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US Imperialism in Colombia
Colombia has always been and still is the coveted cornerstone of the US's geopolitical control over the entire Latin American region, and at whatever the cost, the US is determined to make Colombia the jewel in its imperial crown.
US Imperialism in Colombia
By Liz Atherton of the CPA
Colombia has always been and still is the coveted cornerstone of the US's geopolitical control over the entire Latin American region, and at whatever the cost, the US is determined to make Colombia the jewel in its imperial crown.
Yet, the success of popular resistance in Colombia over the past 40-50 years has meant that of all the Latin American countries, this one has been the most difficult for the US to sink its imperial teeth into.
Nonetheless, the US has been a recurrent nightmare for the poor people of this developing Andean nation for over a century. It was the bogeyman behind the massacre of thousands of banana workers employed by the US-owned United Fruit Company in the 1920s; the villain behind the corrupt oligarchy’s dirty war and paramilitary strategy against leftist campaigners for peace and social justice since the end of World War II, from the Cold War years of US-created anti-Communist hysteria, to its not-so-subtle transmutation into a war on drugs in the 1980s and 90s, and its even less subtle transformation in the year 2001 into a war on terrorism.
The US was behind the assassination of the popular dissident liberal leader, Eliecer Gaitan in 1948, which was followed by ten years of state terror in which 300,000 people died; behind the killing of 5,000 leaders and militants of the Patriotic Union, including presidential candidates Jaime Pardo and Bernardo Jaramillo, in the wake of the Uribe Peace Accords between the government of President Betancur and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a genocide which has been ongoing since the mid-1980s to the present day; behind the slaying of more than 4,000 trade union leaders and activists since 1985; and behind the brutal killing of hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken campesinos for being the life-blood of a vast popular resistance calling for labour rights, sovereignty, protesting against neoliberal reforms and demanding a fair distribution of the country’s wealth and power among the people.
The voracious and brutal US imperialist drive has been relentless; the dead, wounded, displaced and disappeared have been too numerous to count, yet the resistance has refused to give in and has grown increasingly strong. The undefeated 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are estimated today to be at least 17-20,000-strong; the National Liberation Army (ELN) which emerged in the 1960s has around 4,500 combatants; the growing trade union, campesino, indigenous and women’s organisations regularly take to the streets and march through the countryside in massive mobilisations, orchestrating strikes, road blocks and occupations to demand their rights and resist the economic, political and military repression being used against them and in favour of US interests.
US Involvement in a Programme of State Terror
The US’s mission to silence the internal enemy of US interests in Colombia took a leap forward in the post-World War II period, when the US assumed the role of defender and promoter of capitalism and US power around the world. The National Security Act was brought into being by President Harry Truman in 1947 and with it came the Central Intelligence Agency, created for the purpose of covert psychological warfare to be carried out in such a way that in the event of discovery the US government could disclaim responsibility. The CIA’s covert action charter, included: propaganda, economic warfare, sabotage, subversion and the support and encouragement of anti-Communist elements. This included, among other things, the orchestration of assassinations of leftist presidential candidates whose political goals did not coincide with US interests. There are many examples of such CIA activity around the world, and not least in Colombia.
In 1961, President Kennedy authorised the Foreign Assistance Act which was a way of combining economic intervention to ensure the capitalist orientation of developing countries in favour of the US with security operations in the form of counterinsurgency and packaging it all up as Aid.
The counterinsurgency strategy depended heavily on frequent mass civilian displacements in order to deny the guerrillas their support base and the persistent terrorisation of civilian society in order to prevent any kind of social or community organisation. Washington’s direct involvement in and fuelling of the internal conflict in Colombia was summed up in 1963 by the president of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights, former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alfredo Vasquez Carrizosa. He said: “During the Kennedy administration, Washington took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads. These initiatives ushered in what is known in Latin America as the National Security Doctrine, ...not defence against an external enemy, but a way to make the army masters of the game [with] the right to combat the internal enemy, as set forth in the Brazilian doctrine, the Argentinian doctrine, the Uruguayan doctrine and the Colombian doctrine: it is the right to fight and to exterminate social workers, trade unionists, men and women who are not supportive of the establishment, and who are assumed to be communist extremists”.
A Colombian military manual which dates back to the same year makes the chilling statement: “Every individual who in one way or another supports the goals of the enemy must be considered a traitor and treated in that manner.”
The counterinsurgency strategies in which agents of the Colombian state were being trained at this time and in subsequent years were all laid down in US counterinsurgency manuals and were none other that a step-by-step guide to implementing state terror. US experts in terror tactics taught effective methods of torture which came to be routinely and horrifically practised - extrajudicial executions, disappearances, extortion, coercion and arbitrary imprisonment. Of course, all the training was designed to ensure that the beneficiaries of US training in state terror fully understood the ultimate goal, which was the protection and promotion of US interests.
