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New Military Base in Colombia Would Spread Pentagon Reach Throughout Latin America May 30, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Foreign Policy, Latin America.
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Written by John Lindsay-Poland  www.upsidedownworld.org  
Friday, 29 May 2009
Source: Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)

The Pentagon budget submitted to Congress on May 7 includes $46 million for development of a new U.S. military base in Palanquero, Colombia.

The official justification states that the Defense Department seeks “an array of access arrangements for contingency operations, logistics, and training in Central/South America.”

The military facility in Colombia will give the United States military increased capacity for intervention throughout most of Latin America. The plan is being advanced amid tense relations between Washington and Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and despite both a long history and recent revelations about the Colombian military’s atrocious human rights record.

President Obama told hemispheric leaders last month that “if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction—if our only interaction is military—then we may not be developing the connections that can over time increase our influence and have a beneficial effect.”1

In this Obama is on point. This base would feed a failed drug policy, support an abusive army, and reinforce a tragic history of U.S. military intervention in the region. It’s wrong and wasteful, and Congress should scrap it.

The new facility in Palanquero, Colombia would not be limited to counter-narcotics operations, nor even to operations in the Andean region, according to an Air Mobility Command (AMC) planning document. The U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) aims to establish a base with “air mobility reach on the South American continent” in addition to a capacity for counter-narcotics operations, through the year 2025.2

With help from the Transportation Command and AMC, the SouthCom noted that “nearly half of the continent can be covered by a C-17 without refueling” from Palanquero. If fuel is available at its destination, “a C-17 could cover the entire continent, with the exception of the Cape Horn region,” the AMC planners wrote.3

A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Bogota said that negotiations are not yet concluded for the base.

The SouthCom is also pursuing access to a site in French Guiana that would permit military aircraft to reach sites in Africa, via the Ascension Islands, according to AMC.4 SouthCom apparently sought use of facilities in Recife, Brazil for the same purpose, but “the political relationship with Brazil is not conducive to the necessary agreements,” AMC wrote.

The lease for the U.S. “Forward Operating Location” in Manta, Ecuador expires in November 2009, and Ecuador notified Washington last year that it would not renew the lease. The facility in Manta was authorized to conduct only counter-drug operations. Yet, according to military spokesmen, drug traffic in the Pacific—where aircraft from Manta patrolled—has increased in recent years.5 U.S. forces in Manta also carried out operations to arrest undocumented Ecuadorans on boats in Ecuadoran waters. But public documentation of U.S. operations conducted from Manta does not indicate use of C-17 cargo aircraft, so their use in Palanquero apparently would represent an expanded U.S. military capacity in the region.

The “mission creep” in the proposal for continent-wide operations from Colombia is also evident in President Obama’s foreign aid request for Colombia. While the budget request for $508 million tacitly recognizes the failure of Plan Colombia drug policy by cutting funds for fumigation of coca crops, the White House is asking for an increase in counterinsurgency equipment and training to the Colombian Army.6

Colombian and U.S. human rights and political leaders have objected to continued funding of the Colombian army,7 especially after revelations that the army reportedly murdered more than 1,000 civilians and alleged they were guerrillas killed in combat, in order to increase their body count.8 The Palanquero base itself, which houses a Colombian Air Force unit, was banned from receiving U.S. aid for five years because of its role in a 1998 attack that killed 17 civilians, including six children, from the effects of U.S.-made cluster bombs.9 The United States resumed aid to the unit last year.

Colombian Defense Ministry sources said that Colombia was attempting to obtain increases in U.S. military aid as part of the base negotiations.10 Palanquero offers the U.S. military a sophisticated infrastructure—a 10,000-foot runway, hangars that hold more than 100 aircraft, housing for more than 2,000 men, restaurants, casinos, supermarkets, and a radar system installed by the United States itself in the 1990s.11

Colombian activists also point out that a new base at Palanquero would reinforce the existing U.S. military presence at other bases in Colombia, such as Tres Esquinas and Tolemaida. “The militarization of Palanquero is an obstacle to effective and visionary peace initiatives such as those promoted by communities throughout the country, as well as to the humanitarian exchanges developed by Colombians for Peace,” says Danilo Rueda of the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace.12

“Colombian military bases where there are foreign—especially U.S.—soldiers, provide tangible evidence that in this country there is neither sovereignty, nor autonomy, nor independence,” says the Medellín Youth Network. The Palanquero base, the Youth Network says, “is the political lobby, is the payment and the legal lie so that the armed conflict generated by social inequality may be turned over to others.”13

U.S. law caps the number of uniformed U.S. soldiers operating in Colombia at 800, and the number of contractors at 600. Until last year, a significant number of them were intelligence personnel assigned to the effort to rescue three U.S. military contractors kidnapped by the leftist FARC guerrillas. With the rescue last year of the three contractors, many U.S. intelligence staff left Colombia, leaving space for soldiers to run operations in the prospective new U.S. base or bases.

Former defense minister and presidential candidate Rafael Pardo opposes the base. “That the Colombian government asks for a U.S. base now would be a serious error,” he says.14

Replacing one military base that was set up for the failed drug war with another base to intervene in South America and to support the abusive Colombian army would be a serious error for the United States as well.

End Notes

  1. CNN, “Obama: Summit of the Americas ‘productive’,” 19 April, 2009, at: http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/04/19/obama.latin.america/.
  2. “White Paper, Air Mobility Command, Global En Route Strategy,” p. 22, preparatory document for Air Force Symposium 2009—AFRICOM, at http://www.au.af.mil/awc/africom/documents/GlobalEnRouteStrategy.pdf.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Global En Route Strategy,” p. 22.
  5. Chris Kraul, “Cocaine Culture Creeps into Ecuador,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2007, http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/05/world/fg-ecuadrugs5.
  6. Adam Isacson, “First Peek at the Obama Administration’s 2010 Aid Request,” 7 May 2009, http://www.cipcol.org/?p=848; see also: http://www.state.gov/f/releases/iab/fy2010/index.htm.
  7. In February 46 national and regional U.S. organizations urged Obama to terminate military aid to Colombia, while a letter from more than a hundred Colombian leaders urged a reformulation of policy, putting promotion of a negotiated end to the armed conflict at its center. See http://www.forcolombia.org/monthlyupdate/march2009#president.
  8. Nadja Drost, “In Colombia, Suspicious Deaths,” Global Post, 11 May 2009, at: http://www.globalpost.com/print/1280781. See also “426 militares han sido detenidos por ejecuciones extrajudiciales,” Semana, 11 May 2009, at: http://www.semana.com/noticias-justicia/426-militares-capturados-falsos-positivos/123701.aspx.
  9. Congregación Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz, “Masacre en Santo Domingo, 13 de diciembre de 1998,” at: http://justiciaypazcolombia.com/Masacre-en-Santo-Domingo-Arauca.
  10. “Con traslado de base de Manta,” El Tiempo, 18 April 2009, at: http://www.eltiempo.com/colombia/justicia/con-traslado-de-base-de-manta-eu-tiene-en-la-mira-varias-pistas-del-suroccidente-del-pais_4877714-1.
  11. “De Manta a Palanquero?” Cambio, 2 November 2008, at: http://www.cambio.com.co/portadacambio/779/4234729-pag-2_3.html.
  12. Statement by Danilo Rueda, May 2009, at: http://www.forcolombia.org/rueda.
  13. Statement by Medellín Youth Network, May 2009, at: http://www.forcolombia.org/PalanqueroRed.
  14. “De Manta a Palanquero?”

 

John Lindsay-Poland co-directs the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean, in Oakland, California. He can be reached at johnlp(at)igc(dot)org.

Obama’s Real Plan in Latin America April 30, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Colombia, Cuba, Latin America, Mexico, Venezuela.
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Written by Shamus Cooke   

 

Wednesday, 29 April 2009, www.towardfreedom.com

 

At first glance Obama seems to have softened U.S. policy toward Latin America, especially when compared to his predecessor.  There has been no shortage of editorials praising Obama’s conciliatory approach while comparing it to FDR’s “Good Neighbor” Latin American policy.

It’s important to remember, however, that FDR’s vision of being neighborly meant that the U.S. would merely stop direct military interventions in Latin America, while reserving the right to create and prop up dictators, arm and train unpopular regional militaries, promote economic dominance through free trade and bank loans and conspire with right-wing groups.

And although Obama’s policy towards Latin America has a similar subversive feeling to it, many of FDR’s methods of dominance are closed to him.  Decades of U.S. “good neighbor” policy in Latin America resulted in a continuous string of U.S. backed military coups, broken-debtor economies, and consequently, a hemisphere-wide revolt.

Many of the heads of states that Obama mingled with at the Summit of the Americas came to power because of social movements born out of opposition to U.S. foreign policy.  The utter hatred of U.S. dominance in the region is so intense that any attempt by Obama to reassert U.S. authority would result in a backlash, and Obama knows it.

Bush had to learn this the hard way, when his pathetic attempt to tame the region led to a humiliation at the 2005 Summit, where for the first time Latin American countries defeated yet another U.S. attempt to use the Organization of American States (O.A.S.), as a tool for U.S. foreign policy.

But while Obama humbly discussed hemispheric issues on an “equal footing” with his Latin American counterparts at the recent Summit of Americas, he has subtly signaled that U.S. foreign policy will be business as usual.

The least subtle sign that Obama is toeing the line of previous U.S. governments — both Republican and Democrat — is his stance on Cuba.   Obama has postured as being a progressive when it comes to Cuba by relaxing some travel and financial restrictions, while leaving the much more important issue, the economic embargo, firmly in place.

When it comes to the embargo, the U.S. is completely unpopular and isolated in the hemisphere.  The U.S. two-party system, however, just can’t let the matter go.

The purpose of the embargo is not to pressure Cuba into being more democratic: this lie can be easily refuted by the numerous dictators the U.S. has supported in the hemisphere, not to mention dictators the U.S. is currently propping up all over the Middle East and elsewhere.

