Struggle and defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
By James Jordan June 9, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — There is a scene in Arturo Alape’s novel, El Cadaver Insepulto (The Unburied Corpse) that sums up Colombia’s current reality. A small group of authorities have been called to enter the apartment of an elderly woman who has not been seen in the community for days. Her apartment is at the top of Bogotá’s historic hillside Candelaria community, facing onto the narrow street that descends directly into the Plaza Bolívar, the park at the city’s heart. Plaza Bolívar is surrounded by federal government buildings and the National Cathedral and is the site of many public gatherings. The woman’s neighbors have been alerted not so much by her absence as the overwhelming stench seeping out from beneath her apartment door. Upon entering, the authorities are met by howling cats gathered around her bed, where she had died. When they pull back the covers, they are shocked to see her decomposed body being consumed by a host of vermin. The surprised vermin take off en masse, a river of cockroaches, rats, and pursuing cats exiting the woman’s home and descending at breakneck speed into the Plaza Bolívar, taking possession of the heart of Old Colombia. I am writing these words as I sit in my hotel room, just a few blocks away from Plaza Bolivar and this fictional woman’s home. I have just finished leading a delegation for the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) that heard testimonies about human rights abuses, and observed Colombia’s first round of presidential elections, accompanying communities that had been targeted by threats of right wing violence and disruption. I cannot help but reflect on this Old Colombia that is being consumed in a Feast of Pestilence by profit-hungry transnational corporations, a power-mad US Empire, and Colombia’s own oligarchy, who are all too willing to betray their own people, to do anything they can to prevent the emergence of a New Colombia. But despite the rivers of vermin and feasts of pestilence, the dream of a New Colombia will not die – it is still here.
Our delegation took place in the Departments of Cauca and Valle de Cauca. Cauca has been the site of the most acts of current political violence. Cauca and its neighboring departments, Valle de Cauca to the north and Nariño to the south, along with Antioquia and Chocó, have had the highest numbers of political killings and forced displacements in Colombia. The level of violence, dispossession, and poverty reveals the racist and class-based nature face of this conflict, given that these are also the largest concentrations of Afro-descendent, indigenous, and campesino (peasant) populations. These departments form a contiguous region that spans the entirety of Colombia’s Pacific Coast, as well as touching the Caribbean. According to the Colombian organization Indepaz, since the implementation of the peace accords starting in December 2016, 217 social movement leaders have been killed, including 42 in Cauca, 31 in Nariño and Antioquia, 14 in Valle de Cauca, and 13 in Chocó. United Nations figures put the total number at 282. At least 60 former and demobilized insurgents have been murdered, as well as 14 of their family members. Perhaps the most accurate count, overall, is from the Marcha Patriótica movement for a just peace, which has reason to be precise in its numbers, since it may be Colombia’s most targeted popular movement. In May 2018, the Marcha Patriótica released a list of 385 names of social leaders murdered in Colombia, and 63 ex-combatants. A full 161 of the victims, or just under 42%, were Marcha Patriótica members. AfGJ has made a special commitment to building relationships with human rights defenders and rural communities in Cauca, Valle de Cauca, and Nariño, based on the glaring need for solidarity, and the fact that we have had a history of contacts in that region since 2008. We also have a close relationship with the Marcha Patriótica. The US delegation to the Marcha Patriótica founding conference in 2012 was composed of AfGJ board, staff, and volunteers. After many visits to Colombia, both as a delegation leader, and individually, I can say that I have never experienced such an intense trip as this one. We arrived in Cali, which was our base, just after an attack had occurred on a progressive legislator who, thankfully, survived. From Cali, each and every place we visited experienced political killings just before, during, or after our presence. We arrived in the area of Corinto and Miranda a few days after the killing of a young indigenous leader by Colombia’s “Anti-Disturbance Squad”, or ESMAD, on June 14. We arrived in the village of San Antonio, above the urban center of Jamundí the very morning that a local community leader was killed. At the meeting there, paramilitaries were in attendance, and we had to take testimonies privately to avoid putting in danger the people who wanted to talk to us. Upon entering Elvira, a village in the mountains of the Naya Region, part of the Municipality of Buenas Aires, Cauca, the community was just learning of a killing the day before, and another that very