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Andrew Hedden


            In the region of southwestern Colombia, in the province of Cauca, there exists a network of directly democratic community councils known as the Bloque Social, or the Alternative Social Bloc. Borne of the indigenous people’s struggles which began in the 1970s, this movement composed of Afro-Colombians, peasants, and unionists continues to win victories concerning land reform, education, and health care. Above all, the people of Cauca have begun to reclaim their own governance, a development symbolized by their indigenous governor, Floro Tunubala, whose election was due solely to the existence of the democratic councils.

            The Alternative Social Bloc is but one of many communities throughout Colombia who, while asserting their right to autonomy, are seeking to remove themselves from the throes of the 35 year-old civil war. In the face of immense violence from both guerilla and paramilitary forces, these communities continue to operate with the understanding that, in the other words of Colombian community leader Alirio Arroyave, “Politics is not a science of administration but something the community lives.”[1]

            Meanwhile, as voter turn-out becomes lower and lower, politics and democracy in the United States persists with a formal indifference. The power has to concentrate somewhere, and so it has been that U.S. officials consistently place profit over fundamental human rights. The effect has been detrimental- least of all for U.S. citizens, most of all for the populations of the global South. Colombia is not the exception; it is the rule of U.S. power. In regards to U.S. foreign policy, the situation in Colombia typifies the customary course of action as it always has been: to exercise control and dominion over the global South. The effect this has on communities like those in Cauca is harrowing, and a great deal more direct than those in power would have us believe. These connections must be understood, if the protection of human rights is to become a concrete reality, both in the immediate situation and in the hopes of aspiring towards a greater future, a future worth living.

            On the level of rhetoric, U.S. involvement in the bloody Colombia conflict has been largely been in the name of a War on Drugs. While in 1999 the Colombian government became the largest recipient of United States military and police assistance, the deal was sweetened with an additional $1.3 billion in aid the following year, under the auspices of Bill Clinton’s “Plan Colombia;” 83 percent of which has gone towards military purposes, of which countering narcotics trafficking is the stated goal. Motives concerning this War on Drugs are dubious however, something which, according to Noam Chomsky, the facts lay out:


The seriousness of concern over use of drugs was illustrated… when a House Committee was considering the Clinton Colombia Plan. It rejected an amendment proposed by California Democrat Nancy Pelosi calling for funding of drug demand reduction services. It is well known that these are far more effective than forceful measures. A widely-cited Rand corporation study funded by the U.S. Army and Office of National Drug Control Policy found that funds spent on domestic drug treatment were 23 times as effective as “source country control” (Clinton’s Colombia Plan), 11 times as effective as interdiction, and 7 times as effective as domestic law enforcement. But the inexpensive and effective path will not be followed.[2]


            Interestingly enough, we can begin to understand what path will be followed through another document from the RAND Corporation. In a document prepared for the U.S. Air Force, they explain,


The first question is why Colombia matters. U.S. policy toward Colombia has been driven to a large extent by counter-narcotics considerations, but the situation in that South American country is a national security as much as a drug policy problem. Colombia is a strategically important country. It is South America’s forth largest county in area and the second largest in population. It is the only South American country with coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and it is contiguous to the Caribbean basin, Central America, Venezuela and its oil fields, and Panama and the Canal. Colombia also has some of the largest untapped petroleum reserves in the Western Hemisphere. Colombia’s trajectory will also influence the direction of broader trends in the unstable Andean region and beyond.[3] 


            The attention here paid to oil is markedly telling, and it is certainly one main objective for the military build-up in the country. According to Héctor Mondragón, the Colombian government has, since 1999, “rapidly increased the number of contracts for oil exploration and exploitation, particularly with U.S., Canadian, British and Spanish companies… Between January 2000 and July 2001 they signed 54 contracts.” Interesting to note that, in October 1999, the president of Colombia at the time, Andrés Pastrana, met with the heads of major U.S. oil and electricity companies in Houston, Texas, an event organized by none other than George W. Bush.

            Now that Bush himself is president of the United States, he has sought to direct the situation in Colombia beyond counter-narcotics so that it may fit the new War on Terror framework, with an emphasis on the FARC as “the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the Western Hemisphere.”[4] The latest military aid package, which has been dubbed the Andean Regional Initiative, allocates the Colombian government an additional $526 million for 2002, with an aim for roughly $700 million in 2003. In addition, the administration requested $98 million for a specially trained Colombian military brigade dedicated to protecting a 500-mile long oil pipeline. The owner of the pipeline is Occidental Petroleum, a key lobby interest behind Plan Colombia.