The real purpose behind the embargo is what Cuba represents. To the entire hemisphere, Cuba remains a solid source of pride.  Defeating the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion while remaining fiercely independent in a region dominated by U.S. corporations and past government interventions has made Cuba an inspiration to millions of Latin Americans.  This profound break from U.S. dominance — in its “own backyard” no less — is not so easily forgiven.

There is also a deeper reason for not removing the embargo.  The foundation of the Cuban economy is arranged in such a way that it threatens the most basic philosophic principle shared by the two-party system: the market economy (capitalism).

And although the “fight against communism” may seem like a dusty relic from the cold war era, the current crisis of world capitalism is again posing the question:  is there another way to organize society?

Even with Cuba’s immense lack of resources and technology (further aggravated by the U.S. embargo), the achievements made in healthcare, education, and other fields are enough to convince many in the region that there are aspects of the Cuban economy — most notably the concept of producing to meet the needs of all Cubans and NOT for private profit — worth repeating.

Hugo Chavez has been the Latin American leader most inspired by the Cuban economy.  Chavez has made important steps toward breaking from the capitalist economic model and has insisted that socialism is “the way forward” — and much of the hemisphere agrees.

This is the sole reason that Obama continues the Bush-era hostility towards Chavez.  Obama, it is true, has been less blunt about his feelings towards Chavez, though he has publicly stated that Chavez “exports terrorism” and is an “obstacle to progress.”  Both accusations are, at best, petty lies.  Chavez drew the correct conclusion of the comments by saying:

“He [Obama] said I’m an obstacle for progress in Latin America; therefore, it must be removed, this obstacle, right?”

It’s important to point out that, while Obama was “listening and learning” at the Summit of Americas, the man he appointed to coordinate the summit, Jeffrey Davidow, was busily spewing anti-Venezuelan venom in the media.

This disinformation is necessary because of the “threat” that Chavez represents.  The threat here is against U.S. corporations in Venezuela, who feel, correctly, that they are in danger of being taken over by the Venezuelan government, to be used for social needs in the country instead of private profit.  Obama, like his predecessor, believes that such an act would be against “U.S. strategic interests,” thus linking the private profit of mega-corporations acting in a foreign country to the general interests of the United States.

In fact, this belief that the U.S. government must protect and promote U.S. corporations acting abroad is the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, not only in Latin America, but the world.

Prior to the revolutionary upsurges that shook off U.S. puppet governments in the region, Latin America was used exclusively by U.S. corporations to extract raw materials at rock bottom prices, using cheap labor to reap super profits, while the entire region was dominated by U.S. banks.

Things have since changed dramatically.  Latin American countries have taken over industries that were privatized by U.S. corporations, while both Chinese and European companies have been given the green light to invest to an extent that U.S. corporations are being pushed aside.

To Obama and the rest of the two-party system, this is unacceptable.  The need to reassert U.S. corporate control in the hemisphere is high on the list of Obama’s priorities, but he’s going about it in a strategic way, following the path paved by Bush.

After realizing that the U.S. was unable to control the region by more forceful methods (especially because of two losing wars in the Middle East), Bush wisely chose to fall back a distance and fortify his position.  The lone footholds available to Bush in Latin America were, unsurprisingly, the only two far-right governments in the region: Colombia and Mexico.

Bush sought to strengthen U.S. influence in both governments by implementing Plan Colombia first, and the Meridia Initiative second (also known as Plan Mexico).  Both programs allow for huge sums of U.S. taxpayer dollars to be funneled to these unpopular governments for the purpose of bolstering their military and police, organizations that in both countries have atrocious human rights records.

In effect, the diplomatic relationship with these strong U.S. “allies” — coupled with the financial and military aide, acts to prop up both governments, which possibly would have fallen otherwise (Bush was quick to recognize Mexico’s new President, Calderon, despite evidence of large-scale voter fraud).   Both relationships were legitimized by the typical rhetoric: the U.S. was helping Colombia and Mexico fight against “narco-terrorists.”

The full implication of these relationships was revealed when, on March 1st 2008, the Colombian military bombed a FARC base in Ecuador without warning (the U.S. and Colombia view the FARC as a terrorist organization).  The Latin American countries organized in the “Rio Group” denounced the raid, and the region became instantly destabilized (both Bush and Obama supported the bombing).

The conclusion that many in the region have drawn — most notably Chavez — is that the U.S. is using Colombia and Mexico as a counterbalance to the loss of influence in the region.  By building powerful armies in both countries, the potential to intervene in the affairs of other countries in the region is greatly enhanced.

Obama has been quick to put his political weight firmly behind Colombia and Mexico.  While singing the praises of Plan Colombia, Obama made a special trip to Mexico before the Summit of the Americas to strengthen his alliance with Felipe Calderon, promising more U.S. assistance in Mexico’s “drug war.”

What these actions make clear is that Obama is continuing the age old game of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, though less directly than previous administrations.  Obama’s attempt at “good neighbor” politics in the region will inevitably be restricted by the nagging demands of “U.S. strategic interests,” i.e., the demands of U.S. corporations to dominate the markets, cheap labor, and raw materials of Latin America.  And while it is one thing to smile for the camera and shake the hands of Latin American leaders at the Summit of the Americas, U.S. corporations will demand that Obama be pro-active in helping them reassert themselves in the region, requiring all the intrigue and maneuvering of the past.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org).  He can be reached at shamuscook@yahoo.com

Colombia: Paramilitary Chief Says He Helped Finance Uribe’s Campaign April 29, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Latin America.
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Written by Constanza Vieira   
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
 (IPS) – Former Colombian paramilitary chief and drug lord Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna”, testified in a U.S. court that he helped finance President Álvaro Uribe’s first election campaign, in 2002.

The president’s campaign chief denied the allegation.

“Don Berna” was sentenced Wednesday to 31 years in prison and fined four million dollars for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

Murillo, 48, was extradited in a surprise move by Uribe on May 13, 2008, along with 13 other heads of the far-right paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which formally disbanded in 2007 after engaging in demobilisation negotiations with the government from 2003 to 2006.

They were wanted by the U.S. justice system on drug trafficking charges.

During the trial in a New York courtroom, one of Murillo’s lawyers, Margaret Shalley, read out a statement depicting her client as a victim of Communist violence, a patriot who was left disabled – he has a prosthetic leg – and nevertheless continued generating money to help his people.

The lawyer asked federal U.S. District Judge Richard Berman to take into account, before sentencing her client, that he and the AUC backed Uribe’s presidential campaign in 2002, to which he contributed “large sums of money.”

When she was finished reading the declaration, the judge asked Murillo if he had any objection to what his lawyer had read out, and he said no.

Murillo said that using the money that he derived from drug trafficking was the only way to block the advance of the Communist guerrillas in Colombia.

This South American country has been in the grip of a civil war since 1964, when the leftwing guerrillas took up arms.

Murillo was sentenced to 375 months in prison on drug trafficking charges.

After the trial, Murillo’s Colombian defence attorneys approached Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MOVICE), and told him that their client had asked that his support for Uribe be explicitly included in the statement read out by Shalley.

They also told Cepeda that Murillo was prepared to elaborate, before the Colombian justice system, on his allegations that incriminated Uribe, and to present proof, and said they hoped that this could be done as soon as possible.

The manager of Uribe’s 2002 and 2006 campaigns, Fabio Echeverri, said in Bogota that Murillo’s declaration was “false.”

Echeverri, who has been the spokesman for the National Association of Industrialists for 18 years, said the campaigns were financed by donations from companies and individuals, whose checks were deposited in a bank account after the origin of the funds was checked, a process that took between 15 and 20 days.

The Colombian government has not responded to Murillo’s statement.

The U.S. court did not agree to hear the testimony of any of Murillo’s victims.

At the time, the Colombian government promised that the extraditions would not interfere with the legal proceedings carried out under the so-called Justice and Peace Law, which was approved by Congress to facilitate the demobilisation of the far-right militias.

To that end, under an agreement with the U.S. authorities, Colombia’s attorney-general’s office and ministry of the interior and justice were to arrange for judicial cooperation with the U.S. courts.

Under the Justice and Peace Law, which laid out the rules for the demobilisation process, the maximum sentence was eight years for those who gave a full confession of their crimes.

The extradition agreement states that the sentences handed down to Colombians in U.S. courts could be no longer than the maximum penalties they would have faced in Colombia.

The opposition Liberal Party expressed strong concern over Murillo’s declaration. “At this point we cannot make a judgment, but we need to know the whole truth,” said its spokeswoman, Senator Cecilia López, who aspires to become her party’s presidential candidate.

The declaration implicating Uribe “in a U.S. court is extremely serious, and cannot be ignored,” Gloria Flórez, the head of the Minga Association, told IPS.

“The Colombian state has the obligation to open an investigation into the declaration made by Don Berna, in which he openly refers to financing the president’s campaign,” she said.

The constitution establishes that any investigation of the president has to be carried out by the lower house of Congress, and then the Senate. In case the charges involve criminal wrongdoing, the process is to be referred to the Supreme Court.

But Uribe’s supporters have a majority in both houses of Congress.

In any case, said Flórez, “the justice system has to move on this issue.”

“If it is true, he (Murillo) has to show the evidence. If it’s not true, it has to be clarified before society that the presidential campaign was clean and that there was no involvement by drug traffickers,” the human rights defender said. And in order to do that, she added, “legal proceedings must be initiated, to show society the truth.”

Flórez expressed “concern because there are no guarantees in the United States that action will be taken to find out the truth. Failing to listen to the victims of human rights violations in Colombia is part of that lack of guarantees.”

“All the United States is interested in is the drug trafficking issue. So where does that leave the question of reparations for the victims?”

During the demobilisation negotiations with the government, Murillo went by the name “Adolfo Paz”, portrayed himself as an AUC inspector, and wrote to journalists criticising their reports.