In 1965, US Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, told National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that the Colombian military and those providing them with instruction must have the right to: “remove government leaders from office, whenever, in the judgement of the military, the conduct of those leaders is injurious to the welfare of the nation”.
In the early 1980s the ‘dirty war’ being waged by the Colombian security forces and their paramilitary allies was accelerated under the Reagan administration as US state terror programmes were extended throughout the country. The School of the Americas, the US’s notorious Latin American military establishment stepped up its training in the implementation of terror. Thousands were tortured, disappeared and murdered for being insufficiently supportive of the establishment and possibly having sympathy with the social and political objectives of the guerrillas.
By 1988 and 1989, Colombian state terror was responsible for 8-11 politically motivated killings a day. Over 3,000 died at the hands of the military and paramilitaries in the first part of 1988 alone, along with 273 killed in social cleansing operations, according to one report. Most of the victims were campesino and trade union leaders, leftist politicians, human rights workers and community leaders. It was during the 1988 presidential elections that the genocide of the leaders and activists of the only independent party, the Patriotic Union, started with a vengeance. The Central Trade Union Federation (CUT), formed in 1986, had already lost over 200 members before it even came into being. According to a manual produced by the School of the Americas, the trade unions were “legal political organisations that serve as fronts” for the guerrillas.
The all-out war against the internal enemy, made official by the Colombian government which called for “maximum criminalisation of the political and social opposition”, appeared perfectly adapted to the United States plan for Colombia, i.e. to get the Colombian state itself to break the back of popular resistance to US imperialist ambitions. The internal enemy included trade unions, popular movements, indigenous and women’s organisation, student groups, academics, neighbourhood and community organisations.
A report published by the State department in 1989, in order to justify a subsidised sale of military equipment for non-specified “anti-narcotics operations”, expressed complete satisfaction with the Colombian system of democracy and human rights record, saying: “Colombia has a democratic form of government and does not exhibit a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognised human rights.” Then, as now, they went to great lengths to attribute all atrocities to narco-traffickers and the guerrillas as a further justification for their provision of arms and training to Colombian state forces. A month after the report was published, George Bush Senior authorised the largest ever shipment of arms to Colombia which went directly to the Colombian army. The indiscriminate bombing of villages and an escalation of atrocities by the army followed shortly after.
The US role in setting up and maintaining the system of terror was clear, and the State department still has to be brought to account for its integral part on this and in other terror regimes in Latin America and throughout the world - all pursued in the name of US interests.
Between 1988 and 1992, it is reported, more than 10,000 people were assassinated for political reasons; more than 1,000 were disappeared and there were in the region of 350 massacres of campesinos. In some of the poorest, yet highly resource rich departments of southern Colombia, including Putumayo, a scorched earth policy was being enacted by military forces involving massacres, the burning of homes, livestock and crops and massive forced displacements.
During this same period and dating back even earlier to 1984, more than 7,000 Colombian soldiers had been trained in counterinsurgency methods by the US.
(Para)-Militarisation of the State
Colombian history has been marked throughout by the use of armed civilian defence armies by the government, powerful landowners and local political leaders. So the country was well versed in the art when, in the 1960s, the US saw the opportunity presented by these irregular civilian militias to push forward their imperialist agenda for Colombia and the rest of Latin America. The covert nature of these armies, which blurred the boundaries between civilian and military, delinquent and state force, fitted perfectly with the Cold War strategy the US had been developing since 1945 to eliminate resistance to its self-interested drive for capitalist control of world markets and world resources. It was a way for both the US and the client state to devolve responsibility for atrocities to unidentifiable renegade actors “outside their control”, so that US and client state could always declare their innocence and their democracy.
As far as the US was concerned, the best candidates for such irregular armies were army reservists, retired army officers with a right-wing disposition and people familiar with local people and customs. This recruitment pattern still applies to this day. These self-defence units were to be armed and trained by the army; they would act as guides, assist in counterinsurgency operations and even fight alongside the regular army.
It was in 1962 that Colombia, the Pentagon and the US State department started to develop Plan Laso (Latin American Security Operation), a counterinsurgency programme aimed eliminating leftist opposition by deepening the ties between the military and civilians and further developing the paramilitary strategy. In this plan, US military personnel and know-how would be used to secretly train selected Colombian civilian and military candidates in counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and to carry out paramilitary, sabotage or terrorist activities against possible communist activists or sympathisers. The civilian self-defence groups, armed and trained by the Colombian military and the US and working alongside them in support of US interests, were central to this programme.
