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Slaughter Down on the Farm: Colombia Under Uribe

Forrest Hylton
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003
    “Fascism does not lie in the repression, but rather in the generalized enthusiasm for repression.”
    —Antonio Caballero, Semana

In what Alfredo Molano has recently called “the Cattle Republic of Colombia,” and as long predicted in Left Turn, President Álvaro Uribe has turned out to be nothing short of a dream come true for Carlos Castaño and the most powerful blocs within the rightwing paramilitary AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), which may soon fuse with the Uribe’s “communitarian state.”

Uribe’s credibility on the little stage the US has created for him hangs in the balance of the outcome of AUC’s declaration of a unilateral, nationwide, two-month ceasefire—only Medellín’s Bloque Metro and the bloc in Casanare have opted out. Uribe needs to show that he can control the rightwing authors of more than 70% of the crimes against humanity carried out in Colombia so that nagging questions about military and paramilitary cooperation do not hamper the war against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

As promised, Uribe and his Minister of the Interior, Fernando Londoño, have gradually removed legislative and judicial checks on the scope of executive and military authority—essential preconditions for the nascent “peace negotiations” between the Uribe administration and “the house of Castaño” (as the leader of the AUC refers to his organization).

The government is in its third round of talks in Havana with the ELN (National Liberation Army), who are negotiating from a place of extreme weakness, leaving the FARC as the lone group “outside the law” in a rapidly consolidating fascist regime. As Antonio Caballero notes in the article from which the above epigraph is taken, Colombia is becoming a country in which everything that is not prohibited is obligatory and everything that is not obligatory is prohibited—all in the name of efficiency.

Attorney General Camilo Osorio, appointed by Uribe’s predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, in July 2001, is currently under investigation for his role in firing nine people and compelling fifteen to resign—most of them now in exile because of paramilitary death threats—because they had been investigating ties between the military and the paramilitaries. One of the investigators spoke (anonymously of course) of tracking calls from Osorio’s office to regional paramilitary commanders.

“Zones of Consolidation and Rehabilitation” have been created in Arauca, Sucre, and Bolívar—and perhaps in the not too distant future, Medellín—in which there are no civilian authorities (nor journalists or human rights investigators), only military men making administrative decisions. Since no one can investigate the military in these zones, or even enter them without military permission, paramilitaries become relatively superfluous.

Military zones

When the Constitutional Court, which has lost the few teeth it once had, declared unconstitutional the wiretapping, house-to-house searches led by newly-minted spies, and arrests—all without judicial warrant—taking place in the newly-created zones, Uribe’s response was to call for a change in the constitution. Word is he has instructed his subordinates not to obey the Court’s ruling, and it will be shocking if the military fails to follow the lead of its commander-in-chief.

In El Espectador (12/01/02), Alfredo Molano reports that in Saravena, Arauca, where the US is soon to send 100 Special Forces troops, the military man in charge authorized a local fiesta in order to surround it and herd all of the 2,000 participants—plus many community and trade union leaders—into a stadium, a la Pinochet. There they were registered and marked on the arm, in the same way that paramilitary ranchers brand their cattle. Only 42 were held for further questioning. Inhabitants were also subjected to a census carried out by the Army that involved photographing and fingerprinting everyone.

Unlike the rest of Colombia, much of the population in Arauca is still relatively sympathetic to the insurgency, and both the ELN and the FARC are strong there because that is where the petroleum rents are to be extorted. Occidental’s pipeline, for example—soon to be guarded by a new US-financed, -trained and -equipped Colombian Army brigade—begins in Caño LimÛn, Arauca. Watch for exploding conflict there in the coming months and years.

In Uribe’s first 100 days in office, violation of human and constitutional rights was, like Uribe’s popularity, nothing short of spectacular, and vice-president Pacho Santos, formerly editor of his family’s daily newspaper and spokesperson for “civil society,” is now leading the public relations onslaught from his new office. The idea is to show that Uribe is serious about human rights and that the fit between state and civil society is like that of velvet glove to iron fist.

Yet as Caballero writes, “This government is dismantling one by one all of the democratic, social, civil, and ultimately human advances obtained by Colombian society in the last eighty years.” The laws and social conquests, as Caballero recognizes, were always a dead letter in Colombia, where the rule of law has never existed, but they provided an opening through which people struggled to make justice and the law a reality.

Not even this is permitted anymore, and as Molano notes, the Colombian government, as so many times in the past, has closed all doors to the opposition other than armed insurgency. Since that is not a viable option for anyone besides the peasant youths who have to choose whether they will fight with the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, or the army, the radical democratic, anti-capitalist opposition is left with virtually no room in which to construct viable alternatives to the escalating cycle of destruction.

Imperial matrix

On November 20, 2800 soldiers invaded the Universidad Nacional in Bogot·, closed it down, and killed a student, while in mid-October 3000 troops invaded Comuna 13 in MedellÌn and 1500 took over Aguas Blancas and other neighborhoods in Cali, all areas formerly under the control of urban militias. Dozens of civilian residents of target neighborhoods died in the fighting, more than a hundred were wounded, and several hundred alleged militia fighters were rounded up and arrested.

In Cartagena, Medellín and Bogotá, the paramilitaries are hunting down the people they have displaced from the countryside. The attempt to physically eliminate the trade union movement through extra-judicial execution—as well as neoliberal legislation—has never been more concerted. This in a country that was home to 90% of the world’s murdered trade unionists in 2001.

83% of the rural population is living in poverty and nearly 100% of it in fear and terror, while Uribe’s ministers, touting the virtues of food imports from US-subsidized agribusiness as part of the FTAA agenda, help insure that coca and poppy are the only viable crops to market. Neoliberal policies put the peasant cultivators of these crops more firmly in the sights of the war on drugs—now interchangeable with the war on terror—than ever before. As the political-economic bloc closest to the paramilitaries, however, cattle ranchers continue to enjoy generous protection and price supports.

What’s worse, all this is surely just the beginning, and so far the enthusiasm for repression expressed by the majority of people in the urban centers–where most Colombians live—borders on the hysterical. That is because it is obligatory, but also because it is in keeping with the spirit of the US-defined and -led war on terrorism. Caballero writes, “Did not Putin gas hundreds in a theater and receive congratulations? Is Bush not congratulated for getting rid of habeas corpus?”

There is a danger of exaggerating the inevitability of such counterrevolutionary developments, however. It is important to place the Uribe regime in its imperial matrix, but also to situate it in regional context: Lula and the PT (Worker’s Party) are in control of the Brazilian government, and while the IMF and the US Treasury have them on a tight leash, grassroots pressure for social, political, and economic change in the region’s industrial powerhouse will be tremendous.

In Venezuela, Chávez, though considerably less competent and popular than Lula and the PT, is firmly in control of the Uribe-aligned opposition and the military, despite media illusions to the contrary, while Chavismo is growing more and more conscious of its own autonomous power. On November 24, Ecuadorians elected a president who, as a nationalist army colonel, participated in the civilian-military triumvirate formed after the overthrow of the Mahuad government in 2000, led by rural indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorians (representing 33% and 5% of the population, respectively).

Thus however appropriate the global season, in South America the political climate for fascism is inhospitable, and Uribe’s fanatical pursuit of it is sure to trigger, sooner or later, a more unified domestic opposition supported by the neo-populist regimes surrounding Colombia. In the meantime, we can try to follow the example of the 30 North Americans who traveled to Bogotá in early December to deepen their ties to progressive trade unionists and activists from other social movements, whose courage and dedication to building a better world continue to astound and inspire.