Before he became a leader of the AUC, which is accused of committing tens of thousands of human rights crimes, “Don Berna” was a leftist guerrilla in the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), which broke off from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the main rebel group – in the 1960s and barely exists today.

In the 1980s he became involved in the Medellín drug cartel, headed by the late notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar. But he then turned on his boss.

“Don Berna” was active in and around the city of Medellín where, according to Verdad Abierta, the biggest Colombian on-line archive on the paramilitaries, “he brought in votes for the candidates he backed.”

His henchmen in the area, who belonged to the Cacique Nutibara Bloc of the AUC, were the first to demobilise, in November 2003, when the government was still doubting whether to recognise “Don Berna” as a paramilitary leader, instead of just a drug lord.

A year earlier, in October 2002, in Operation Orión, troops allegedly acting in collusion with “Don Berna’s” men seized control of a poor Medellín district known as Comuna 13 to “cleanse” the area of FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas.

After the paramilitary demobilisation, some of the members of the Cacique Nutibara Bloc managed to get elected to Juntas de Acción Comunal, neighborhood councils that play the role of interlocutor with the state.

Verdad Abierta cites the case of William López, alias “Memín”, who was elected in October 2007 as a representative of Comuna 8, another Medellín neighbourhood, but was later arrested and sentenced for forced displacement and aggravated intimidation of voters.

 

Dirty Business, Dirty Wars: U.S.-Latin American Relations in the 21st Century February 10, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Latin America, Mexico, Venezuela.
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Written by Cyril Mychalejko   
Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Source: New Politics Winter 2009, Vol. XXII

Much is being made across the political spectrum in the United States about Washington’s waning influence in Latin America. The region has seen an emergence of left and center-left presidents voted into office, many as a result of budding social movements growing democracy from the grassroots. Some pundits and analysts are suggesting that this phenomenon is occurring because of the Bush Administration’s perceived neglect of the region. Rather, what is happening is blowback from Washington’s continued meddling in the economic and political affairs of an area arrogantly referred to as the United States’ “backyard.” Latin America’s growing unity in rejecting the Washington Consensus remains fragile in the face of U.S. opposition. Washington has been quietly using the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, and a neo-cold war ideology to institutionalize a militarism in the region that risks returning us to the not so far off days of “dirty wars.”

Breaking the Chains

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998 sparked the beginning of the leftward electoral paradigm shift in the hemisphere. After he orchestrated a failed coup attempt in 1992, he was elected six years later based on a campaign that promised to lift up the impoverished nation’s poor majority through economic policies that ran counter to the free market fundamentalism and crony capitalism pursued by the country’s oligarchs, with the aid of Washington and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Chavez also began to challenge the idea of U.S. hegemony in the region by advocating a united Latin America based on the ideas of one of his intellectual mentors, Simón Bolívar, the 19th century revolutionary instrumental in defeating Spain’s control of the region. Chavez, who also claims to be influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ, has championed what he calls a “Socialism of the 21st Century.” A fierce and outspoken critic of neoliberalism, Chavez has said “I am convinced that a path to a new, better and possible world is socialism, not capitalism,” words that have been scarce in the region’s capitals with the exception of Cuba.

ImageSince Chavez’s ascent to power, we have seen presidents elected in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Uruguay which translates into a majority of countries in the region advocating center-left and left-wing political programs (while Mexico and Peru missed joining this new Latin American consensus by narrow, if not fraudulent, election outcomes).

While it is true that, despite these developments, socialism is a long way off from taking hold in the region, the rejection of Washington’s Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) back in 2003, long before the left had firmly taken hold in the hemisphere, marked the beginning of an outright challenge to free market orthodoxy, U.S. hegemony, and corporate power. Since then we have seen multinational corporations booted out of countries and defiantly confronted by social movements, U.S. ambassadors expelled from three nation’s capitals, free trade agreements protested, illegitimate foreign debts challenged, and U.S. drug policies rejected. In addition, alternative political and economic institutions and policies have been advocated and created.

Venezuela’s Chavez developed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an antithesis to the FTAA that advocates a trade regime based on economic, social, and political integration guided by the principals of solidarity and cooperation. Even Honduras, long seen as a U.S. satellite state dating back to the days it assisted Washington in overthrowing Guatemala’s government in 1954, has joined ALBA, showing that the creeping tide of Bolivarianism is extending to the still fragile Central America. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Lula de Silva, viewed by Washington and the U.S. corporate media as part of the “acceptable” or “responsible” left, declared in 2007 that “Developing nations must create their own mechanisms of finance instead of suffering under those of the IMF and the World Bank, which are institutions of rich nations . . . it is time to wake up.” And the region has woken up as the “Bank of the South” was formed to make development loans without the draconian economic prescriptions of Washington-controlled financial institutions, which in the past have forced countries to cut social spending, deregulate industries, and open markets to foreign capital — policies that have exacerbated poverty and inequality in the past and as a result compounded dependence on foreign capital and Washington.

In terms of security cooperation, both Brazil and Venezuela have led efforts to create a South American Defense Council, a NATO-style regional body that would coordinate defense policies, deal with internal conflicts and presumably diminish Washington’s influence in its “backyard.” While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said back in March that Washington “had no problem with it” and looked “forward to coordination with it,” Bloomberg News reported that Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim told Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that the United States should “watch from the outside and keep its distance,” and that “this is a South American council and we have no obligation to ask for a license from the United States to do it.” In a similar challenge to U.S. military presence and influence, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa decided to force the United States. to close its military base in the port city of Manta. And then there is China’s and Russia’s growing economic and political ties to the region — something that would not only be unheard of in the past, but not tolerated.

Developments such as these led the Council on Foreign Relations to declare in May that the “era of the United States as the dominant influence in Latin America is over.” Frank Bajak, writing for the Associated Press on Oct. 11, echoed this observation when he wrote, “U.S. clout in what it once considered its backyard has sunk to perhaps the lowest point in decades” and that “it’s unlikely to be able to leverage economic influence in Latin America anytime soon.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post took a more indignant and belligerent position in an Oct. 6 editorial when it questioned whether Washington should “continue to subsidize governments that treat it as an enemy” while “a significant part of Latin America continues to march away from the ‘Washington consensus’ of democracy and free-market capitalism that has governed the region for a generation.”

 

 

While conventional thinking has led many to believe that Latin America’s independence from the United States may be an irreversible paradigm shift, behind the scenes Washington has put into place policies that could unleash a reign of terror not seen since the 1980’s. Colombia has served as laboratory for this new counterinsurgency program that can be interpreted as a continuance of U.S. supported state terrorism and a re-emergence of the national security state in Latin America.

The U.S. government has sent more than $5 billion in mostly military and counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia since 2000 to fund “Plan Colombia,” a counter drug program said to be designed to fight cocaine production and narco-trafficking, as well as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in turn further intensifying the country’s long-standing civil war. But as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported in 2001 in a study sponsored by the Center for Responsive Politics, “The protection of U.S. oil and trade interests is also a key factor in the plan, and historic links to drug-trafficking right-wing guerrillas by U.S. allies belie an exclusive commitment to extirpating drug trafficking.”

The ICIJ investigation also found that “Major U.S. oil companies have lobbied Congress intensely to promote additional military aid to Colombia, in order to secure their investments in that country and create a better climate for future exploration of Colombia’s vast potential reserves.” In addition, corporations with interests in the region were reported to have spent almost $100 million lobbying Congress to affect U.S. Latin America policy.

Eight years later, Colombia has evolved into a full-fledged paramilitary state. President Álvaro Uribe, Washington’s staunchest ally in the region, his extended family, and many of his political supporters in the government and military are under investigation for ties to paramilitaries and right-wing death squads. As far as U.S. corporate collusion goes, Chiquita Brands International Inc. was forced to pay the U.S. Justice Department a $25 million settlement in 2007 for giving over $1 million to the right-wing terrorist organization United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Even more damaging is the fact that Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, at the time assistant attorney general, knew about the company’s relationship with AUC and did nothing to stop it. Alabama-based coal company Drummond Co., Inc. and Coca-Cola have also been accused of hiring right-wing death squads to intimidate, murder or disappear trade unionists. This is what the ICIJ meant when they wrote about securing investments and creating a “better climate” for business.

According to the U.S. Labor Education on the Americas Project, Colombia accounts for more than 60 percent of trade unionists killed worldwide. There have also been at least 17 murders of trade unionists just this year, which, according to a report released in April 2008, accounts for an 89 percent increase in murders over the same time period from 2007. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported in August that the collateral damage from Colombia’s civil war has resulted in more disappearances than occurred in El Salvador and Chile, while Colombia’s attorney general believes there could be as many as 10,000 more bodies scattered across the country — meaning totals would surpass those from Argentina and Peru.

Despite what should be considered as a total failure from a policy and, more importantly, human rights standpoint, this same Colombian model has been promoted by Washington to other nations in the region, and — remarkably — has been embraced by these countries. In 2005, Guatemalan officials called for their own “Plan Guatemala,” while Oscar Berger, president at the time, asked for a permanent DEA station in the country and for U.S. military personnel to conduct anti-narcotics operations. In addition, he was a proponent of a regional rapid deployment force, initially conceived to fight gangs, but later adjusted to include counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism in order to attract U.S. support. It should be noted that the AFL-CIO, along with six Guatemalan unions, filed a complaint, allowed through labor provisions of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), on April 23, 2008, charging the Guatemalan government with not upholding its labor laws and for failing to investigate and prosecute crimes against union members — which include rape and murder. This speaks to the idea of securing a “business-friendly” climate like in Colombia, which many in Washington want to reward with a free trade agreement. Guatemala’s government is currently led by President Alvaro Colom, a politician who represents the country’s ruling oligarchs. Pre-election violence during his campaign claimed the lives of over 50 candidates (or their family members) and political activists, in a country Amnesty International reports is infested with “clandestine groups” comprised of members of “the business sector, private security companies, common criminals, gang members and possibly ex and current members of the armed forces” responsible for targeting human rights activists.

