“The Heart of the War in Colombia”
by Costanza Ardila Galvis
Latin American Bureau, 2000; £11.99
Galvis´ book consists of ten internally displaced Colombians recounting their history of violence in a group situation, both as victims and perpetrators. The authors´ own work with CedaVida, an organisation which helps displaced people was the basis for this book. Ten individuals begin with their childhoods, painfully exposing the abuse they have each suffered in different ways. They then carry on to talk of their involvement in the conflict in Colombia. The confrontation of each to their past and what eventually led them to be displaced not only gives the reader an understanding of the cruelty and pain that has been endured by so many thousands of Colombians, but also an understanding of what leads people to this brutality. The people here are not just ´victims´ of the conflict, but are facing up to their responsibility in continuing the cycle of violence. With these stories, we explore the social violence in a domestic situation dominated by machismo, sexual abuse and humiliation, and then we see this repeted in the broader context of political and military violence.
The aim of this project seems to have been an exploration of the group to look towards ideas of reaching peace: by confronting their ideals and using memory and in turn, truth. Although the objective of the group and author cannot be seen as anything other than positive, the frustration lies in recognising that this alone cannot achieve peace considering the current context of military aid being poured into the country by the US and the power that the elite and multinational companies hold. This book undoubtedly should be read by all wanting to understand Colombia more, as it demystifies the notion of the ´violent Colombian´ which is so perpetrated by our media, yet we should read it within the context of the force of Colombia being the third largest recipient of US military aid. This opposition to the US backed state terrorism that Uribe is imposing comes hand in hand with the motivations of many within this book: the struggle towards social and economic justice.
As one of the contributors ´Alejandra´ notes “In war, everything happens except change.” This comment highlights the recurring sentiment throughout the book, that their experience of violence has not led them any closer to the justice they were seeking on behalf of the majority of poor Colombians. Although extremely moving and sad to read, this work still leaves one with optimism. These ten have survived as so many do and continue their struggle toward peace and justice. The discussions in the last section of the book between the group touch upon many points of view concerning the armed struggle in Colombia, and how to best support the Colombian people. It also brings the reader into contact with the human face of the suffering that Colombians are undergoing day-to-day.
“Inside Colombia – Drugs, Democracy and War”
by Grace Livingstone
with Foreword by Jenny Pearce
Latin American Bureau, 2003; £12.99
Billed as “an indispensable introduction”, Inside Colombia attempts to outline the country’s tangled history and present predicament in one slim volume.
Livingstone is keen to stress from her very first sentence that “Drugs are not the cause of Colombia’s problems…” She sets out to challenge the misconceptions which have been used to justify foreign intervention in Colombia’s internal conflict. An entire chapter is devoted to relations with the imperial power to the north, noting that the world’s third largest recipient of US military aid “is in a crucial strategic position, bordering five other countries and providing a bridge between Central and South America”.
Plan Colombia and the “War on Drugs” are dissected with reference to wider objectives; “Those seeking an alternative explanation for Plan Colombia’s overwhelming military focus might note that the new export model, based on oil and minerals, requires the Colombian state to have control over all of its national territory; whereas the coffee-economy…could co-exist with guerrilla control of outlying regions.” Above all; “politically, the guerrillas cannot be allowed to win because this would send the dangerous message that it is possible to defeat the US”. The threat of 20,000 armed anti-imperialists in Uncle Sam’s “backyard” is too provocative to be ignored.
Writing from a human rights perspective, Livingstone is keen to decry abuses from all sides in the conflict, although she acknowledges the social aims of the guerrillas and sees the roots of the violence in the long history of political exclusion in “Latin America’s oldest democracy”. Peaceful attempts to achieve change though constitutional means have been drowned in blood, leading to a culture of brutalisation out of which President Uribe Velez has emerged as “Colombia’s Ariel Sharon”.
Full of facts and figures, Inside Colombia is nevertheless easy to read and provides a handy reference tool to be used by activists campaigning for a just peace.
Comments on Foreword
Jenny Pearce (JP) is the senior figure writing on Colombia in Britain. Her own book Inside the Labyrinth (LAB, 1990) is a must-read benchmark. JP assesses her earlier work in the light of subsequent developments. But without the vision that imbued the Labyrinth, the lengthy foreword is an essay in post-modern disillusion, a retreat from materialist analysis of a complex reality.
JP criticises the narrowness of an account that concentrates on political power and the exclusionary character of the Colombian state. A quotation from War and Peace questions "what is power?". Tolstoy concludes that "the conception of a cause is inapplicable to the phenomena we are examining". This is to illuminate JP's core argument that "the complex violences of Colombia today are not easily reducible to particular causes" (my emphasis). JP denies that Colombia is locked in a civil war (although there is much evidence in the body of the book to the contrary).
What is of value is JP's summary of recent research on the phenomenon of social violence, and her questioning of the linkages between social and political violence. She draws attention to the gendered nature of the violence, the impact of the war on women. But while bringing gender in, JP renders the essential class component invisible.
A manifestation of JP's disillusion is her hardeningto the guerrillas, and apparent softening towards the paramilitaries. "The guerrillas increasingly came to be seen as the 'cause' of the war and political violence. This violence now exceeded for most Colombians any justification in terms of the real problems facing the country: structural inequality, poverty, political exclusion and repression". The guerrillas locate the source of these problems in another problem, the fundamentally exclusionary, criminal and repressive Colombian state. Are they right or wrong about this? One does not have to sign up to any particular practice of the guerrillas to recognise their underlying justification, the right to self-defence and rebellion against state terrorism.
Taking the problem of causality seriously would mean probing connections between the powerful yet distant intellectual authors of violence in Colombia, and its less powerful yet armed direct participants. JP offers no indication that the social violence may be serving a higher agenda of takeover by the multinationals. JP absents not only class oppression and state sponsored terrorism, but imperialist aggression as causes fuelling the violence.