The legalisation of armed civilian defence armies has invariably taken the form of the “State of Siege” or internal unrest. Since the 1960s, Colombia has spent nearly 40 years living under the conditions set out by this emergency legal framework which effectively converts the country into a police state by transferring broad judicial and political powers to the military with no overseeing civilian authorities to keep their activities in check. The State of Siege declared by President Valencia in 1965 during the army’s offensives against the so-called “independent republics” in the departments of Cauca and Tolima enabled him to introduce Decree 3398 which laid the legal foundation for the use of civilian armed groups from this year until 1989. Law 48, passed in 1968, turned Decree 3398 into permanent legislation.
From this period the Colombian military drew heavily on the counterinsurgency guidelines laid down by the US government in the recruitment, training and arming of civilians as part of the Plan Laso operation. They produced a plethora of secret manuals, as opposed to their official public documents, filled with instruction on psychological indoctrination, destructive operations, dressing in civilian clothes and mixing with ordinary people in order to detect possible subversives, masquerading as guerrillas in order to locate their units and also to attribute atrocities to them, and issuing anonymous written threats to terrify people or populations and persuade them to leave an area.
The problem is that while, in theory, they were supposedly targeting known subversives or, in US terms, “communist proponents”, the definition came to include suspected communists or guerrilla supporters, who included any kind of social protester, from trade unionists to human rights activists. In the words of General Luis Carlos Camacho Leyva, defence minister from 1978-1982, social protest was “the unarmed branch of subversion”.
In 1981, against the background of the so-named “Security Statute” imposed by President Julio Cesar Turbay, which allowed the military even more autonomy in matters of what had euphemistically come to be known as “public order”, the Barbula Battalion, based in Puerto Boyaca, Santander, and the town’s mayor, Captain Oscar de Jesus Echandia, were forming the prototype of today’s paramilitary groups, which they named MAS, based on a similar model developed by drugs traffickers.
Interestingly enough, present at a meeting to discuss the goals of this new armed group, were local political leaders, businessmen, ranchers and representatives of the Texas Petroleum Company, who were all going to support both politically and financially the training and arming of civilians by the security forces to pursue and kill so-called subversives.
The MAS idea was adopted by the Bombona battalion in Puerto Berrio, whose trainees included the Castano brothers, Fidel and Carlos. A few years later, after the death of their father at the hands of the FARC, they formed the Autodefensas Campesinas de Cordoba y Uraba (ACCU) - the Peasant Self Defence Groups of Cordoba and Uraba. Their organisation grew wealthy and strong in Antioquia, Cordoba, Magdalena Medio and Meta with the help of local land bosses, political leaders and drugs traffickers.
By 1983, the high number of killings being attributed to the MAS could not be ignored any longer and an investigation was launched under the government of President Belisario Betancur into abuses by members of the security forces who were accused of taking on civilian guides and informers and turning them into hired killers to carry out the work they could not do officially. Nearly 200 from two battalions were found to have been involved in these activities with MAS, but under the security conditions operating in the country the case had to be passed to a military court which dropped all charges.
A report was sent to the US but to no effect. In fact, one of the commanders mentioned in the original investigation, Colonel Ramon Emilio Gil Bermudez, had completed a training course in Washington in “combined strategic intelligence” in the early 1980s. He was accused of creating, directing and protecting MAS and of personally ordering the murders of suspected guerrilla supporters. Yet his then new post of military attaché to the Colombian embassy in Washington was never affected. He even received a promotion and, on his retirement, military honours.
By 1988, worrying reports about the ties that bound paramilitary groups, the military and now drugs cartels were appearing by the day. That year, the Centre for Investigation and Popular Education recorded 108 massacres, more than in any year that decade, and in many cases the organisation of a massacre could be traced back to the armed forces. The situation was becoming uncomfortable for the Colombian government and the US as international attention started to focus on the human rights record of the Colombian military and the paramilitary strategy that had been enacted at state level.
The government of President Virgilio Barco, in 1989, took steps to reverse the legislation that made the organisation of armed civilian defence groups by the armed forces legal. He introduced the dubious Decree 815 which said that only the president had authority to create “self-defence” groups, and then only with the approval of the Ministry of the Interior.
Almost 30 years had passed since the US had begun its covert paramilitarisation of Colombia in an effort to break the resistance to its geopolitical ambitions in the region. Many thousands had been tortured, killed and had their lives torn apart by a military and paramilitary army trained in US counterinsurgency tactics. Civilian self defence groups had taken on a life and dynamic of their own and their relationship with the US and Colombian security forces was bound by blood. It was against this background that George Bush Snr authorised his huge arms shipment to the Colombian military and attempted to present a clean bill of health both in human rights and democracy to Congress. Of course, making paramilitaries illegal was a great help, because it enabled all responsibility for atrocities to be deflected away from the army and the state. Yet, paramilitaries would continue to be used more and more as a result. Unfortunately, making them illegal only ensured their further proliferation and by the end of the decade Colombia had more paramilitaries than ever. It was about this time that the paramilitary strategy took a new turn and became the keystone of the dirty war programme.