This regional militaristic strategy finally materialized into policy on June 30 when President Bush signed into law the Meridia Initiative, or “Plan Mexico,” which according to Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program “could allocate up to $1.6 billion to Mexico, Central American, and Caribbean countries for security aid to design and carry out counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and border security measures.”

ImageJust one day later, investigative journalist Kristen Bricker reported that a video had surfaced showing a U.S.-based private security company teaching torture techniques to Mexican police. This led Amnesty International to call for an investigation on July 3 to determine why techniques such as “holding a detainee down in a pit full of excrement and rats and forcing water up the nostrils of the detainee in order to secure information” were being taught. Later in July the Inter Press Service published a story about a 53-page report on Human Rights and Conflicts in Central America 2007-2008 that suggested “Central America is backsliding badly on human rights issues, and social unrest could flare up into civil wars like those experienced in the last decades of the 20th century.”

Nevertheless, Washington continues to push for the re-militarization of the region, as evidenced by a $2.6 million aid package given to El Salvador in October to “fight gangs.” Coincidentally, this was announced just months after the Inter Press Service reported in a June 16 article that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte “expressed concern over supposed ties between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN),” while also announcing that “the Bush administration is on the alert to Iran’s presence in Central America.”

Playing the Terror Card

In order to up the ante as a means of promoting this militaristic vision for the Americas and to vilify strategic “enemies” such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Washington has added the “War on Terror” into the equation by spreading unfounded allegations about Islamic terrorist infiltration into the region.

Journalists Ben Dangl and April Howard of Upside Down World, reporting for EXTRA! in Oct. 2007, wrote “In the Cold War, Washington and the media used the word ‘communism’ to rally public opinion against political opponents. Now, in the post– September 11 world, there is a new verbal weapon — ‘terrorism.'” This puts into context Washington’s evidence-lacking assertions that the Tri-Border Area, where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet, is a hub for Islamic Terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, claims the mainstream media have obsequiously parroted, yet Dangl and Howard helped disprove. Dangl and Howard, reporting from Ciudad del Este, a city located in the center of this alleged “hotbed” of terrorsim, talked with Paraguayan officials, as well as local residents, all of whom denied there was any presence of foreign terrorist groups. They pointed out that the governments of Brazil and Argentina have also denied the claims. But the terrorist assertions haven’t stopped there.

Norman A. Bailey, a former U.S. spy chief for Cuba and Venezuela, testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 17 that “financial support has been provided [by drug traffickers] to insurgent groups in certain countries, most notoriously to the FARC in Colombia, as well as to ETA, the Basque separatist organization, and most importantly to Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, through their extensive network in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America.”

The State Department’s David M. Luna, Director for Anticrime Programs, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, gave a statement on Oct. 8 claiming that international terrorist organizations will collaborate with regional criminal networks to smuggle WMD’s across the U.S.’s border with Mexico.

“Fighting transnational crime must go hand in hand with fighting terrorists, if we want to ensure that we ‘surface them,’” stated Luna. He also went on to regurgitate the empty claims of the Tri-Border Islamic threat.

That same day the Associated Press reported that U.S. officials were concerned with alliances being formed by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida and Hezbollah and Latin American drug cartels.

“The presence of these people in the region leaves open the possibility that they will attempt to attack the United States,” said Charles Allen, a veteran CIA analyst. “The threats in this hemisphere are real. We cannot ignore them.”

And on Oct. 21 The Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. and Colombian officials allegedly dismantled a drug and money laundering ring used to finance Hezbollah.

This post-Sept. 11 fear-mongering, being carried out for years now, has served as a pretext for Washington to deploy Special Operations troops in embassies across the globe, including Latin America, “to gather intelligence on terrorists…for potential missions to disrupt, capture or kill them.”

The New York Times, which broke the story on March 8, 2006, reported that this initiative, led by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was an attempt to broaden the U.S. military’s role in intelligence gathering. The soldiers, referred to as “Military Liaison Elements,” were initially deployed without the knowledge of local ambassadors. This changed after an armed robber in Paraguay was killed after attempting to rob a group of soldiers covertly deployed to the country. Senior embassy officials were “embarrassed” by the episode as the soldiers were operating out of a hotel, rather than the embassy.

But in a follow-up by The Washington Post on April 22, “the Pentagon gained the leeway to inform — rather than gain the approval of — the U.S. ambassador before conducting military operations in a foreign country” when deploying these “elite Special Operations Troops.” This development has remained largely under the radar, with the exception of analysis by Just the Facts, a joint project of the Center for International Policy, the Latin American Working Group Education Fund, and the Washington Office on Latin America.

A New Cold War?

ImageIn Oct. 2006 President Bush signed a waiver that authorized the U.S. military to resume certain types of training to a number of militaries in the region which had been suspended as a result of a bill intended to punish countries not signing bilateral agreements that would grant immunity to U.S. citizens from prosecution before the International Criminal Court.

Bush was forced to act as a result of Venezuela’s growing influence in the region, as well as the “red” threat that China’s growing business in the region presented.

“The Chinese are standing by and I can’t think of anything that is worse than having those people go over there and get indoctrinated by them. And I think maybe we should address that because that’s a very serious thing,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), at a March 14, 2008, hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), at the same hearing, said this was “a serious threat” and called for ending the restrictions on U.S. military training programs imposed on Latin American nations for refusing to sign the bilateral immunity agreements. Of course, Latin American nations should not be subject to sanctions for quite properly rejecting the immunity agreements; but neither should there be training programs for their repressive militaries, to teach these militaries repressive practices.

The Associated Press reported in Oct. that “China’s trade with Latin America jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $102.6 billion last year. [And] In May, a state-owned Chinese company agreed to buy a Peruvian copper mine for $2.1 billion.”

These developments should further perpetuate the “Red Scare” making its way through the Senate. Then there is Russia’s military sales and cooperation with Venezuela. U.S. News and World Report’s Alastair Gee wrote a fear-mongering article on Oct. 14, 2008, in which he stated, “This is not the first time Russians have sought close links with Latin America. In 1962, the stationing of Soviet missiles in Cuba nearly precipitated nuclear war with the United States. The Soviets also funded regional communist parties and invited students from the region to study in Soviet universities.”

But more importantly, it is the region’s “march away from the ‘Washington consensus’ of democracy and free-market capitalism” that has drummed up a cold war mentality in Washington. With democratically elected presidents in the region openly embracing socialism and socialist-style policies, economic programs in various countries that include nationalizing industries and “redistributing the wealth”, and social movements ideologically and physically confronting free market capitalism, it should come as no surprise that anti-globalization movements have found themselves classified as a national security threat to the United States. A declassified April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate entitled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” states, “Anti-U.S. and anti-globalization sentiment is on the rise and fueling other radical ideologies. This could prompt some leftist, nationalist, or separatist groups to adopt terrorist methods to attack US interests.”

ImageMoving Forward

Developments in Latin America are reason for hope and optimism that “a new, better and possible world” could be on the horizon. But these very same reasons are cause for concern.

With Washington’s imperial stretch on the decline, both militarily and economically, both history and current conditions suggest it will try to reassert itself in Latin America — just as it did after Vietnam.

But because of the deeply embedded and institutionalized nature of Washington’s imperial machine, it doesn’t matter much which party controls the White House and Congress. To fight these developments, we need to continue to grow grassroots media projects and support independent journalists, build long-term solidarity with Latin American social movements and build social movements in the United States, fight free trade and do our part to shed light upon the structural violence threatening Latin America’s promising future — which is directly tied to ours.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at http://www.UpsideDownWorld.org.

Hillary Clinton and James Steinberg “Talk Tough” on Latin America February 1, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Foreign Policy, Latin America, Venezuela.
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Written by April Howard   

Thursday, 29 January 2009

 

ImageWhile President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their appointees emphasize a return to diplomacy in foreign relations, so far they show little inclination to be diplomatic toward leftist governments in Latin America. In fact, recent comments by Obama, Clinton and recent appointees show a continuation of an antiquated analysis and a lack of understanding of recent Latin American social movements and regional integration.On a visit to the State Department on January 23, Clinton promised “I will do all that I can, working with you, to make it abundantly clear that robust diplomacy and effective development are the best long-term tools for securing America’s future.” Obama made similar assertions in a speech to diplomats, and ‘diplomacy’, symbolizing a return to international peace and prosperity, was the word of the week.

Most recently, however, newly appointed Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, boldly stated that “Our friends and partners in Latin America are looking to the United States to provide strong and sustained leadership in the region, as a counterweight to governments like those currently in power in Venezuela and Bolivia which pursue policies which do not serve the interests of their people or the region.” This begs the question of exactly who “our friends and partners in Latin America” are, as many Latin American countries are happily accepting funding for humanitarian projects from Venezuela, and Bolivia is hardly in an economic position to pull strings around the continent. These and other comments by Clinton show that the Obama administration intends to continue a foreign policy in Latin America based on corporate benefit and a misplaced fear of Latin American nationalism.

Taking the Field Back From Chavez in Venezuela

According to Steinberg, the US’s relationship with Venezuela “should be designed to serve our national interest . . .  Those interests include ending Venezuela’s ties to the FARC and cooperating on counter-narcotics.  For too long, we have ceded the playing field to Chavez. . .  We intend to play a more active role in Latin America with a positive approach that avoids giving undue prominence to President Chavez’ theatrical attempts to dominate the regional agenda.”

Clinton herself, in replying to questions by Senator Kerry during her nomination, said that Chavez has tried to take advantage of a lack of US attention in Latin America “to advance out-moded and anti-American ideologies.” Clinton and Steinberg echoed each other about the dangers of “ceding the playing field” to Chavez and leaders “whose actions and visions for the region do not serve his citizens or people,” but Clinton showed less bravado by adding that “While we should be concerned about Chavez’s actions and posture, we should not exaggerate the threat he poses.”

