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The Colombian Inferno

Forrest Hylton
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

In a major victory for the forces of reaction in the Western Hemisphere, on May 26 the “independent Liberal” Álvaro Uribe Vélez took 53% of the vote in Colombia’s presidential elections, thus winning in the first round and ending the Liberal-Conservative political monopoly that has existed since 1958. Since March 11, politicians sympathetic to Uribe have controlled a majority in both the Colombian Congress and Senate. Uribe promises to double the size of the army and the police—he looks to Giuliani’s 40,000-strong NYPD as a model—and advocates the organization of 1,000,000 Colombian civilians into networks of spies and informants that would work hand in glove with the U.S.-supplied and trained Colombian Army. Though laboring Colombians voted for Uribe in large numbers along with the middle and ruling classes, only the former will provide the cannon fodder for the coming slaughter.

Uribe has asked Rudolph Hommes, the architect of neoliberal policies under César Gaviria (1990-94), to lead his economic transition team, and has named Roberto Junguito, the current Colombian representative to the IMF, as his Finance Minister. While Uribe’s political extremism might eventually cast him in the role of Ariel Sharon, for now Bush administration officials like Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, who visited Uribe in Colombia in early June, are pleased with the signals Uribe is sending to markets. Hoping to cash in on the climate created since September 11, Uribe will visit Washington on June 18-20. He has already announced, a la Bush, that civilians cannot remain neutral: they must, as a matter of patriotic duty, support government efforts to wipe out the insurgency. Only thus can they preserve their “democracy” from the threat of “terrorism”—assuming, of course, that U.S. support continues to increase markedly.

If the immediate past is any guide, the future for Colombia is likely to be an orgy of state-sponsored, narco-paramilitary violence above and beyond the record-breaking levels of carnage seen in recent years. As governor of Antioquia in 1995, Uribe Vélez oversaw the organization of civil defense patrols called the CONVIVIR, estimated to have displaced 200,000 peasants before they were declared illegal and disbanded in 1997. Of course the soldiers of the CONVIVIR simply passed into the ranks of the paramilitary AUC (Colombian Self-Defense Forces). Though he denies it, AUC fighters and supporters form the bulk of Uribe’s core constituency. Acutely aware of the potential for a public relations disaster, Uribe Vélez promises to crack down on paramilitaries as well as guerrillas, but the effect of his policies on the ground will be to legalize the former in order to eliminate the latter. There is a precedent for this: a 1968 law allowed the state to form “national militias,” and in fact paramilitiarism did not become illegal until 1989.

Going back a bit further, we find another precedent: the last time the far right came to power at the national level in 1950, Conservative President Laureano Gómez provided protection and breathing room for paramilitary forces. He unleashed a wave of political persecution that crushed independent trade union activity and left tens of thousands of peasants—men, women, and children—dead or displaced. Though the era known simply as La Violencia began in 1946, Gómez ratcheted the conflict up to new levels of intensity and barbarity. Make no mistake—Uribe is the legitimate, twenty-first century heir to the fascist tradition that Gómez helped consolidate at mid-century.

It is also worth remembering the history of counterinsurgency in Guatemala, in which more people were killed than in El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina put together. While the U.S. provided the training, logistical support, and high-tech weaponry, Guatemalans supplied the human killing machines. With the aim of destroying the social base of the insurgency, the Guatemalan government organized civil defense patrols that aided the army in murdering 100,000 peasants and displacing 1,000,000 more between 1981-83. The far right, in other words, carried out mass organizing and mobilization in order to block the advance of a Marxist-led insurgency. Although the U.S. Left built a strong solidarity movement in opposition to the counter-revolution in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Guatemala was by and large abandoned to its fate. Hence there was little debate in media or congressional circles about how to proceed. The Guatemalan genocide was not particularly controversial.

While the bad news is very bad indeed, and though the past weighs on us like the nightmare that it was, there are a few things to bear in mind when assessing the current conjuncture. First, as in previous elections in the 1990s, more than half of all eligible voters did not vote. Uribe was elected with 24% of the potential votes. His mandate for full-blooded counterinsurgency is thus considerably less than what the media would have us believe. Second, Lucho Garzón, the candidate representing trade unions and social movements, campaigned against the counterinsurgency and lived, winning 6% of the vote—no mean feat given the bloody history of leftist electoral initiatives in Colombia.

The day before the elections, an exiled Colombian trade unionist suggested to me that while Uribe will criminalize organizing and activism for radical social change, thereby driving it even further underground, his bloodlust will likely generate an opposition wider and deeper than anyone would predict. She is convinced that working in tandem with North American solidarity and anti-war activists, Colombian radicals can help mobilize enough resistance to topple the Uribe Vélez regime and limit imperial reach. While the odds stacked against such an outcome could hardly be greater, in recent years we have seen popular movements bring down unpopular governments in Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and, arguably, Bolivia. Let us work to make sure that our comrade’s prediction comes true so that she can return to Colombia and begin the task of building a new society there.