morning. By the end of the day, the number would climb to three, and the next day to four. Our visit to Buenaventura was marked by witnessing the abject poverty and racism of the place, followed by reports of killings of community leaders there. As I write these words, I have just gotten word of three more disappearances in the Buenaventura area. One must bear in mind that all these killings have taken place in the context of presidential elections that are widely seen as a referendum on the peace process. Paramilitary death squads declared all voters for the Center-Left to be “military objects”. To follow this trail of blood that we were traveling, to look into the faces of the community members and friends, family and comrades of the fallen, was to begin to understand Colombia’s reality in a way objective analysis does not communicate. There is no equation or graph that can adequately describe the heart wrenching devastation of losing your loved ones so unjustly. The geometry of pain cannot give its full dimensions. There in Elvira, we participated in a hastily called conference to deliver statements from various organizations condemning the spate of killings. Afterwards, I spoke with the woman who owned the space where we met, helping her put chairs away. She thanked me for coming, but there was no illusion in her face. She said that people have come there before, making declarations, but the situation stayed the same. Indeed, no one seemed comforted by the words we offered. That is not to say they were not touched. They expressed their appreciation that we would stand with them and at the least, recognize what they so often must suffer in silence, in a world that rarely even looks their way. We could give our solidarity, and we did, and it was graciously received. But we were unable to relieve the pain, only to share it, only to make the promise that we will continue to struggle with them, that we will never give up on our shared dream for peace and liberation. The very next day, yet another killing of an ex-combatant was reported. The sense of loss is deep and historic. Elvira, in the middle of the Naya region, is home to a significant rural population of Afrodescendents. That region was subject to a massacre by paramilitary death squads in 2001 that left so many dead that no one I talked to could give me a number more accurate than “muchos, no sabemos cuantos” (A lot, we don’t know how many). Various sources give numbers of the dead as ranging from 40 to 130. We visited a community of the displaced from Naya living today in Buenaventura, further victimized by the worst levels of poverty I have witnessed in any urban area of Colombia – in any place I’ve ever been excepting Cité Soleil in Haiti. One of our guides, Rodrigo Vargas, leader of the CPDH (Permanent Human Rights Committee) in Cali, told us of another event, all too typical. CPDH had been giving a workshop at Elvira’s school on how to document human rights abuses. Suddenly the school itself came under fire by the Colombian Armed Forces, who claimed they were battling guerrillas. Rodrigo, at great personal risk, went out and took photos and video footage of the military firing randomly into civilian areas while there were no insurgents to be found. This was not a battle. It was yet another arbitrary attack by the state against the people it is supposedly sworn to protect. Rodrigo noticed two people among the Colombian Armed Forces who appeared to be fair-haired foreigners. The 27th Brigade of the Colombian Armed Forces is stationed in the area, notorious for its abuses, and also for the training many of its officers have received at the School of the Americas. The US government has poured over $12 billion into equipping, training and advising Colombia’s military, police, and “security” apparatus, and operates on seven different military bases in Colombia. Why has Elvira and the Naya region been subject to so much violence and displacement? Follow the money … and the resources. The Naya region is one of the most water-rich in all of Colombia. It is home to significant deposits of gold and rare earth. The area is also home to large fields of illicit crops, especially coca, and to labs made to process the leaves into paste. The road to Elvira may be rough and unpaved, but it eventually connects the high mountain region with the Pacific coast and Buenaventura, the coast’s largest and busiest port. The coexistence of the large military presence and the open cultivation and processing of coca reveals the lie of the US-funded War on Drugs. If the military is in this region for any reason, it’s to protect the interests of the big narco-traffickers and the transnational corporations who want to loot the area of its natural wealth. Their only agenda for the communities here is about getting them out of the way via tactics of killing, intimidation, and forced displacement. Say what you may about the former FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army), but they were the only protection these communities had from the ravages of the Colombian Armed Forces, paramilitary death squads, and US government and Pentagon policies that have perpetuated political violence in the region.