Protecting Fear Mongering Politicians in Bolivia

While President Evo Morales and members of his administration have consistently expressed hope about prospects for better relations with the new US president since last November, during a positive visit to the US and meetings several senators,  recent comments by Clinton make this possibility obscure, if not unlikely. 

In her first appearance in the senate, Clinton also defended former Bolivian Ambassador Philip Goldberg, who was expelled from Bolivia in September of 2008 by Morales, who accused Goldberg of interfering in affairs of national sovereignty. In turn, the Bush Administration expelled Bolivian ambassador, Gustavo Guzman. Without cause, the Bush Administration then proceeded to accuse Morales’ government of failing to fulfill commitments to international drug control and withheld Bolivian benefits under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA). Morales responded by accusing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of spying and interfering in national politics in favor of opposition leaders, and expelled the DEA.

Clinton described Goldberg’s expulsion as another “unjustified” act along with others taken against personnel of the US mission and aid programs by the Bolivian Government. It begs the question, Clinton said, “If Bolivia wants a constructive bilateral relationship.” Also included is Mike Hammer, a political and economic advisor to the US in Bolivia who worked with Goldberg. Hammer was recruited as White House Spokesperson for matters of National Security, but will later return to Bolivia.

Last week, Clinton continued the trend of lumping together the drastically different countries and governments of Venezuela and Bolivia and characterizing them both as negative influences on the continent. She called for the U.S. to fill what she referred to as “that void” of US attention “with strong and sustained US leadership in the region, and tough and direct diplomacy with Venezuela and Bolivia. We should have a positive agenda for the hemisphere in response to the fear-mongering propagated by Chavez and Evo Morales.”

As Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network writes, “Although the new Secretary of State’s reply received scant attention in the United States, it was front-page news in Bolivia, and was easily open to interpretation as a deliberate rebuff of the Bolivian government’s repeated expressions of readiness to engage the new U.S. administration.” Yet, Clinton also stated that the administration believes that “bilateral cooperation with Venezuela and Bolivia on a range of issues would be in the mutual interest of our respective countries – for example, counterterrorism, counter narcotics, energy, and commerce,” and Ledebur reports that “Clinton’s testimony was also hailed by Bolivia’s Vice Foreign Minister, Hugo Fernandez, as signaling that the Obama administration shared Bolivia’s desire for closer relations.”  

Other Obama complicated administration ties to Bolivia include political adviser Gregory Craig, who, despite a record for defending human rights in Latin America, has been criticized for his work defending Latin American leaders accused of human rights abuses. According to Politico.com blogger Ben Smith, Craig is a “muscular counsel” whose top deputies and stature suggest that “office will play a larger role in policy — on an already muscular White House staff — than in previous administrations.”

Currently Craig is representing ousted Bolivian President Gonzálo Sánchez de Lozada and former Minister of Defense Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, a fact which, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), “has raised legitimate doubts regarding his moral commitment to Latin America.” Both men are indicted in the United States for their participation ordering soldiers to open-fire on protesters in El Alto, Bolivia, in 2003, and uncontestable fact that caused the death of over 60 citizens. In June of 2007, both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín were granted political asylum in the US while awaiting trial in Miami under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Over 20 people marched against the action in Bolivia, and the Bolivian ambassador Gustavo Guzman prepared a case for extradition of the politicians before he was expelled.

While COHA Research Associates Michael Katz and Chris Sweeney defend Craig as a politician dedicated to human rights, they write that “The Bush administration’s decision to protect these powerful figures has sent a disconcerting message of American elitism to the Bolivian citizenry. Human rights advocates believe that Craig’s continued representation of Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín demonstrates his readiness to defend the interests of the rich and famous against the poor. Admittedly, such charges complicate his reputation in Latin America, and for some bring into question his true commitment to regional solidarity.”

According to Ledebur, “The new Obama administration and Congress could help repair some of the damage done to the U.S. reputation in Latin America in recent years by taking a flexible, respectful approach toward Bolivia, in cooperation with Bolivia’s neighbor democracies and the international community.  The Obama administration would also do well to recognize that Bolivia’s political dynamics, demands for profound reform, and jealous defense of national sovereignty and self-determination have emerged from the country’s own history, and have not been somehow foisted upon it by outside powers against the democratic wishes of the Bolivian people.”

Successful Failures in Plan Colombia

In his questions for the record prepared for Clinton’s nomination as Secretary of State, John Kerry cited a GOA report from fall 2008 that concluded that Plan Colombia “has not significantly reduced the amount of illicit drugs entering the United States.” Steinberg showed a lack of understanding of the accepted failures of Plan Colombia by referring to “counternarcotics successes in Colombia.”

 

Clinton showed a lack of nuanced understanding of government connections to paramilitaries by stating that the administration will “fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC, and work with the government to end the reign of terror from the right wing paramilitaries.” She did show recognition of the need to change Plan Colombia strategies by mentioning the need to work “here at home to reduce demand.”

In terms of trade agreements, Clinton attempted to remain neutral, saying that “It is essential that trade spread the benefits of globalization,” but she added that “without adequate labor protections, trade cannot do that,” and that “continued violence and impunity in Colombia directed at labor and other civic leaders makes labor protections impossible to guarantee in Colombia today.” 

No Timeline for Change in Cuba

Clinton spoke for Obama on Cuba, reiterating that Obama “believes that it makes both moral and strategic sense to lift the restrictions on family visits and family cash remittances to Cuba,” but added that the administration does not have a timeline for this action. Contrary to the experience of the past 50 years, she also communicated that Obama “believes that it is not the time to lift the embargo on Cuba, especially since it provides an important source of leverage for further change on the island.”

Big Business in Brazil

Kerry expressed concern with Brazil’s “leading role” in MERCOSUR, the Rio Group and the Union of South American Nations “which have at times been at odds with U.S. interests in the region.”

Clinton’s reply focused on business opportunities in the increasingly destructive agro-export sector. “We look forward to ensuring that continued U.S.-Brazil energy cooperation is environmentally sustainable and spreads the benefits of alternative fuels. The expansion of renewable energy production throughout the Americas that promotes self-sufficiency and creates more markets for US green-energy manufacturers and producers is vitally important,” she said. 

Consistent with other members of the Obama administration, Clinton emphasized the agrofuel industry and did not address top scientist’s continued criticisms that agrofuels are not only unsustainable and do not create a net reduction in greenhouse gasses, but that the carcinogenic spread of crops grown for animal feed and agrofuels is dangerous to farmers and has contributed to an international food crisis. When later asked about the international food crisis, Clinton asserted that the U.S. has a “moral responsibility” and a “practical interest in doing its part to address a food crisis.” She categorized the causes of the food crisis as “cyclical and structural,” citing “poor harvests in key-grain producing nations, sharply higher oil prices, and a surge in demand for meat in high-growth Asian countries.” Many of the transgenic and genetically modified grains and crops grown in Latin America are destined as much for feed for meat animals in Europe and China as for agrofuels, but Clinton did not make that link.

Clinton identified “long-term factors include[ing] inadequate investment in enhanced agricultural productivity, inappropriate trade and subsidy programs, and climate change.” If ‘inadequate investment’ includes “hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. Department of Energy grants aimed at jump-starting the evolution to fuels made from such non-corn feedstocks as switchgrass, wheat straw and wood chips” given to several privately held firms, then more of the same problems are to be expected. Similarly, if agrofuel crops are emphasized, as Clinton indicates a U.S. interest in doing in Brazil, then issues related to climate change can only be expected to intensify.

While one could hope that Clinton’s plans to “work with partners in the international community to address immediate humanitarian needs and make seeds and fertilizers available in critically affected nations, . . . put more focus on efforts to enhance agricultural productivity . . . including agricultural research and development , and investment in improved seeds and irrigation methods,” will not involve multinational pesticide and GM seed giant Monsanto, or processors Cargill, Bunge and Syngenta. Without accepting the present dangers of the agrofuel and agro-export situation in Latin America, change in the current trajectory under an Obama administration is unlikely.

Spreading Democracy

Though both Candidates ran on campaigns of change to the Bush Administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and Clinton’s recent comments show little to indicate that the US will change it’s now more than century old policy of foreign intervention under the vestige of “democracy promotion.” Clinton urged the senate “not [to] allow the war in Iraq to continue to give democracy promotion a bad name. Supporting democracy, economic development, and the rule of law is critical for U.S. interests around the world. Democracies are our best trading partners, our most valuable allies, and the nations with which we share our deepest values.” Clinton seems to urge a return to covert actions of regime change and support for opposition parties in her assertion that “democracy must be nurtured with moderates on the inside by building democratic institutions; it cannot be imposed by force from the outside.”

Still, “America,” she said, “must renew its effort to bring security and development to the disconnected corners of our interconnected world.” Like past members of past administrations, Clinton does not seem to grasp the idea that US involvement is not always necessary or welcome in all parts of the globe, and furthermore, involvement that refuses to recognize peoples’ rights to defend access to natural resources, preserve their human rights, and act out of self determination cannot solve past problems and will only exacerbate future conflicts.

***

April Howard is a instructor of Latin American Studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and an editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email April.M.Howard(at)gmail(dot)com

Chesa Boudin on Colombia’s Civil War December 26, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Human Rights, Latin America, War.
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Posted on Dec 26, 2008, www.truthdig.com

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By Chesa Boudin

In February 2007 I visited Colombia’s Chocó region as a guest of local Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that had previously suffered forcible eviction from their communal lands. The phenomenon, known as forced migration or internal displacement, is so widespread across Colombia that the country trails only Iraq and Sudan in its number of internally displaced people. The communities that hosted me in Curvarado and Cacarica had recently returned to their homes after years of abuse at the hands of illegal paramilitary organizations intent on controlling their ancestral lands. Thanks to their determined efforts and support from a local NGO, Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace), my hosts had been able to obtain legal title to their communal lands, an anomaly in a country where most forcibly displaced people lack the necessary resources or connections to navigate the legal bureaucracy. Despite their title to the land these communities remained frightened about threats from armed groups, so Justicia y Paz stationed observers to help document trespassing or attacks. 

