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Bulletin Issue5 February?March 2002

Colombia at the Crossroads: War or Peace?

As Pastrana comes to the end of his 4 year term commentators are assessing his presidency. Pastrana and the FARC have been in talks for the last 3 years.

As Pastrana comes to the end of his 4 year term commentators are assessing his presidency. Pastrana and the FARC have been in talks for the last 3 years.

As Pastrana comes to the end of his 4 year term commentators are assessing his presidency. Pastrana and the FARC have been in talks for the last 3 years.


It is claimed that Pastrana made significant concessions, ceding to the FARC control of the zona del despeje in Caqueta , a safe area or demilitarised zone the size of Switzerland in which to conduct negotiations. This is wrong, the FARC is Latin America’s longest standing and biggest guerrilla army, and it had already won control of that area, and many others besides, where it has been the political and military authority for over a generation. The zona del despeje is much less a demilitarised zone than a de-paramilitarised zone, a place where people have been able to live relatively peacefully, free at least from the death squads that terrorise civilians in the rest of the country.

The truth is that when Pastrana took over back in 1998 the Colombian military high command admitted that it was losing the war. This realisation set off alarm bells in Washington and triggered Plan Colombia, the US intervention programme designed to reequip, retrain and recuperate the morale of the Colombian armed forces. Pastrana, meanwhile, had to play for time. Hence he entered into talks, or rather talks about talks, for peace as such has never really been on the agenda.

While going through the motions with the FARC, Pastrana directed a new round of economic measures that have wrought social devastation. By 1999 industry was plunged into recession to protect the banks, driving Colombia into the worst crisis in its history. Over the last three years unemployment has hit record levels and nearly three million more Colombians have been forced into absolute poverty. Widespread destitution is the direct result of the IMF neoliberal policy regime of ‘structural reform’, privatisations and cutbacks in state expenditure so that foreign debt repayments are serviced.

The extension of paramilitary massacres against civilians, with the paramilitaries venturing out from their rural strongholds in the north, south-wards and towards the cities, also dates from the beginning of Pastrana’s presidency. By coincidence with the pressing need to crush popular revolt against the effects of the 1998/99 crisis, the logic of which defies any explanation other than a covert state policy, paramilitary operations became increasingly systematic and united under the leadership of Carlos Castaño’s AUC. This force of paid ex-army auxiliaries has more than tripled in size in four years. On a conservative estimate it spends $100 million annually.

The most notable counterinsurgency successes of Pastrana’s presidency have been the combined military/paramilitary incursion into the South of Bolívar and their subsequent takeover of the neighbouring city of Barrancabermeja. These had been strong bases for Colombia’s second largest guerrilla movement, the ELN. For the people of the region the renewed domination of their lives by state forces is a nightmare, they are having to find new ways of surviving and resisting (see the International Caravan report in this and our previous issue). This area is of great interest to oil and mining multinationals. The takeover of South of Bolívar demonstrates that the state does not want Colombians to live in peace, rather it seeks to pacify their resistance to aggression.

And so now more than half of all state expend-iture goes on just two items: debt servicing (36%) and the armed forces (15%). The legacy of Pastrana’s four year term will not be peace but a state ever more ready to attack its own people to serve the interests of international capital. No wonder a favourite slogan of the popular movement is ¡Pastrana traidor, sumiso al invasor! Pastrana, you’re a traitor submitting to the invader!

More talks but no peace

The last round of talks came right down to the wire on 20th January. Pastrana appeared on television demanding a FARC ceasefire or else…the threatened "or else" was clear enough as US supplied jets buzzed low over Caqueta and troops camped on the perimeter of the zone, their generals champing at the bit. In December and January they had received 41 new helicopters from the USA and the US ambassador had been egging on the assault, now given blessing as part of the "war on terrorism".

Desperate work by the UN representative and the group of 10 observer countries rescued the talks at the last minute. Pastrana reluctantly conceded an extension of the zona del despeje until 7th April. With the military advantage shifting to the state, it was now the FARC who had to concede to buy time. All social and economic issues are out of the talks, there has been a drastic narrowing down of the process. The agenda is just three points: the state demands that FARC suspends its kidnapping; FARC demands that the state dismantles the paramilitaries; the state demands that FARC agrees a ceasefire. The prospects for continued talks of any substance beyond April are bleak.

Learning from other negotiations, and refusing to shoulder arms while the paramilitaries massacre with impunity, the FARC has so far refused a ceasefire. Indeed, since 20th January it has launched a series of attacks, including in Bogotá.

Attitudes are polarising, the bourgoise classes are rallying behind the hard right Uribe Vélez as their favoured presidential candidate. His rating amongst those expecting to vote has shot up form 19% to 39% in four months (note this figure is a percentage of potential voters, not of adults, as most workers don’t usually vote).

Uribe Vélez is ex-Harvard and ex-Cambridge, and is well connected with the US and British establishment. He is also "a man accused of drug-related corruption" according to author Simon Strong in "Whitewash: Pablo Escobar and the Cocaine Wars". Strong was threatened by Vélez for asking about these links. Vélez stands for the destruction of all opposition to neoliberalism. As governor of Antioquia he set up the Convivir vigilantes, a legalised form of paramilitarism. In voting for him the propertied classes know that they will be voting for war. Uribe Vélez’s mission is not only to kill off the peace talks, but to kill off the hope of peace altogether.

Social Movements and Resistance

While the official media have been fixated on Pastrana and his likely successor, something important has been going on below. SINTRA-EMCALI ‘s victory shows that trade unions are not separate from the broader social conflict. With only 3 million of 15 million of working age in urban areas in a regular job, the formally employed constitute a minority of the working class. Official figures report an unemployment rate of 20%, the real figure is an employment rate of just over 20%. Narrow trade unionism has no future, except perhaps for a small stratum of white collar employees. SINTRAEMCALI has shown a social vision and inclusive philosophy are fundamental to uniting the majority in democratic resistance to the neoliberal assault.

Not only trade unions, but every centre of social solidarity and collectivity is under attack. The elimination programme has reached a crescendo in all corners of the country and against every sector of the social movement. Peasants have long borne the brunt of paramilitary atrocities that are forcing them from their homes at the rate of eight families an hour. Despite ever more flagrant and outrageous human rights violations the resistance has deepened, especially amongst the unem-ployed and displaced, women and the youth.

For example, on 13th September last year 15,000 school students, parents and teachers from three secondary colleges took to the streets of Bogotá against threatened privatisations. They were assaulted by the police. Two weeks later students from the Cundimarca Girls High School blockaded the main bus route. Their protest was broken up by the police. The high schoolgirls blockaded again. The police attacked with small tanks and water cannon, but still they could not dislodge the girls. It was only tear gas and snatch squads that cleared them. Then on 21st November 1,500 girl students occupied their college demanding their right to education. The police laid siege, filming and intimidating, but they were unable to stop the resistance spreading. Students at the National University in Bogotá mounted a protest against the US and British war on Afghanistan on 8th November. Carlos Giovanni Blanco, in his second year studying medicine, was shot dead by anti-riot police, 23 students were wounded and an indeterminate number were detained. The next day two more students were shot dead in Medellin. In the first six months of 2001 alone, 54 students were victims of official and paramilitary terror: 23 political assassinations, 21 killed in massacres, 8 disappeared and 2 assassinated under torture.

Such are the harsh realities of class struggle in Colombia. One thing is for sure, without social justice there will be no peace in the country.

Andy Higginbottom

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