In spite of all the pressure, the resistance had not been quelled. It had grown. Now it was time for the US to get heavy.
Neoliberal Destructuring of the Economy
It was only in the early 1990s, with the disastrous government of Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, that Colombia became the most recent Latin American state to finally fall prey to US-propelled neoliberal restructuring based on imperialist economic policies designed to drive home US control of Colombia’s labour force, natural resources, environment and governmental institutions.
Its effects were devastating.
To all intents and purposes, neoliberalism was invented as a weapon of mass destruction to beat the fighting spirit out of popular and social movements opposing the US imperialist agenda, by plunging the life-force of the resistance, the people, into such poverty and despair that they would give up the fight and succumb to a New World Order subservient to US interests.
Of course, when it came to imposing these policies, the more corrupt the client government, the weaker the president, the more prone to dirty-war tactics, the better, as far as the US was concerned. In a country so well tuned in the art of resistance, yet with a traditional power structure so deeply rooted in the practice of rule by terror, ultra-heavy-arm tactics were the obvious State answer to pushing through these people-toxic reforms. The US was rubbing its hands with glee.
Brought to the brink of economic collapse, a familiar pattern across the continent prior to restructuring, President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo (1990-1994), a favourite of Washington, was easily convinced by the US, the IMF and the World Bank that only by abandoning the country’s economic sovereignty and giving in to neoliberal reforms based on free-market liberalism would the country be saved from disaster.
In his election he promised prosperity, but what the majority of the people got was quite different. The decade that followed saw the gap between rich and poor get wider and wider, between the few who benefited from privatisation and free markets and the majority who certainly did not.
In 1990, the richest 10 per cent of Colombians earned 40 times more than the poorest 10 per cent. By the year 2001, this had risen to 60 times more. The aggressive and repressive neoliberal policies instituted by President Cesar Gaviria may, or so it was promoted, have been to prevent economic collapse, but they sadly saw another 20 million people slide silently into the bottomless abyss of poverty. It is estimated that today an average of 65 per cent of Colombians live in conditions of extreme poverty (this figure rises to well over 80 per cent if you look only at rural areas), while at least 25 per cent live in conditions of absolute poverty in which they cannot meet their basic nutritional requirements. As many as 10 million of the country’s 44 million people are unemployed or underemployed.
Alongside this economic assault was a military one. Gaviria spoke of wanting peace in his election campaign, but once in office, his real intentions became clear. In the first two years of his presidency, violence and human rights atrocities by the army and their now “illegal” paramilitary allies reached unprecedented levels. The country developed the largest US training programme for Colombian officers in the hemisphere and US military aid increased to as much as half the total for the entire hemisphere. Within weeks of assuming power, the Gaviria administration had launched a series of military assaults on areas strong in FARC influence and a huge operation against Casa Verde, the headquarters of the FARC general command. Many saw these enormous US-backed military operations as an attempt by the government to intimidate the popular resistance, show how strong the army was, and demonstrate its “zero tolerance” for those in opposition to neoliberal reforms.
As far as the US was concerned, the massive economic and military offensive, tantamount to an undeclared war, had one purpose. When conditions were finally favourable the IMF moved in for the kill, imposing its customary austerity measures to favour multinational corporations, including privatisations, huge reductions in trade tariffs, massive redundancies, public spending cuts, reductions in already minimal labour rights, and negligible environmental controls. Job insecurity, low wages, minimal and ineffective legislation to protect workers from abusive practices and unacceptable working conditions, arbitrary dismissals, and the violent repression of strikes, became “normalised” as the country hurtled along the fast track to free trade deals tailored to Third World conditions. With its domestic industry in tatters, its ecology threatened and its workforce exploited, the scene was soon set for Colombia to become just another Southern export processing nation run by foreign (mostly US) multinationals for the supply of luxury goods, oil and minerals to the rich nations of the North, with people kept quiet by a paramilitarised security force and the carrot-and-stick deception that eventually neoliberalism would improve their lives.
And yet still the resistance fought back. The more people were made to feel that they had their backs against the wall, the greater the ranks of the guerrilla movements became. Things were not going entirely the way the US wanted. Resistance was a major obstacle to their imperialist plans, whether it came from armed freedom fighters or from striking trade unionists.
The greatest offensive was still to come.