With Colombia’s electoral season underway, communities like Elvira, Buenaventura, and Jamundí have been inundated with all kinds of threats, violence, and fraud. Last March, the country held primary and legislative elections that can be viewed as nothing less than a farce. Of course, it being an outpost of the Pentagon and the US Empire, we didn’t hear much about this in the US. Any truthful reporting on Colombia’s vote was drowned out by the shrill accusations against Venezuela’s elections, despite Venezuela having one of the world’s most transparent and verifiable voting systems. The Alliance for Global Justice drafted an open letter on Colombia that was signed by notable international individuals such as Noam Chomsky, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and former Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba. The letter describes the fiasco that occurred during the March elections:
[The new, disarmed, and legal] FARC political party as well as Center-Left campaigns have been attacked by paid thugs. Congressional and primary elections in March 2018 were marred by a shortage of ballots in over 20% of Colombia’s voting system, including the country’s three largest cities. The Electoral Observation Mission of Colombia reported 1,290 campaign violations but had not set up enough offices to carry out investigations. Violations included vote buying and precinct workers who refused to hand over ballots. One election day poll reported that 30% of Colombian voters said they were not able to vote privately.
Our delegation was present for the first round of presidential elections on May 27, which was also the anniversary of the beginning of the modern civil war between the US-backed Colombian government and the self-defense forces of Marquetalia, that would soon become the FARC-EP. May 27, 1964 was the occasion when thousands of Colombian military launched an all-out ground and air assault against the autonomous peasant region of Marquetalia, vowing to wipe out a group of a little more than 40 armed men protecting the region. There were five candidates for the first round of elections. Three of them had pro-peace platforms, while two were from the far right and are dedicated to undermining the peace accords. Of these candidates, it was assumed that Ivan Duque and Gustavo Petro would advance to the second round. Duque is a protégé of Álvaro Uribe, who notoriously helped create the modern system of death squads and who was once recognized by the US Defense Intelligence Agency as one of Colombia’s top 100 narco-traffickers. Petro was a former participant in the M-19 insurgency who became a politician and mayor of Bogotá after successful negotiations between the M-19 and the Colombian government. He is solidly pro-peace. A couple of days before the vote, we saw copies of a death threat that was distributed all over Colombia by the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) paramilitary organization. The threat declared, “Under our fire, we declare military objects all the Petristas [Petro supporters]….” The evening before the election, a Petro campaign worker was murdered in the Department of Huila. The day of the elections, we sent out four observation and accompaniment teams. Each of them witnessed irregularities. Members of the team I was with included one Colombian host and a delegation member of Colombian heritage who would walk in advance of us, without credentials. Twice they were approached by people offering to buy their votes. Other teams witnessed fully credentialed observers from the Petro campaign being kicked out of voting places, while the police, completely out of keeping with the regulations, openly changed credentials of observers, whiting them out and putting in the names of people they wanted on the inside. One team observed people multiply registered to vote with up to three separate registrations, while other voters being turned away. We heard reports about similar irregularities across the country, and given all that we saw, a small group of no more than 14 delegates divided into four small teams, we can not help but believe in the credibility of these multiple allegations. Most typical were reports that Petro voters were having their credentials challenged, amid reports of people voting multiple times, in every case, pro-Duque voters. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, while Duque was awarded the single largest block of votes, most voters cast their ballots for one of the three pro-peace voters. As predicted, Duque and Petro will advance to the second and final round of voting on June 17. Petro supporters are campaigning hard despite their expectation that the June 17 vote will be marked by irregularities. And as we can see, the vote takes place within a context of mass murder and threats against Center-Left voters. The Petristas’ hope is that they will turn out so many supporters that the election cannot be stolen, bought, or bled dry. But it seems the obstacles are many. The third-place winner from the first round, Sergio Fajardo, of the Polo Democrático, is urging his followers to vote blank, that is for no one, which is essentially a vote for Duque, since Fajardo’s supporters would logically be drawn toward Petro. There are other significant voices from the Center urging the same. Duque is aligned with the most reactionary and violent segments of Colombian society. Most on the Left believe a Duque victory will continue and increase the trend for violence against popular movements, rural, indigenous, and Afrodescendent communities, and former insurgents and their families. It is hard to imagine that such a bloodbath would not plunge the country deeper into armed conflict, rather than bring it to an end. In fact, this seems to be what they want. The strategy of perpetual but “manageable” armed conflict has been advocated by neoconservatives for years, including by Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O’Hanlon who, in 2011, were calling for US strategy toward Afghanistan to be based on its record in Colombia. In a piece for Foreign Policy, they wrote,
Strange though it may sound, success in Afghanistan would look a lot more like the success that has been achieved in Colombia over the last 10 years… Though they hide in triple-canopy jungles rather than forbidding mountains, the insurgents in Colombia, like those in Afghanistan, will always enjoy the benefit of sanctuaries inside the country … There will always be significant sections of the country, particularly in the more remote mountainous regions, where a guerilla movement … can find effective sanctuary … Rather than aiming to establish government control over the entire country, the U.S. goal should be to contain the insurgency…
Is the Colombian extreme right taking its cues from this old playbook? Colombia is the only Latin American country to have sent troops to Afghanistan. It is not much of a stretch to see the US Empire’s strategies in both places being mutually informative and intertwined. A negotiated and nationwide end to the conflict is the last thing the Colombian Right wants. It involves too many concessions regarding land and the return of the displaced, too much rural development that only would strengthen communities and weaken access to resources, both licit and illicit, and it would open space for real political participation for the Left and the possibilities for electoral victories of progressive candidates.
