New Colombian government slams door on peace

When Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, called on the new government of ultra-rightist President Alvaro Uribe Velez to summon the reserves to fight against leftist guerrilla forces, Uribe’s minister of defense, Martha Lucia Ramirez, did just that on the following day.

Two things were clear. One, the Uribe government is openly in Uncle Sam’s pocket, and, two, the violence of war will broaden its impact on the Colombian population.

An editorial in Voz, the weekly newspaper of the Colombian Communist Party (CCP), noted that on the day of Patterson’s “order” 50,000 women “were demanding the end of the war and decisive government measures for a humanitarian and political solution to the conflict.” Both Patterson and Ramirez “slammed the door on the national sentiment” for peace, the editorial said.

This national sentiment for peace, and maybe the fear of continued war under Uribe, is so great that sectors of the Colombian establishment, including former presidents, are calling for a prisoner exchange between the guerrillas and the government. Even Andres Pastrana, the outgoing president, tried to jumpstart the peace process by proposing a last-minute “humanitarian agreement,” which would have had the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) release 69 captured political officials, including former presidential candidate of the Green Oxygen Party, Ingrid Betancourt, in exchange for government release of 40 FARC members.

Until the week before his term of office expired, Pastrana had rebuffed all FARC initiatives for a prisoner exchange. The on-again, off-again peace talks between the FARC and the Pastrana government broke down in February of this year and Pastrana proceeded to have the army attack FARC units.

Recently, in a videotape released by the FARC, Betancourt accused the government of responsibility for the breakdown in the peace negotiations and for “abandoning” FARC prisoners. Betancourt’s message was directed to the United Nations Office of Human Rights in Colombia and the Organization of American States commission overseeing the country’s electoral process. Calling for national unity to seek a way out of the armed conflict, Betancourt criticized the “lack of vision of our ruling class.”

Last year the FARC released over 200 captured army and police officers in return for about a dozen FARC members, during negotiations with the Pastrana government. Most observers saw the move as a positive step in the peace process.

The FARC is the largest guerrilla organization in the country, with an estimated 18,000 members, and has approximately 40 percent of the country under its control. Even though the Bush administration has included the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) in its list of “terrorist organizations,” the European Union has refused to include the FARC in its own list.

The ELN has about 4,000 members and operates in the northeastern part of the country. The Pastrana government’s peace negotiations with the ELN have followed a pattern similar to its dealings with the FARC.

The political establishment in Bogota, the Colombian capital, has always blamed the FARC for the breakdown in negotiations. But when the FARC attempted in the 1980s to give up the armed struggle and compete in the electoral arena, forming the Union Patriotica Party, its candidates and activists were killed by right-wingers.

In a letter to Uribe, Amnesty International said it was “seriously concerned that the collapse of negotiations with the … FARC … is leading to an intensification of the conflict, and that the chronic human rights crisis will worsen even further as a result.” The organization told Uribe it feared that “the likely impact of some of the policies being put forward by your government would exacerbate this human rights crisis even further.”

Despite the calls within and outside the country for a renewed peace process, President Uribe has not backed away from his position, supported by the Bush administration, that military action is the only answer to the 38 year old civil war. The Wall Street Journal, lauding Uribe, called him “Colombia’s George W. Bush.”

Voz commented, “The U.S. government is not interested in a peace process in Colombia. They continue to prepare for direct intervention with the help of some governments of Latin America, as was denounced in a Brazilian daily a few weeks ago, because they think they will quickly end the insurgency and the people’s resistance in Colombia, both of which are obstacles for the hegemonistic imperialist project FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas].” The FTAA would allow the free movement of capital across the boundaries of the countries of the Western Hemisphere, except for Cuba, without regard to national sovereignty.

Amnesty International also expressed concerns that U.S. financing and involvement in Colombia’s internal conflict would increase violations of civil rights.

Uribe’s plan is to double the size of the army and the national police and to enlist and arm civilians in the civil war. Critics say that this would bankrupt the country. Uribe is aware of this. He is asking the U.S. to bankroll his military increase.

Last month the U.S. Congress approved a measure that would free up over one billion dollars for the Colombian military to fight the guerrillas. The funding is from the monies set up for Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia was supposedly set up to combat the cultivation of opium; however, about 80 percent of its funding goes to the military and police forces. With the latest action by Congress, all of the Plan Colombia money can now be used for the military. Critics of Plan Colombia have charged all along that that is its main purpose.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have criticized Uribe’s move to involve civilians in the war, saying this will spread the war and cause further civilian deaths.

