Colombia keeps on bleeding. In 1948, the assassination of the charismatic populist leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitan led to rioting in Bogotá and generalized war provoked by wealthy landowners and the government that over ten years took 300,000 peasant lives.
Left-wing rural insurgencies have continued to our own time. In a 1980’s peace initiative, Communists, trade unionists and guerillas came together in the Patriotic Union to contest elections. However, the ruling elites and drug cartels unleashed violence which killed 5,000 Patriotic Union activists, including electoral candidates.
President Alvaro Uribe leads a government strong on military repression serving big bankers, mega landowners, multi-national corporations, and elite families. The victims are workers, peasants, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples. Fighting has displaced four million rural inhabitants. Sixty percent of Colombians are poor. Thirteen percent of children under five suffer from acute malnutrition. Four percent of landowners own two thirds of the land. The UN Human Development Index identifies Colombia as the 6th most unequal country on the planet.
Up to 3,000 trade unionists have been assassinated since 1986, 450 of them during Uribe’s presidency. This has led the AFL-CIO to oppose a proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia. U.S. corporations, including Coca Cola and Chiquita Brands, are accused by Colombian labor of involvement in anti-union violence. Labor leaders, such as Lily Obando of the FENSUAGRO union are judicially persecuted.
The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia says that 2,351 indigenous people have been murdered since 1974, 1,060 during Uribe’s presidency. A scandal erupted recently over reports that the military had murdered 1,700 politically uninvolved young men so that the soldiers could take credit for “guerilla casualties”.
Violent drug cartels would not have arisen without U.S. buyers. The United States, under “Plan Colombia”, has subsidized the Colombian military and police to the tune of $6 billion over 8 years. Thousands of Colombian officers have been trained by the U.S. Department of Defense at the “School of the Americas” in Georgia. Colombia uses U.S. surveillance personnel and equipment to track drugs and FARC guerillas. By demanding extradition of arrested right wing death squad figures, the United States blocked investigations in Colombia of murders and human rights abuses.
As senator, Barack Obama criticized the planned Free Trade Agreement with Colombia because of human rights abuses. Now the Pentagon will be operating seven new military bases in Colombia. Their purpose, outlined in official documents, is to go after drug traffickers, guerillas and, tellingly, “anti-US governments”. An infusion of $46 million to the Palanquero airbase will enable flights covering most of South America. U.S. troops in Colombia will be immune from prosecution.
The region has erupted in furious anger. Leaders of neighboring countries on the outs with Colombia fear that with U.S. equipment, personnel, and tutelage at Colombian disposal, the stage is set for military attacks, especially against Venezuela. Colombian paramilitaries have already carried out violent forays inside Venezuela.
Within Colombia – also regionally and internationally – efforts are ongoing to find a peaceful solution to the civil war between the government and the FARC and ELN guerilla armies. Yet massive U.S. military aid to the Uribe government can only reassure its leaders as to favorable prospects for military victory and rejection of negotiations.
Gustavo Petro, presidential candidate of the left-center Alternative Democratic Pole in the 2010 elections, has written to U.S. President Barack Obama to ask that he withdraw the plans for the military bases. Claiming that the bases agreement violates Colombian law, Petro adds “…I ask you to unilaterally suspend the process of implementing the military bases. ..and we invite you, with the help of the international community, to take up other, lasting paths of understanding which will lead us to peace”.
U.S. citizens and voters, too, should demand that the Obama administration to get behind the Colombian peace process rather than promoting military solutions. Not only should the plan for the new US bases be cancelled, current US military aid to Colombia should be stopped until the Uribe changes its bellicose behavior both to its own citizens and to its neighbors. We should let our wishes be known by the White House, the State and Defense departments, and Congress, before it is too late.