The farmers who hosted me, and countless more farmers across Colombia, are caught in the midst of a conflict more complicated than most. Fueled by cocaine profits and U.S. military aid, it has raged for decades, pitting the government security forces and illegal paramilitary groups against various Marxist-inspired guerrilla movements. It is in this broader national context that fundamental human rights and self-determination of peoples come into constant, direct conflict with global economic growth and wealth accumulation in Colombia’s northwest Chocó region. The narrow isthmus, covered in mountainous tropical forests and dense swamplands, is increasingly the target site for potential development projects, including the completion of the Pan-American Highway, a pipeline to carry Venezuelan oil to Pacific ports, and an alternative shipping channel to the Panama Canal. In 1996, the price of land doubled following then-President Ernesto Samper’s announcement of a plan for a new inter-oceanic highway link connecting the Pacific and Atlantic. The Chocó has also attracted agriculture, timber, coal and mining interests both from Colombia and abroad. Peasants who happen to live on resource-rich territory suffer from a violent form of land speculation. In Colombia, neoliberal economic policies have gone hand in hand with militarization of a historic conflict.

“Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia,” Gary Leech’s new book on Colombia, provides an engaging firsthand account of the country’s drug war. The book is structured around an 11-hour detention ordeal Leech underwent at the hands of the largest guerrilla group in the country, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in August 2006. Each of the 11 chapters in the book corresponds to one of the hours during which he was held at gunpoint on a coca farm in rural Colombia while the FARC higher-ups decided his fate. As Leech anxiously waits out his detention, he reflects back on his first trips to Latin America and his years reporting on Colombia’s drug war. The literary device succeeds; suspense and drama remain present throughout the book, and he provides an easy-to-follow background to the country’s civil strife, mostly narrated through first-person accounts. Luckily for Leech and his readers, he safely made it home to tell the tale. He writes with the raw passion and vivid energy of a wartime correspondent who regularly risks his life to cover stories ignored by major international media outlets. While most writers on Colombia only talk abstractly about policy, Leech goes into villages, speaks with people on the front lines and peels back the skin.

 

book cover

Beyond Bogotá

 By Garry Leech

Beacon Press, 272 pages

Demonstrating considerable courage and persistence, Leech managed to visit the hottest areas of Colombia’s conflict, survive shootouts and detentions, interview high-ranking leaders of the FARC and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) and visit coca farms and cocaine labs. He describes all this with compelling narrative and evocative characters, taking the reader with him on his investigative adventures. While his descriptive ability makes the reading enjoyable, it is his conclusions that leave the strongest impression.

President Alvaro Uribe, currently in his second term, is a darling of the U.S. State Department and has funneled billions in U.S. aid into a military strategy for solving the country’s problems. Meanwhile, he implements neoliberal economic policies that exacerbate the very wealth disparities that Leech sees as the root of the ongoing violence. As governor of the province of Antioquia, Uribe was instrumental in establishing a civilian vigilante organization, CONVIVIR, that quickly became a right-wing paramilitary network fighting a vicious war against the country’s leftist guerrillas and anyone accused of sympathizing with them. Uribe’s own father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt, blurring the line between the political and the personal in his support for those fighting against the guerrillas. As Leech reports, the paramilitaries that grew out of Uribe’s CONVIVIR are widely believed to be responsible for the majority of civilian deaths and human rights abuses in Colombia. Like the FARC and sectors of the state military apparatus, the paramilitaries became involved in drug trafficking and use cocaine profits to fund their arms purchases and operations. The FARC taxes growers in the regions it controls, and Leech suggests that the paramilitaries and military are actively involved in the more lucrative processing and trafficking as well.

Leech explains how, after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military aid to Colombia under the heading “Plan Colombia” rapidly shifted from anti-drug trafficking to combating “narco-terrorism.” The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the national paramilitary organization AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) appeared on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. While Leech is quick to condemn all of the armed groups in the conflict, much of his criticism is reserved for U.S. policy in the region. “There was also plenty of anti-American sentiment in Colombia, particularly in the rural regions targeted by Plan Colombia’s fumigations [of illegal coca crops]. Again, this anger wasn’t rooted in a hatred for U.S. freedoms; it resulted from U.S. government policies that destroyed the livelihoods of Colombian peasants without offering them any viable alternatives.” “Beyond Bogotá” gives voice to people whose opinions and perspectives are rarely included in mainstream media reports. 

Leech investigates a peasant massacre and finds that “U.S. military aid was being used as much to wage a war of terror as to fight a war against terror. At best, it appeared to be funding a selective war on terror—one that targeted civilians seen as suspected leftist terrorists, yet supported a military responsible for perpetrating state terrorism and maintaining close ties to right-wing terrorists.”

Moreover, according to Leech, the U.S.-led aerial fumigations of coca crops throughout Colombia have backfired; there is now a “super herbicide-resistant strain” of coca that is capable of yielding four times as many leaves from the same acreage. Thus, “although the U.S. and Colombian governments claimed that Plan Colombia was working because the fumigations were reducing the number of acres under cultivation … in reality coca production had remained relatively stable.” Meanwhile, Leech tells us, “Not only do coca farmers earn the least amount of profit among all those engaged in the production, trafficking, and sale of cocaine, but they are also the most vulnerable link in the chain because of their poverty and lack of mobility. Even with the widespread cultivation of coca, 85 percent of rural Colombians live in poverty. And at the close of the twentieth century, those poor farmers became the principal target in the U.S. war on drugs.”

President Uribe, a willing partner in the war on drugs, has succeeded in improving Colombia’s image in the international business community and increasing urban security. Yet the government presence in many rural areas is limited to military incursions without meaningful investment in development or economic and social infrastructure. Leech shows us the divide between rural and urban Colombia, narrating multiple political perspectives throughout. In one scene that takes place over a three-hour period, he interacts with pro-FARC rural peasants, then with nonaligned, pro-peace small-town residents, and finally with right-wing pro-Uribe urbanites. 

book cover

Beyond Bogotá

 

By Garry Leech

Beacon Press, 272 pages

Buy the book

Leech clearly knows Colombia intimately, and this makes the book. One area where “Beyond Bogotá” falls short, however, is that it lacks regional context. Colombia is just one country in a fascinating and rapidly changing region. In many ways Colombia is an outlier among its neighbors: While Colombia is still a close ally of the U.S. and an adherent to the Washington Consensus, Andean neighbors Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, for example, have elected left-wing, anti-neoliberal, populist presidents, including Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales. Uribe appears to represent the old guard of Latin American governments, while Chavez’s 1999 election was the vanguard of a wave of progressive democratic victories across the region. This regional context has shaped U.S. aid to Colombia, as well as Uribe’s domestic policies, but is largely absent from the book. Also missing are recommendations for how Colombia might find its way out of its quagmire, or how the international community can help it do so.

Latin America is a rapidly changing region, and perhaps no country illustrates this better than Colombia. Writers focusing on current events there inevitably face the pitfall that nothing remains current for long. While this book is one of the most recent, most up to date on Colombia available today, crucial developments occurred after “Beyond Bogotá” went to press. Several of the key FARC leaders Leech writes about or interviewed for this book, including Simón Trinidad, Raúl Reyes and Manuel Marulanda, are no longer on the field of battle: Trinidad was caught and extradited to the U.S., where he is currently in prison; Reyes was killed by the Colombian military; and Marulanda died of natural causes. Moreover, the FARC’s most valuable hostages, among them one-time Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and several American civilian contractors, were rescued last summer in a daring raid coordinated by the Colombian military. What implications these developments have for the FARC’s viability as a national rebel army remain to be seen. For those interested, as I am, in Leech’s ongoing analysis of these issues and future developments in Colombia, it should be noted that he is the editor of a regularly updated Web site called Colombia Journal [under construction as this review is published].

As I was finishing reading “Beyond Bogotá”, I received an e-mail from Justicia y Paz, detailing threats and kidnappings of its members working in the communities in Curvarado. A series of anonymous phone calls had preceded the kidnapping of a human rights worker based in one of the formerly displaced communities I visited in 2007. Throughout Colombia, paramilitary groups are engaged in ongoing assaults on poor communities living on resource-rich land. U.S. military aid continues unabated, even as the Colombian military is complicit with these illegal attacks or simply looks the other way. This book is an excellent way to familiarize oneself with a multifaceted conflict that sadly shows no sign of letting up soon.

Chesa Boudin is the author of “Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America,” forthcoming from Scribner. He studied forced migration and public policy in Latin America at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and is currently enrolled in the Yale Law School.

Mercenaries At Large in Colombia December 26, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Cuba, Human Rights, Latin America, War.
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www.upsidedownworld.org

Written by Gustavo Capdevila   

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

(IPS) – Mercenaries hired by private military and security companies are playing an increasingly broad range of roles in Latin America, such as guarding mines, borders, prisons, and now humanitarian aid, said the members of the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries at a meeting in this Swiss city.

At the same time, some 3,000 Latin Americans, mainly Chileans, Peruvians, Colombians and Hondurans, are serving as mercenaries in conflict zones in Iraq.

Assistance provided by a commando made up of former Israeli military intelligence experts has also helped the Colombian government deal heavy blows to the left-wing guerrillas, said Amada Benavídes de Pérez from Colombia, one of the five members of the U.N. Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination.

The Working Group, created in 2005 by the U.N. Human Rights Commission (subsequently replaced by the U.N. Council on Human Rights), discussed the possibility of drawing up new international legal instruments to regulate the growing activities of private military and security companies, at their meeting last week.

The use of mercenaries contravenes the United Nations International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which entered into force in 2001.

Colombia is the most critical case of the use of mercenaries in Latin America, said Benavídes, the former dean of the Human Rights Faculty at the Higher School of Public Administration in her country.