In keeping with his hard-line military policy, Uribe has declared a state of emergency. Officially known as a State of Internal Commotion, this decree allows the curtailment of civil rights and liberties, including giving the state the power to arrest anyone with a court-issued warrant. The decree also gives the police and the military greater powers.

The state of emergency and Uribe’s election pose great dangers to the trade union movement, people’s organizations, workers and peasants.

A labor leader in Bogota, who did not want to be identified, told the New Colombia News Agency that Uribe’s new policy is “a package of measures designed to limit basic freedoms and civil rights in general. One part of the law, for example, allows the state security forces to detain people only on suspicion of supporting the guerrillas – with no proof needed at all – and another allows the army and police to break into people’s homes without a warrant. But there are even worse parts, such as restrictions on the freedom of movement and the freedom of the press.”

Another provision lets the state ban meetings, protests, and similar activities that are deemed against state policy. The labor leader said, “What I fear is that these new regulations will be used against people such as trade unionists, human rights workers, land reform activists, student leaders and independent journalists, all of whom Uribe hates, as he says they are guerrilla sympathizers.”

Even before Uribe’s election, union leaders and others have been attacked and assassinated by members of the right-wing paramilitaries. Since 1990 more than 1,500 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia. About 90 percent of all the murders of trade unionists in the world have been in Colombia.

Over 200 Colombian labor leaders were killed in 2001. This year the number stands at 105, with the latest being Hernan de Jesus Ortiz, a leader of the country’s labor federation and of the teachers’ union, and Jose Robeiro Pineda, a former leader of the electrical industry union.

In a number of workplaces the management has called in the paramilitaries to stop a union from organizing the workers there. One such company was a Coca-Cola bottling plant. The United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the International Labor Rights Fund have filed a lawsuit against the soft drink giant.

The suit, filed in U.S. federal court, accuses Coca-Cola and its Colombian subsidiaries of using the paramilitaries to kill, threaten, kidnap and torture union leaders. USWA President Leo Girard said the steelworkers filed the suit in solidarity with Colombian workers.

The paramilitaries target trade unionists for assassination, accusing them of being “communists” and “subversives” and allied with the leftist guerrillas.

At a meeting of the International Labor Organization in June, Colombian trade unionists brought up the issue of the killing of trade union leaders and asked that the organization sanction Colombia. The conference, which included representatives from governments and corporations, as well as labor unions, refused to vote for sanctions even though delegates said they were “concerned.” The refusal drew strong protests from labor delegates from the United States, Cuba, France, Switzerland, Pakistan, Britain, and Sweden.

The ultra-right paramilitaries were started as private armies by rich ranchers and drug traffickers to “protect” themselves from the FARC and ELN. In 1997 a number of the “independent” paramilitaries united into the United Self-Defense of Colombia (AUC). They number from 5,000 to 7,000.

Human rights organizations have documented evidence that the paramilitaries enjoy a strong relationship with the armed forces and the police. This includes evidence that paramilitaries have moved unhampered through Colombian army-controlled areas on their way to sites where they have massacred peasants and others. Various reports show that the majority of civilian, non-combatant casualties have been linked to the paramilitaries.

It is an open secret that Uribe supports and has the support of the AUC, which has been linked to the drug cartels. Upon Uribe’s election the AUC publicly sent him congratulations.

In February of this year, the Colombian paper El Espectador reported that Uribe had connections with Pablo Escobar, infamous head of the Medellin cartel, when Uribe was mayor of that city. Evidence shows that Escobar, in an attempt to improve his public image, funded a couple of municipal projects with Uribe’s blessing.

Uribe is from a rich landowning family in the department of Antioquia. According to the book The Horsemen of Cocaine, by Fabio Castillo, Uribe’s father was involved in drug trafficking.

In an interview with the New Colombia News Agency, Jaime Caicedo, general secretary of the CCP, called Uribe a “representative of the new Colombian bourgeoisie, an example of the upper middle strata, enriched by narcotrafficking, determined to make the program of big transnational capital work.”

When Fernando Londoño, the new minister of the interior and justice, was asked by the press earlier this month which laws and rights could be restricted by Uribe’s actions, he answered, “All of them.”

Uribe’s presidency threatens greater danger to the working class and people of Colombia. There is also the real danger of greater U.S. intervention.

The author can be reached at jacruz@attbi.com