            All this funding, dubious intension and all, has only served to intensify the civil conflict, and, as it has been said, the cost for communities like those in Cauca is atrocious; in fact, in 2001 Cauca was home to the most human rights violation in Colombia, and not by coincidence. In this civil war, which has cost 40,000 lives in the past decade alone, eight of every 12 people murdered each day in political killings are noncombatants. Nearly 80% of these killings, meanwhile, have been committed by paramilitary forces, whose connections to the Colombian military are, according to the organization Human Rights Watch, “so fully integrated into the army's battle strategy, coordinated with its soldiers in the field, and linked to government units via intelligence, supplies, radios, weapons, cash, and common purpose,”[5] that they effectively constitute an unofficial “Sixth Division” of the military in conjunction with the five official divisions. The targets of the paramilitaries are disproportionately teachers, activists, and labor and community leaders. Ligia Inez Alzate, a teacher in the city of Medellin, describes the experience of a trade unionist:


Being a trade unionist is very dangerous in Colombia. We’re called terrorists, because we fight for better conditions, for collective bargaining, and because we oppose the restructuring of laws governing education, labor rights and so on. All these actions make us military targets.   


            In the same interview, Alzate was asked her opinion of Plan Colombia. She responds,


Plan Colombia is a time bomb. They fumigate illegal crops, but they’re ruining the land and involving communities that have nothing to do with the drug war. The war has left a path of destruction, wreaking havoc in the areas of the oil pipelines, destroying many small towns. We need to build infrastructure in the country, reactivate our national economy and agriculture, and give people a way to make a living and stay on their land.


The money for the military is really going to support the arms trade, instead of supporting Colombians. Instead of investing in war, we need to invest in peace.


            The problem with investing in peace is that, in the terms of U.S. power, it fails to return a capital profit. In April, introducing the Andean Regional Initiative, George W. Bush explained that “The United States is responsible to fight its own demand for drugs.  And we will expand our efforts to work with producer and transit countries to fortify their democratic institutions, promote sustainable development, and fight the supply of drugs at the source.”[6] What may already be painfully obvious is that Bush’s conceptions of “democratic institutions” and “sustainable development” stand at violent odds with standards of fundamental human rights. To the population of the United States, it is a paradox: our society is said to uphold democracy and freedom, both as an example and in our policies abroad, yet the status of World Superpower would seem to thoroughly contradict this.  The undertaking before us then, is a matter of giving life to those ideals which have existed for so long on a rhetorical plane, but never in a concrete tangible reality: namely justice, freedom and democracy. If this means challenging current institutions and seeking alternatives, so be it.

            So not to become all to weary in our task, we may also look to populations like the peace communities of Colombia for inspiration. While traveling on North American speaking tour, Cauca indigenous leader Arquimedes Vitonás was asked if there were lessons outsiders might draw from the work of their community; he answered affirmatively.


I think people here could learn about solidarity from us. I have seen only a little here, but it seems to me there is an extreme individualism here. Everyone is out for themselves. For the most part, people don’t even know each other… To us, the idea of accompaniment is sacred – being with someone or being there for someone on a personal level but also on a community or political level.


            Simple as it may sound, the extent to which we can invigorate the integrity of democracy, injecting “the idea accompaniment” on a community or political level, is of immediate importance. The struggle for freedom and democracy is one of solidarity,

and for Colombia it is a state of affairs which is of life and death.




RAND Corporation, in a report commissioned by the US Air Force


Interview with Justin Pudor, Rabble, Sept. 20, 2002. “Direct Democracy in Colombia.”


Chomsky interviewed by Justin Pudor, July 12, 2002. “Caucau: Their Fate Lies in Our Hands.”


Noam Chomsky. Z Magazine, June 2000, “The Colombia Plan: April 2000.” On the web at


Héctor Mondragón. “Plan Colombia: Throwing Gasoline on a Fire.” Translated by Jens Nielson and Justin Podur. August 2001.


Doug Stokes. “Colombia Primer: Q & A on the conflict and US Role.” ZNet  April 16, 2002


David Bacon. “Teaching Peace in a Time of War.” Interview with Ligia Inez Alzate Arias. Z Magazine, July/August 2002.



Human Rights Watch. The “Sixth Division” Military-paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia.


Jason Mark. “Colombia: Washington's Next Dirty War” in Global Exchange Newsletter June 1, 2000

[1] Interview with Justin Pudor, Rabble, Sept. 20, 2002. “Direct Democracy in Colombia.”

[2] Noam Chomsky. Z Magazine, June 2000, “The Colombia Plan: April 2000.” On the web at

[3] RAND Corporation, in a report commissioned by the US Air Force

[4] Doug Stokes. “Colombia Primer: Q & A on the conflict and US Role.” ZNet  April 16, 2002

[5] Human Rights Watch. The “Sixth Division” Military-paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia.

[6] “Fact Sheet Andean Regional Initiative.”