Information gathered by a group of Colombian academics from several universities and by non-governmental organisations has produced data from the victims themselves about what is really happening with regard to the use of mercenaries in Colombia, Benavídes said.

Services provided by private military and security companies cover a variety of roles.

First, there are the companies working in-country within the framework of the U.S.-financed and designed Plan Colombia, a counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy.

Under Plan Colombia, 25 foreign companies are active in the country, employing 800 people as “private contractors” — mainly U.S. citizens of Latin American origin, said Benavídes.

Personnel numbers are at times even greater, perhaps even double that figure, because every 15 days a rotation takes place and a new contingent arrives from the United States, the U.N. expert said.

The curious thing about this operation is that the private contractors enjoy the same diplomatic immunity as the members of the U.S. embassy in Colombia, which exempts them from scrutiny under national laws.

“We have documented illegal acts and crimes committed by this group of contractors, but Bogotá cannot even investigate them because the bilateral agreement with Washington forbids it,” Benavídes said.

There are, therefore, at least 800 people in Colombian territory whom the government has no control over whatsoever, and who are working for Plan Colombia.

These people, who do not stand out among the population because of their Latin American origins, live at U.S. military bases.

Benavídes recalled that when politician Ingrid Betancourt was freed in July after more than six years as a captive of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), three U.S. contractors who were “crop-spraying experts” were also released.

The press reported at the time that the three U.S. contractors, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, who were captured by the guerrillas in 2003, worked for California Microwave Systems, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman which provided services to the U.S. Department of Defence collecting information on drug crops.

The same sources said that the FARC maintained that Howes, Stansell and Gonsalves were foreign spies working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

A second type of mercenary presence in Colombia is the mostly U.S. and British companies that provide security services for foreign extractive industries, mainly oil firms but also mining companies.

There are risks involved in these activities because they are often carried out on lands belonging to indigenous or other local communities. The private security companies prevent access to these lands, and even access to water, Benavídes said.

The U.N. Working Group on the use of mercenaries has documented similar cases in Peru and Ecuador, where the actions of private security companies have seriously harmed communities living close to mining areas, she said.

The third form of mercenary intervention in Colombia is the already mentioned participation by logistics experts from Israel, who work for the Colombian Defence Ministry.

Many of the military successes by government forces against the guerrillas have depended on military intelligence provided by the Israeli mercenaries, Benavídes said.

Fourth and last of the issues involving mercenaries and Colombia is the 500 people from this country who are in Iraq. There are no official statistics, “but our own information and that collected by foreign academics who have done research in Colombia” suggest this figure, the expert said.

Close to 3,000 Latin Americans now in Iraq are from Chile, Peru, Colombia and Honduras. Recently, however, they have been joined by others from El Salvador and Guatemala, she said. There are no indications that any Argentines, Brazilians or Uruguayans are in Iraq, she added.

But it may happen that a Chilean recruitment agency sending mercenaries to Iraq is legally registered in Uruguay. Therefore if there is a legal problem with one of the “contractors”, it will not be settled in a Chilean court, Benavídes said.

Neither would it come before the Uruguayan justice system, because the contract would not have been signed there but, say, in the U.S. state of Virginia. But the U.S. would not take the case under its responsibility because the alleged crime was committed in Iraq.

This example illustrates the legal vacuum existing in international law, which the U.N. Working Group is endeavouring to fill with the new, universal instrument they are studying, that is intended to cover the gaps in national legislations.

Colombia is a case in point, because it has regulations for national private security companies, but none at all for foreign companies of the same kind, Benavides told IPS.

An outstanding problem related to mercenaries is how to classify members of the far-right paramilitary groups that have been heavily active in Colombia in recent decades.

Benavídes told IPS that strictly speaking, paramilitaries cannot be mercenaries because they are not foreigners. However, she acknowledged that the majority of contractors working for private companies providing security to oil and mining firms are Colombian nationals.

Agile Ecuador government riles friends and foes December 22, 2008

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

W. T. Whitney Jr.
People’s Weekly World, 15 Dec 2008
Pursuing social justice and national independence, the government of President Rafael Correa has gained new adversaries while prodding old foes. Having won a 57 percent majority in a run-off vote, Illinois-trained economist Correa, candidate of the populist Alianza Pais party, became president in January 2007.

Correa, no shrinking violet, is forcing the U.S. military to leave Manta Airbase, advocates “socialism of the 21st century,” and with Venezuelan and Bolivian counterparts resists U.S. imperialism. Last week in Tehran he and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
entered into joint banking, energy, trade and scientific projects. Ecuador is requesting loans from Iraq, according to Foreign Minister Maria Elsa Viteri.

In the same vein, Correa responded in kind to a reprimand last week from Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos complaining that Ecuador did little to fight leftist FARC insurgents in Colombia. Diplomatic relations with the U.S. puppet Colombian government were broken last March when Colombia attacked a FARC encampment in Ecuador.

Now, Correa’s government has challenged an ally in the struggle for Latin American unity. Two months ago Ecuador ousted Brazil’s Odebrecht Company because of an unfinished dam project, in the process reneging on four contracts for other company projects worth $700 million. On Nov. 21, Ecuador announced refusal to pay on a $550 million loan provided by Brazil’s state-owned National Bank of Economic and Social Development that had gone directly to Odebrecht.

In response, President Lula da Silva withdrew Brazil’s ambassador in Quito, the first such recall since 1870. Foreign Minister Celso Amorim threatened cessation of trade between the two countries.

International lenders were put on alert in mid-November when Ecuador delayed a $30.6 million interest payment on $3.9 billion in outstanding bonds. A 30-day moratorium period was used to study the possibility of default on all $10.3 billion in foreign debt obligations. Correa and advisors studied a report released Nov. 21 by an international, independent team of debt analysts, a year in the making.

Correa viewed the report as documenting an “illegitimate, corrupt, and illegal debt,” beyond government control. Hugo Arias, one of its authors, indicated that 80 percent of the debt emanated from old debt refinanced, and that $127 billion in principle alone has been paid over decades on loans originally worth $80 billion. Ally Venezuela holds most of the outstanding bonds.

President Correa is following the lead of former Cuban President Fidel Castro who at a conference on foreign debt on Aug. 1, 1985 asked, “Must debts to the oppressor be paid by the oppressed?”
The current debt crisis coincides with a 60 percent drop in oil revenues for Latin America’s fourth largest oil exporter. Ecuador’s government must delve into foreign cash reserves when prices dip below $76 per barrel. Plans to fund social programs through oil earnings inexorably went awry.

A back-up plan to use mining revenues, particularly from gold and copper, to cover state obligations boomeranged. On Nov. 17 demonstrations broke out nationwide led by indigenous and peasant groups opposed to a proposed mining law. Protesters concerned about diminished water and soil quality, land rights and local autonomy rejected promises that mining royalties set at 5 percent would pay for social projects.

Two days later 10,000 indigenous and leftist marchers blocked traffic on the Pan American Highway. Chants and banners called dramatically for water rights. Appealing to the new constitution, community leader Jose Cueva spoke for many marchers: “The president needs to first pass a food sovereignty law, a water law and a biodiversity law. Then we can have a national dialogue over what to do about mining.”

President Correa railed against “romantic notions, novelty, fixations or whatever, to say no to mining,” especially when we are “seated on hundreds of billions of dollars.” Calling for “environmentally, socially and economically responsible” mining, he denounced “infantile” and “fundamentalist” ideas.

The indigenous and social movements had been crucial to the 65 percent popular vote in September putting a new, government-orchestrated constitution into effect, one that embraced indigenous rights. Recently in disarray, CONAIE, the main indigenous federation, has revived.

Under the constitution, Correa and 5,993 other elected officials face re-election in 2009. CONAIE and other social movements have been instrumental over the past decade in overthrowing three presidents.

Colombia: Social Conflict Replaces Warfare December 12, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Latin America.
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Written by Raúl Zibechi   
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
Source: Americas Policy Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)

Image

Popular Minga (Photo M. Murillo)

Social conflict has overtaken the center of the political stage, displacing President Alvaro Uribe, who merely repeats the script that brought him so much success in the war: the Indians, sugarcane workers, teachers, government workers, truckers, and anyone else who protests and mobilizes is being manipulated by the FARC guerrillas.

 

“If you watch what is happening in Cauca department, you can understand that a new political perspective has substituted social action for armed confrontation,” says journalist and sociologist Alfredo Molano. In Cauca, in southwestern Colombia, tens of thousands of Nasa Indians along with other ethnicities have been on a “Minga por la Vida,” a collective mobilization in support of life values, since Oct. 12. And an equal number of sugarcane cutters have been on strike for two months. Something is changing in Colombia.

So far in 2008, the government has hit the FARC rebel forces hard, but political initiative no longer resides in the president’s Nariño Palace offices. In the street, ways of doing politics are being reconfigured into mass actions that cannot be denounced as terrorism, as the president and his closest ministers would wish. The temptation to criminalize social protest can lead to a grave failure for Uribe, because people are beginning to overcome their fear, and even the union movement is showing its face.

Strong denunciations of human rights violations are beginning to appear at the same time. Uribe was forced to retire 27 military officers in a scandal that cost the Army commander, General Mario Montoya, his job. It was proven that military troops kidnapped poor young men from urban peripheries and later counted them as dead “guerrillas” in the mountains. Three thousand members of the military are being investigated by the justice system. In the last televised U.S. presidential debate, Barack Obama told John McCain that as long as trade union members were being murdered in Colombia, the Free Trade Agreement would not be signed.

Hundreds of Protests

September and October have been filled with strikes, work stoppages, and demonstrations. Federal Justice Department workers carried out a prolonged strike for better wages and a department budget that would guarantee its autonomy. The government declared a state of “internal disturbance,” an outlandish reaction showing the mindset of the government that thinks it sees guerrillas behind every union, every strike, and every protest. Shortly afterward, federal workers in the electoral system, the “Registraduría,” followed suit, as later did teachers and truck drivers who had been on strike in August.