By the time Plan Colombia came along in 1999, the justification for US imperialist intervention in Colombia had evolved from Kennedy’s counterinsurgency formula to combat the “internal enemy” based on the supposed threat of international communism, to Clinton’s counterinsurgency programme hyped as a plan to vanquish the threat of international drugs trafficking. Both were built on the principle of increased military intervention in order to achieve strategic regional political, economic and military domination and silence the voices crying out for peace, sovereignty, social justice and an alternative to neoliberal economic structures.
Colombia had already become the world’s third largest recipient of military aid from the United States after Israel and Egypt. Plan Colombia initially added a further $1.3 billion of aid from the US to the Colombian security forces, in addition to the $150 million it gives annually, in the form of military equipment, training and logistical support. In this respect, it was simply a continuation of a history of US involvement in Colombia, but on a vastly escalated scale, due to the increased strength and presence of the popular resistance, which, despite the best US efforts had refused to be silenced, and regional threats that needed to be controlled.
The White House described Plan Colombia as a multifaceted strategy to “curb drug trafficking in the jungles and cities of Colombia”. However, as the Plan unfolded it became clear that there was much more to it than that.
The US had been viciously fumigating drugs cultivations throughout the Latin continent for more than two decades. Rather than reduce production, the practice of fumigating simply forced the constant migration of production between countries until it finally settled in Colombia. And it was done in the full knowledge that wherever these crops were being grown it was by people forced to do so by US imperialist assaults on their national economies whereby flooding the country with cheap food imports destroyed the domestic market for legitimate home-grown products while high cross-border trade tariffs, protectionist subsidies and harsh customs regulations prevented them selling their goods at a competitive price on the international market. Rural people left with no livelihood turned to the one thing they could sell, which was coca and poppy. It was the only way to ensure their survival. In spite of the constant attacks with highly toxic chemicals, production increased in direct proportion to increases in poverty, powerlessness and exclusion from both domestic and global trade. But then, to imagine that fumigations were done in order to decrease production would be naive. They were done with the intention of causing a great deal of harm to the people and ecology of fumigated areas, creating massive displacements and destabilising rural areas, because these distressed regions were the support base of the popular resistance.
At the same time, the US had shown a very little aversion to working with known drugs traffickers when it served US interests, the Nicaraguan contras being the first to come to mind. So a sudden new “war on drugs” was asking for a massive suspension of disbelief.
With the change in the dynamics of world power in the early 1990s, the US was forced to modernise its national security strategy by repackaging it in terms of the issues that currently concerned people. At home a growing drug dealer/user problem was becoming a key electoral factor and the government had to be seen to be doing something to tackle it. So the State department came up with the concept of the narcoguerrilla and tried to attach the blame for the drug problem in the US on the popular resistance in Colombia. The aim was to whip up public support at home for a war on the alleged suppliers of the drugs that were killing US children. So the guerrillas became “narcoguerrillas” and the war was against them as it always had been. They couldn’t realistically accuse all the other groups that echoed this resistance of drugs trafficking - the trade unions, the human rights groups, the indigenous movements and so on - but the war continued to be against them too, because it was, as it always had been, a war against the voices of opposition to US imperialism in Colombia.
The tenuous links the US and Colombian government built upon were that the FARC controlled a large proportion of the poor southern departments of Colombia where impoverished campesinos had no choice but to grow coca. The FARC recognised the absence of any alternative and supported the campesinos, although the guerrilla movement was also clear about its support for manually eradicating coca cultivations and growing legitimate crops instead if market conditions were corrected in favour of Colombian rural communities. The FARC also taxed businesses in their areas with profits of more than one million dollars a year and some of these happened to include large drugs plantations.
However, when it came to concrete proof that the FARC was an organisation of hardened drugs traffickers, there was very little of it and an abundance of stories put out by the State department smacked of fabrication. The real drugs traffickers, as most people knew, were the traditional cartels and the paramilitaries, with a large number of state actors from the security forces, the government and the country’s economic elite also involved at different levels. The paramilitaries, by their own admission, got the bulk of their funding from drugs trafficking.
When it became clear that Plan Colombia was little more than a vast military operation concentrated in areas under guerrilla control, with hugely intensified chemical fumigations of both illicit and licit crops in these areas, which totally ignored paramilitary-controlled regions in the north of the country where they ran enormous industrial coca plantations and cocaine processing plants, the fact that it was a glorified continuation of US counterinsurgency which still maintained a deep allegiance to the paramilitary strategy could not escape even the most disinterested observer.
The introduction of the Plan coincided with the start of a new peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and subsequently with the National Liberation Army (ELN). But from the beginning, astute analysts worked out that these were nothing other than a ploy to gain time for the military build-up scheduled by the Plan. The Colombian army had suffered some severe losses and it was clear that they were in no position to beat the guerrillas.
