French and Colombian citizenship who was kidnapped in the demilitarized zone.
At the end of November 2007, Uribe suddenly came out publicly against the humanitarian accord. He went on television and said “We need mediators against terrorism, not to justify terrorism.” The implication was that Chavez was justifying terrorism. Chavez replied that Colombia deserved a better President and that Uribe was “lying, openly and in an ugly way”. This might have been the end of the story, with Colombia-Venezuela relations “in the freezer” (Chavez's words), but it was not. Instead, despite this setback and the referendum defeat in December 2007 (8), the humanitarian accord talks with FARC had continued. The “failure” of the accord was reported in the New York Times as a defeat for Chavez. Consuelo Gonzalez later said that the reason the hostages had not been released earlier, on December 31, was because the Colombian military conducted operations near the site of their release, preventing the release from occurring. Piedad Cordoba suggested that "Uribe ordered the military operation in the zone because things were going too well."
On January 9, 2008, Chavez announced that two women, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, who had been kidnapped by FARC in 2002, had been freed. Clara Rojas had been a vice-presidential candidate running with Ingrid Betancourt (still held by FARC) in the 2002 election. Consuelo Gonzalez had been a Colombian senator. Clara Rojas had given birth to a boy (called Emmanuel in the press) in captivity, the son of one of her captors. The boy had been left in front of a Colombia social services office (Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar) just over a week before, and was revealed later by DNA testing to be Clara Rojas's son. The release of these individuals was welcomed in Colombia and politically positive for Chavez. Uribe and Colombia's newspapers reminded Colombians that hundreds of people were still in FARC's custody. A video of Ingrid Betancourt herself was released as well, from which a very sad photograph was extracted. While the release was positive, the entire episode has reminded Colombians about FARC's kidnapping practices. Clara Rojas offered a message from Spain: if the FARC stop committing crimes and stop kidnapping, they ought to be considered belligerents by the government and a negotiated solution sought. The government's classification of the FARC as “terrorists” has been a major impediment to peace as it has in other contexts. But so too have FARC's practices of kidnapping civilians and declaring individuals military targets. This issue will have to be dealt with carefully for there to be a negotiated solution: impunity is recognized as contributing to future crimes. The current 'peace process' with the paramilitaries is recognized as a farce because it grants the paramilitaries impunity. If Chavez is seen as trying to negotiate impunity for the FARC, the move will be similarly unpopular.
The guerrilla organization itself has changed since Plan Colombia began, becoming increasingly isolated from popular movements and organizations and committing vengeful and predatory actions. Many who acknowledge that the ultimate causes are the state, multinationals, and US agendas and resist these are still fed up with FARC. If Chavez is seen as too close to FARC, he could lose politically. The popularity of a humanitarian accord and a negotiated solution stem from the popular desire for peace, not from popular support for FARC, whose actions on the case of the child hostage, Emmanuel, made Chavez look foolish: when they released the boy, they did not tell Chavez they had.
Entering the Colombian conflict on this basis has been risky for Venezuela, but it also seems to be very intelligent and principled diplomacy. Venezuela could have responded to US and Colombian provocations militarily, getting sucked into an arms race and militarization, diverting resources and political capital from social programs and social change to war preparations and militarism, perhaps supporting FARC militarily. Or it could have capitulated to a show of force. Instead, Chavez's government responded politically, taking advantage of the popular desire for peace in Colombia and throughout Latin America. Even though Uribe counts on some 5-6 million voters who believe strongly in his anti-guerrilla politics, Colombia has 44 million people and most want peace despite Plan Colombia, despite Uribe's tenure as President, and despite all US efforts to the contrary. If Uribe and the US win, they will paint Venezuela as a supporter of terrorist crimes and achieve what they sought, a pretext to attack Venezuela, destroy the Bolivarian project, and strengthen control of the region. Peace would give Venezuela's process time to develop and Colombia's movements room to breathe. The stakes are high for everyone involved.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. I interviewed Giraldo on this in 2004: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5156
2. For some excellent reporting on mercenary companies see Jeremy Scahill's book “Blackwater” and Naomi Klein's “The Shock Doctrine”.
3. See my interview with Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo from 2007: http://www.en-camino.org/node/67
4. Hector Mondragon argued this in 2001: http://www.zmag.org/crisescurevts/colombia/hemon.htm
5. See my “What is the Colombian Army doing attacking Venezuela?”: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=3389
6. See my “Terrorist Plot Foiled!”: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5499
7. See my “The Final Answer Will Be Given by the Tanks”: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5742
8. See my: “Venezuela's referendum fails – for now” http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3277