While the Right may prefer a trail of blood over a pathway toward peace, Colombia’s Left has other ideas. They continue to call and struggle for a New Colombia, because they know all too well that the Old Colombia is as dead and rotting as the elderly woman described in the Alape passage. And for those of us who are part of the international Left, we know that peace in Colombia would be a huge step towards peace in the world. Colombia is not just a country dominated by the US-transnational corporate Empire, it is one of the nails that hold that Empire together. Colombia is bridge that connects continents and oceans, it has become an international partner in Empire, now given a special status with NATO, and, via military agreements with the US, participating in patrols and/or active engagement in Central America, West Africa, Afghanistan, Yemen. Peace, justice, and open, safe political participation for Colombia would have global repercussions that could shake Empire’s foundations. As I sit here, writing, I cast my gaze on some graffiti that lies on the street below my hotel balcony. If the Alape passage describes the current reality for “Old Colombia”, this one piece of street art is a kind of symbol for a cautious, yet indestructible seed that could well bear the fruit of a New Colombia. It is a picture or what appears to me to be an indigenous or campesino (or both) child. The face is psychedicized, the colors not realistic, as if to draw you in, to draw your look in first to the craziness and the color and the radiating patterns which act as masks to a deeper story, the very real character the painting is based on. The patterns and the colors ask you not to just look at a photographic reality, but at a painting that abstracts the reality to take you to a deeper level of consideration. I have seen such faces before. We enter these far away, remote mountain villages, and so often the children gather around, but often not to engage or play or exchange smiles. Of course, that happens, too. But often these children are just watching, wondering. They are not quick to give over their trust, or to let you in even a little bit into their interior lives. I look at the portrayal of this child and am lost in the stare. There is no smile. There is no frown. There is scrutiny. Waiting. Watching. Reserving judgment. Alertness. Ready to move closer, ready to run, ready to stay just as one is. I think of the testimonies we have heard, from both adults and children. I think of the trail of blood we have just traveled. What has this child experienced? These children, these communities, these Elviras? They have experienced the maiming, the displacement, the slaughter of their mothers and fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers and cousins and aunts and uncles and classmates. They have experienced the destruction of their forests and the poisoning and stealth of their waters. I think of these communities and can’t help but ask in my privileged way, how can they go on, what hope is there for them? I can’t speak for them, or to what degree they feel or don’t feel, cling or don’t cling to, hope. But when I consider this picture, I’m not seeing a child thinking about or seeking hope. I’m seeing someone who, despite cruel reality, really has no other choice, no other option, but to continue forward. I see and hear someone saying, “I am still here. I am still here. I am still here.” I see communities that continue to function, that continue to resist not because of some empty, romantic notion of hope. But because they are still there. Four people killed by death squads in three days. We’re still here. Whole families forced to relocate. We’re still here. Declarations that seem to do nothing … We’re still here! And that’s what you do, when you’re still here, still alive in the face of it all: you wake up, you eat, you drink, you work, you love, you get angry, you play, you fight, you resist. While Old Colombia is being devoured in the Feast of Pestilence, I look at this one painting and into the face of this child, this New Colombia. Still here. The dream will not die. Ever.