So, while the then President Pastrana talked of peace and won the election on the promise of opening negotiations with the guerrillas, in the background massive social destabilisation was being enacted with US support, in the form of fumigations and increased state terror, and US money was being ploughed into the Colombian security forces to build up their numbers, train them in the most depraved techniques of counterinsurgency and improve their military hardware. Pastrana claimed to be a leader with a peace mandate, but war was his trump card. During his period of office, paramilitaries almost doubled their numbers, politically motivated killings increased to an estimated 10,000 a year, massacres took place on an unprecedented scale and with unimaginable barbarity, with one massacre alone claiming more than 140 campesino victims, brutalised and hacked to death in Alto Naya, Valle del Cauca, in April 2001, by paramilitaries supported by the armed forces. And the number of people displaced in paramilitary/army terror operations increased to two-and-a half million.
After three years of negotiation, Pastrana unilaterally terminated the peace process on 20 February 2002 on arbitrary grounds and under a great deal of pressure from the US. The bottom line was that the Colombian government would never accept the social, economic and political changes the FARC were demanding. They went against US imperialist plans. Besides, the US had set its military machine in place and now wanted all-out war.
Twice President Clinton effectively waived the human rights stipulations laid down in Plan Colombia concerning the allocation of military aid to the Colombian armed forces, just as Bush had done before him. After all the torture, killings, disappearances, the brutalisation of people, the displacements and the destruction of livelihoods were all part of the grand imperial recipe to annihilate the resistance to a total US capitalist take-over by US financial institutions and multinationals.
All areas of resistance to the neoliberal measures laid down by the US were increasingly under attack by US-sponsored state forces and their paramilitary allies.
Colombia’s oil workers’ unions are sworn enemies of neoliberal technocrats because of their resistance to the privatisation of the country’s state oil company, Ecopetrol. They have been under attack for the past 15 years, but from late 2000, the aggression against them has been stepped up. Paramilitaries have savagely invaded oil-rich areas of the country where union activity is strong, such as Casanare, Putumayo and Barrancabermeja, traditionally a centre of leftist social activism and home to the country’s main oil workers’ union, the Union Sindical Obrera (USO), and, assisted by the army, have intensified their campaign of murdering union activists. In many cases, the involvement of US and other foreign multinational oil companies has been evident. When Alvaro Remolina, member of the CUT, tried to call attention to the working practices of Texaco and Occidental, his brother and a friend were “disappeared” and another brother, a sister-in-law and a nephew were assassinated. Paramilitaries have reportedly received more than $2 million from the oil industry to crush worker resistance.
All unions that voice their opposition to the sale of national assets and utilities to foreign, mostly US, multinationals are relentlessly attacked.
However, as well as being a declaration of war against popular resistance, there is another reason for Plan Colombia being such a vast escalation of former US counterinsurgency intervention. And that is a regional one.
Andean Regional Initiative
While the popular resistance in Colombia is a major thorn in the sides of the Colombian state and the US state department, with growing guerrilla numbers and general strikes organised by the trade unions which shake the very foundations of US imperial power, regional developments which are challenging US hegemony have become an increasingly pressing concern.
The regional threat is on several fronts:
The successes of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, his Bolivarian appeal to the popular consciousness, his winning of several elections, reformation of state institutions, diplomatic and commercial links with Cuba and a foreign policy which nationalised the oil industry and raised oil prices in order to benefit domestic oil workers. President Chavez has been openly critical of Plan Colombia and has refused to allow the US and Colombian military to fly in Venezuelan air space, thus hampering their counterinsurgency war. A recent failed coup attempt orchestrated by the US government shows just how uncomfortable they feel about the Chavez influence.
The growing indigenous and trade union movements in Ecuador, with their powerful mobilisations against neoliberal reforms, the dollarisation of their economy, the privatisation of public utilities and against the militarisation of the Ecuador-Colombia border are a serious danger to the US plan to maintain a military base at Manta from which to conduct its counterinsurgency operations against the Colombian popular movement as well as to their ultimate control of the Andean region.
In Brazil, a series of electoral successes in municipal elections by the left Workers Party recently saw their candidate win the presidential elections with a swathe of popular support, while the Landless Peasants Movement had been continuing to organise and mobilise in the face of terrifying state repression. It seems more than likely that the US will no longer have a compliant client regime there to serve US interests at the expense of its own people, and US unease is sure to translate into support for traditional right-wing elements to sabotage Lula’s efforts to implement reforms that benefit the country’s poor majority.
Growing peasant and urban mobilisations in Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay are an additional and increasing threat to US economic domination of the region.
