Government functionaries from both Britain and Colombia attended a forum entitled "Why Colombia? Opportunities behind the Image", a meeting to discuss investment opportunities and security arrangements in this war- torn country.
Clearly aimed at easing the consciences of potential British investors, the meeting on 17th May was attended by some 250 representatives of British based multinationals. Chaired by former Conservative bigwig and investment banker Tristan Garel Jones, the meeting was addressed by, among others, John Battle, Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Colombian Foreign Minister Guillermo Fernandez de Soto, and Nicanor Restrepo, President of Suramericana de Inversiones (Colombia’s largest investment bank). These three speakers followed a well-travelled path, praising Pastrana’s efforts in the peace process, the boldness of ceding guerrilla controlled territory over to guerrilla control (and what have they given us in return?) the longevity of Colombian democracy (a democracy that routinely assassinates and annihilates all popular opposition) and denying the existence of a civil war. "There is," stated Fernandez de Soto, "no civil war in Colombia. It is civil society fighting crime and its instruments." Of course all three reiterated the ‘fact’ that Plan Colombia was merely an extension of international efforts in the war on drugs. It was largely tourist brochure stuff- Bogotá’s museums, Medellin’s railway and Cartagena’s conference facilities were all singled out for particular praise.
Privatisation of State Enterprises
When it came to investment opportunities, both Fernandez de Soto and John Battle illustrated their points with reference to the bargain buy of Carbocol, the state mining operation sold to Billiton, Anglo American and Gencorefor $450 million, although valued by independent valuers as closer to $2 billion. Fernandez de Soto seemed to issue an open invitation to ransack state assets as he boasted, "Colombia is particularly attractive to foreign investors, in view, among other things, of the low cost of capital". Reference was also made to the enormous profits envisioned by the deregulation of the oil industry.
BP, whose Colombian operation have been fighting off accusations of violating human rights, complicity in paramilitary atrocities, and serious environmental damage, were held up as an example of a British company enjoying all the advantages that Colombia offers. He did not, but he might as well have said that foreign investors are attracted to Colombia in view, among other things, of the 3million internally displaced workers and campesinos who will ensure a cheap and compliant workforce.
This then was the crux of the meeting. Agents of the government actively seeking to flog off Colombia’s wealth to buyers who know that the WTO, the IMF and recently implemented GATS accords will ensure that it is done on the cheap. The Colombian conflict seems increasingly a battle to stop state sponsored theft of public resources.
From SINTRAEMCALI’s fight to save public services for ordinary Colombians, to the ELN campaign against foreign oil companies exploiting resources that previously belonged to the Colombian people, the struggle is part of resistance to a wider phenomenon generally known as globalisation. Whereas the multinational expect little resistance in other parts of the world, in Colombia they find themselves immersed in a long term and popular armed struggle for social justice. However the geo-strategic (new inter-oceanic canal and completed Panamerican Highway) and mineral (oil, coal and gold among others) importance of Colombia is too great a prize for the multinationals to ignore. Hence Plan Colombia.
Privatisation of the War
It was left to General Sir Michael Rose to reveal the truth about Plan Colombia. While his fellow speakers were careful to stick to the counter narcotics line, General Rose spoke openly about counter insurgency. Rose now works as a consultant for Defence Systems Ltd, a private mercenary firm operating in many of the world’s war zones and trouble spots (particularly mineral rich ones like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Indonesia and Kazakhstan) and with offices in Bogotá. They also have a permanent private sector planning team in the Ministry of Defence, and boast of being the largest supplier of contract military personnel to the UN. While wars have generally had sinister economic motivations, the privatisation of the military is a particular worry when you consider DSL’s two biggest clients in Colombia- BP and Bechtel Corp. (oil pipeline construction and US govt contract for military aircraft maintenance). Both of these companies were very vocal in lobbying Congress for funds for Plan Colombia.
Perhaps even more worrying was what Rose had to say. Drawing on his own experience of counter insurgency wars in Malaya, Oman and Northern Ireland, he suggested that the government set up local militias under the control of the security forces. "This", he said "was essential in any counter insurgency operation." While stopping short of advocating the incorporation of existing paramilitary forces into the army, he ignored the fact that the AUC started life as legal state sanctioned private armies- known as CONVIVIR, who were set up largely by major drug traffickers and land owners to protect their assets from the guerrilla and a wave of land invasions by landless campesinos. It is these very groups that Rose wants re-legalised that are now responsible for 80% (UN figures) of human rights violations in Colombia, and the massacres and forced displacement of thousands of innocent civilians. It is worth adding that DSL have been heavily involved in the training of CONVIVIR and paramilitary forces.
He continued by advocating the adoption of emergency powers to excuse human rights violations resulting from the conflict, and by urging the Colombian government to step up its propaganda war. He accused the media and NGOs of mis-informing and dis-informing public opinion about Plan Colombia and the Colombian armed forces. "If people believe the propaganda they hear about the Colombian army, foreign inward investment will not be forthcoming," he stated. Rose also went one step further by suggesting that international NGOs opposed to Plan Colombia, have become part of the guerrilla propaganda machine. This is a topic that paramilitary leader Carlos Castano also regularly refers to. The wider theme of the management of information relating to the war in Colombia, is one that President Bush has been acting upon recently, with foreign policy appointments of personnel connected with Reagan and Bush Snr’s dirty war and propaganda campaign in Central America. General Rose finished his talk with a call for the EU to match US contributions to Plan Colombia.
It seems then that "Why Colombia? Opportunities behind the Image" was not only a chance to lure foreign companies into the free for all that investment in Colombia has become (the sell off of public services is nothing unique to Colombia, or even the developing world), but a chance to inform investors of how the military, both public and private, will protect these investments from popular opposition. What is of particular worry is the irresponsible and murderous stance of a former NATO commander, bringing his no doubt considerable clout to the ‘for profit’ sector, and advocating an escalation of the state sponsored barbarity that is inflicting itself upon Colombia.