On Sept. 15, 12,000 sugarcane cutters went on strike and occupied eight sugar mills in Cauca Valley. The cutters, almost all of whom are Afro-Colombians, arise at four in the morning, work from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. under a punishing sun, and return home around 8:00 p.m., after making 5,400 slashes with their machetes and inhaling smoke from the burning canes and the herbicide glyphosate used on the plantations.

They earn about $10 a day and must pay for their own social security, tools, work clothes, and transportation to the cane field. At dusk, long brown silhouettes can be seen along the Pan-American Highway between Cali and Popayán, staggering like zombies after a criminally brutal workday.

At the beginning of the strike, they described their miserable living and working conditions and won the support of a good part of the population that usually turns its back on demands by Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. The authorities were surprised by the long continuation of a strike they thought would be over in a few days. The demands are simple: the cutters want contracts and wages for days not worked when the mills are shut down and for days when they seek medical treatment, since accidents at work disable 200 workers each year. And they want to eliminate the mobile scales that tip in the owners’ favor.

For the government and the Association of Sugarcane Growers, the main problem is that the strike forced the importation of sugar from Ecuador and Bolivia, paralyzed the production of ethanol, and raised the price of gasoline. In a show of little common sense, the minister of Social Protection told the parliament that the strike was not a social problem but a protest by criminals. Several cane cutters were detained, and it was decided to expel foreign journalists who were covering the strike.

The labor reforms approved in Colombia in 1990 and, especially, in 2002, completely deregulated the labor market. In 1992, for each temporary job, five permanent ones were created. With the establishment of the Associated Work Cooperatives (CTAs), labor’s map was turned on its head: in the first 10 months of 2008, for each permanent job, 10 temporary jobs were created, according to a study by the National University.

With the CTAs, employers avoid paying fiscal costs and other taxes to the state and enjoy a huge reduction in labor costs. The U.S. Congress questioned the “dumping” of the labor force, among other issues, in order to freeze the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia.

The cane cutters redoubled their resistance to the owners, who had to spend 54 days negotiating with delegates from the Sinalcorteros Union. The cutters were unable to eliminate the CTAs or get an agreement on direct contracts, but they won a 12% increase in wages, control over the weighing scales, provision of tools, broader owner coverage of missed work for illness or accidents, and a work day ending at 4:00 p.m. The union came out of this strengthened: it went from 870 to 3,000 members.

Deterioration in working conditions and the constant increase in the cost of food is at the root of the re-launching of the work protest. That is why Molano, persecuted by a government that forced him into a six-year exile, insists that: “The current protest is the tip of the iceberg of a social movement that can move toward the democratization of the country.” The national strike by the CUT union on Oct. 23, the first of its magnitude in years, can be taken as a sign of evolving changes.

The Great Indigenous “Minga”

The most important protest, which disturbs the government, began on Oct. 12—the Minga of Indigenous Peoples—a mobilization of collective and community work that seeks to reverse the situation of Colombia’s 100 ethnic groups and was called by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), and Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN).

There are five demands: rejection of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which they consider an agreement “between owners and against the people”; repeal of the constitutional reforms that subject indigenous peoples to isolation and death; rejection of Plan Colombia, “which infests our lands and sows them with displacement and death”; government fulfillment of its agreements after the 1991 El Nilo massacre—in which 20 Indians were killed from the Nasa tribe, the most mobilized and best organized indigenous group—and that include the transfer of thousands of acres of land promised by the state as compensation.

The indigenous mobilization began with the blocking of the strategically important Pan-American Highway by some 10,000 people who were brutally attacked by the armed forces, with two dead and some 90 wounded, mostly from gunshots. The communities retreated and occupied other sections of the highway. When the government refused to meet with them, they began a march toward Cali, joined by sugarcane workers and other union groups.

As on previous occasions, the Indians were catalysts for social action, since their demands are more political than those of other sectors, and they are better able to explain them. They denounced the fact that in the six years of the Uribe administration, 1,243 Indians were murdered from the 100-plus ethnic groups in Colombia, and 54,000 were displaced from their lands. The motto, “We are all cane cutters, we are all Indians,” showed a new political and social connection in a country until recently polarized, and paralyzed, by war.

In Cali more that 20,000 indigenous people waited for Uribe to show up in order to begin a round of conversations, after having walked for a week along the Pan-American Highway. Uribe finally arrived as the Indians, tired of waiting, were leaving. That mis-encounter of Sunday, Oct. 19, was not improved by the Nov. 2 meeting in La María (Piendamó), where thousands of indigenous people have been gathered since Oct. 12 and have formed what they call a Land of Dialogue, Coexistence, and Negotiation.

After six hours of listening to presidential arrogance and providing data to show the continual violation of human rights in Colombia, the Indigenous and Popular Minga decided to “walk the word,” to keep walking in support of life. They actually took the same path as all the indigenous peoples in the continent—after dozens of meetings, they decided to keep moving forward.

On Nov. 9, they began a new march, from Cali to Bogotá, where they arrived on Nov. 24. The march crosses part of the Andes and includes several cities, so that discussions on their problems can be held with the people. In Bogotá, they will form a Congress of Social Organizations in order to develop a common agenda for social movements.

Because of the importance of international attention to Colombia in order to avoid more repression, on Nov. 8, the ACIN sent a letter to President-elect Obama that denounced the continued violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights. They link it to Plan Colombia as well as the Free Trade Agreement: “Large transnational corporations have profited from oil and gas contracts, mining concessions, privatizations, and low wages, and are now after the biodiversity of our territories.”

For the ACIN, the war in Colombia and violation of human rights are part of a grand multinational project to appropriate lives, or, as they say, to “transform life into merchandise.” That is why they believe that “the destruction of our peoples in Colombia is a consequence of an error that today we call a crisis,” but which is only a product of “greed and the enshrinement of the accumulation of wealth.”

Something Is Changing

Molano believes that President Uribe “is in a difficult situation,” for local as well as international reasons. The global crisis is starting to affect his base of support among urban middle classes, “in debt up to 25% of their income,” according to Molano. But the crisis will also block him from continuing the astronomical military expenditures that are 4.6% of the GDP. Molano believes that “there will be more social demands and less U.S. support.”

But not everything is about the economy. Broad sectors in Colombian society are beginning to understand that accusations by human rights organizations were not exaggerated. In late September, newspapers all reported that 11 young men who had disappeared from Bogotá and Soacha were found in mass graves in another department, North Santander, and had been classified by the army as subversives who died in combat.

A few days later, the number of dead rose to 23, and then it seemed there might be more than 100. The Defensoría del Pueblo, Colombia’s Public Advocate or Human Rights Ombudsman, stated that so far in 2008, 5,522 accusations of disappearances have been made. The “Preliminary Report of the International Mission to Study Extrajudicial Executions and Impunity in Colombia,” published in October 2007, stated that in the past five years, confirmed cases of extrajudicial executions number 955.

Apparently the military is repeating its usual pattern. It kidnaps poor young men, even some with mental problems, from urban peripheral areas, kills them, and transports their bodies to other places, where they are included in the body count of the war against the guerrilla. The few cases that have been clarified so far indicate that they are just the tip of the iceberg that involves a monstrous form of human rights violation.

In the midst of the scandal, Uribe retired 27 military officers, including three generals, and Army Chief Montoya had to resign. In his Sunday column on Nov. 9, Molano asks a very disturbing question: “What has been done to the poor, since we see fewer and fewer of them? Is this another outcome of the Democratic Security Policy?”

Molano thus reminds us that beginning in the 1980s, paramilitaries undertook “social cleansing” that became particularly virulent in cities such as Cali, where they murdered beggars, homosexuals, prostitutes, and people with mental and physical disabilities. These Nazi-like practices never vanished, and Molano’s question asks if “social cleansing” is behind the current disappearances.

Also, at the end of October Amnesty International published its latest report on Colombia, titled “Leave Us Alone!” It states that “impunity continues to be at the heart of the human rights crisis in the country, since most of those responsible have not been taken to court.” It also reports that the Colombian government denies the gravity of the situation and claims, contrary to all evidence, that the paramilitary has disappeared. In just the first six months of 2008, Amnesty recorded 270,000 victims of forced displacement, 41% more than in 2007.

Sectors of the urban middle classes have tended to distance themselves from the Uribe government when there are reports of serious crimes that confirm a high level of corruption in the state and link the government to human rights violations against people not involved in the war. This tendency will grow with the election of Obama and the consequences of the global crisis.

In the next weeks, when the indigenous Minga march arrives in Bogotá, it will be possible to assess whether the urban population is actually abandoning its clear support for the government and undertaking a more or less consistent oppositional effort. It will not be easy. In October alone, more than 20 indigenous people were murdered, because, as the call for the march on Bogotá states, the current administration believes that “whoever opposes the government is a terrorist” and should be repressed.

Like the Zapatistas in Mexico when they called for “The Other Campaign,” the vast experience of the Nasa people tells them that “no sector acting alone can fight the agenda of exploitation and subjugation that the government has been implementing.” Minga mobilization is the tool chosen by those from below “to agree on our word and turn it into our path.” It is only a first step. But, as they know, it’s the one that determines the direction and makes tracks.

 

Translated for the Americas Policy Program by Maria Roof.

Raúl Zibechi is international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He is a monthly collaborator with the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org).

To reprint this article, please contact americas@ciponline.org. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the CIP Americas Policy Program or the Center for International Policy.

 

Sources

 

Resources Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca,
www.nasaacin.org

Foro de la Solidaridad Confiar, Medellín, 18 de octubre de 2008.

Desde Abajo No. 139, revista mensual octubre de 2008, Bogotá.

 

 

For More Information

Buenos Aires: The Poorest Resist “Social Cleansing”
http://americas.irc-online.org/am/5651

Scenarios for the FARC
http://americas.irc-online.org/am/5408

 

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