When the Clinton administration drew up Plan Colombia it was well aware of the growing influence of these changing regional dynamics that were totally incompatible with its imperialist agenda, and by the time George Bush Jnr took office as president, an extension of Plan Colombia called the Andean Regional Initiative was ready to be launched. By sharing out $800 million between those states the US still felt it could still manipulate, which did not include Venezuela because the US wanted this country isolated, and conducting a huge diplomacy effort, the US wanted to win the support of the regional governments for Plan Colombia, persuade them that the war effort was also for their own regional security, get them to provide troops and strategic military space and accept US support in the repression of their own movements of popular resistance.
George Bush Jnr, Uribe Velez and the War on Terrorism
When George Bush Jnr came to power with just a fraction of the country’s votes, in keeping with many current so-called democracies, he embraced the US empire building programme as if he had been sent a mission from God and the events on 11 September gave him the perfect framework for the job.
The word “terrorist” had been used erratically up to that point, but after 11 September it became the vehicle to drive the next US offensive in its imperialist take over of Colombia. The notion of the “war on terrorism” was consolidated and, more importantly, it had instant national and international public support. As the propaganda machine started whirring, nations and people were made to feel genuinely fearful for their security.
It was perfect. While not everyone could justifiably be called a drugs trafficker or even a communist, anyone and everyone could be labelled a terrorist. George Bush Jnr was quick to provide the parameters for the US definition - “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. Therefore, as before, anyone in resistance to the US-imposed neoliberal agenda, demonstrating trade unionists, students, campesinos, women, indigenous people, freedom fighters, fell neatly into the “terrorist” bag as far as George Bush Jnr was concerned.
The war on the popular resistance to US imperialism was the same as always, but this dangerous new distortion of the truth and the nature of the conflict in Colombia, while at the same time using the 11 September attacks to emotionally manipulate the responses of other governments in the world in favour of US actions, had the desired effect of silencing important sympathies with Colombians in struggle that had been built up during the doomed peace processes with the guerrillas.
With the Colombian presidential elections looming, the US administration put its wholehearted support behind a man who would be certain to back the US “war on terrorism” in Colombia. Alvaro Uribe Velez, won the race to be president in May 2002 and was sworn in on 7 August. Like George Bush Jnr he was voted into power by fewer than 25 per cent of eligible voters, with thousands of voters disenfranchised by Uribe’s paramilitary supporters. But that didn’t matter. Even 25 per cent passes for democracy these days. The important thing was that this man had the perfect credentials to implement state terror and, at the same time, push home a punishing neoliberal agenda, which involved IMF-imposed privatisations, reducing workers’ rights, wages and security and giving greater benefits in terms of labour flexibilisation to the employers. And that is all the US wanted. Just to show Uribe how much faith they had in him, the US sent more than $80 million in military aid in July this year as part of their counter-terrorism package.
Known by many as the paramilitary president, Uribe had been integral to the formation of armed civilian self-defence groups when he was governor of Antioquia from 1995-1997. This period in recent Colombian history saw the expansion of paramilitarism on a massive scale. Uribe promoted the idea of these informer networks as something very positive for the community. Naming them the “Convivir”, he promised they would bring peace and well being by co-operating closely with the security forces and that they would only have arms capable of self-defence. What emerged was something quite different and they came to be seen as the legal face of paramilitarism.
Armed with a range of sophisticated weaponry, wherever they appeared, murders, massacres, disappearances, threats, displacements and social cleansing operations increased dramatically.
Uribe also had a history of notorious connections to major drugs cartels, so it was little wonder, with his track record, that he became the darling of the US State department, better equipped than anyone to continue the long tradition of US-imposed terror against popular resistance to US imperial hegemony.
Once president, he was not slow to live up to his promise and his proposed million-strong network of civilian informers, paid and armed by the government to work closely with the security forces, is already being constructed. An 800-strong informer network has been set up in Cesar. Others have been established in Uraba and Magdalena. To all intents and purposes, this new informer network is a vastly enhanced version of his first experiment in Antioquia - the paramilitary strategy taken to terrifying new heights. With Uribe’s past associations, the support he gets from the paramilitaries, and the trends he is setting in the country, people are predicting the legalisation and politicisation of paramilitarism on an unprecedented scale.
Their predictions are proving to be accurate. In the recent elections at the Central Trade Union Federation (CUT), several known paramilitaries took senior executive positions, including Boris Montes de Oca Anaya, who has been made General Secretary.
Uribe was quick to take the country back to the days of states of siege and national security doctrines by imposing severe security measures on the country. This work had been started previously by the outgoing President Pastrana who had established Theatres of Military Operation in a number of regions under the Law for Defence and National Security passed on 13 August 2001. Although the law was subsequently declared unconstitutional, the military in the affected areas have continued since to enjoy supremacy over civil judicial authorities and have been answerable to no one except themselves.
