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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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,” 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.
the same interview, Alzate was asked her opinion of
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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 http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1339/MR1339.pref.pdf
Interview with Justin Pudor,
Rabble, Sept. 20, 2002.
“Direct Democracy in Colombia.” http://www.zmag.org/content/print_article.cfm?itemID=2363§ionID=36
Chomsky interviewed by Justin Pudor,
July 12, 2002. “Caucau: Their Fate Lies in Our Hands.” http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=9&ItemID=2104
Noam Chomsky. Z Magazine, June
2000, “The Colombia
Plan: April 2000.” On the web at http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/articles/chomskyjune2000.htm
Throwing Gasoline on a Fire.” Translated by Jens Nielson and Justin Podur. August 2001. http://www.zmag.org/crisescurevts/colombia/gas1.htm
Doug Stokes. “Colombia Primer: Q & A on the conflict and
US Role.” ZNet
April 16, 2002 http://www.zmag.org/content/Colombia/stokes_col-primer.cfm
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. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/colombia/
Jason Mark. “Colombia: Washington's Next Dirty War” in
Global Exchange Newsletter June 1, 2000