By imposing a state of emergency and passing Decree 2002, Uribe was able to give enormous new political and judicial powers to the security forces and total authority over civil bodies. They were powers designed to curtail people’s fundamental and constitutional rights and freedoms, to intimidate and to frighten. They included the power to detain on the mere suspicion of supporting the guerrillas, without evidence and without legal counsel, break into and search people’s homes without a warrant, control people’s movement by restricting it or by forcibly displacing them in the interests of “national security”. Under the new security legislation, certain strategic areas are also being designated zones of “rehabilitation and consolidation”, an unsettling title which suggests the rehabilitation or breaking of people in resistance and the consolidation the US-imposed neoliberal agenda in those areas where opposition to it is deemed to be strongest. In effect, it means the military in these regions can declare martial law, can restrict freedom of circulation and movement, impose curfews, set up registers of the local population and detain people with no papers. Foreign nationals and organisations wanting to enter these zones will need special permits. If they get in they will see only what the military wants them to see. The dirty war with its paramilitary strategy, while kept hidden from international attention, will have full official and legal approval and total impunity for those employed to carry it out.
One area which has been declared a “rehabilitation and consolidation” zone is the oil-rich department of Arauca on the Venezuelan border. The military leader in command is General Carlos Lemus Pedraza, accused by human rights groups of having has close ties with the paramilitary death squads working with the army in the region.
Part of the $80 million in military aid sent to Colombia in July 2002 was destined to be used to protect US oil interests, and one of the most important pipelines owned by a US oil conglomerate runs through Arauca. According to a recent report in The Telegraph, US special forces are working in Arauca, training soldiers in helicopter-born operations, night fighting and intelligence work. It also appears that an unknown number of mercenaries hired by the Pentagon and by US oil companies such as Occidental Petroleum are busy in various parts of Colombia protecting the pipelines of US oil conglomerates along with the huge profits they make siphoning off Colombian oil for the sole benefit of North Americans.
US Intervention and Popular Resistance
Escalating direct intervention by the US is on the cards as Washington becomes ever more fearful of losing its imperial domination of Colombia and the Andean region as a whole. But increasing interference by the US in the social and armed conflict in Colombia, particularly when this interference is guided by self-interested motives and not with any intention of really solving the problems of the Colombian people, is leading to unparalleled levels of resistance by the people and repression, intimidation and terror by the state.
In September, just six weeks after Uribe was sworn in, there was a massive nation-wide mobilisation of trade unionists, campesinos and students who marched to protest about the government's economic policies, while serious fighting has broken out in marginalised districts of Medellin between guerrilla militias and the urban poor on one side and the army and paramilitaries on the other.
State terror by the army and paramilitaries is taking its deadly toll, especially in rural areas, where arbitrary detentions, massacres, assassinations, disappearances and torture are being practised widely and with impunity. The true extent of the human rights violations and atrocities is not known. A lid has been put on the media and only a fraction of the information is leaking out.
The dirty war instigated by the US in the post-World War II period to consolidate its economic, political, cultural and military hegemony and advance its capitalist empire in Colombia has been a long, drawn-out and deadly affair, and it is far from over. With every escalation of US intervention the resistance, both armed and of the masses, has grown increasingly strong and confident. And with resistance movements in other countries in the region becoming ever more powerful, a pressured US may well be at its most dangerous yet.
Keen to push forward the consolidation of its neoliberal transformation of Colombia in the form of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA), scheduled for 2005, the US is keen to rapidly quell the rising tide of popular resistance. But how does it do that without forcing everyone in opposition to have a frontal lobotomy, or continue killing until there’s no one left to work in the export processing plants or grow flowers for North American kitchens at the expense of food for Colombian people? The vast majority of people have suffered immensely under neoliberalism and the US imperialist drive, domestic industry and the Colombian economy have collapsed, society is in tatters, but all that matter to the US are the super-profits generated by a free market dominated by US banks and multinationals.
Already we have seen the start of direct US intervention in parts of Colombia and heard US demands for immunity for US troops accused of human rights abuses.
A war is certainly imminent. The US will say it is a “war on terrorism” - against the guerrillas. A war to protect regional stability.
But let’s make no mistake. The war that is and the war that will be is against all forms of popular resistance to US imperialism in Colombia, to neoliberalism and to ALCA, as well as to their agents in the Colombian state.
Let’s also make no mistake - the popular resistance in Colombia, both armed and unarmed, will never submit to the neoliberal agenda being imposed on them, will never stop fighting for national sovereignty and freedom from US intervention and will never give up the struggle for peace with social justice for all Colombians.
US imperialism will never win the final battle.