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Colombia - A Tale Of Two Marches

Gearoid O’Loingsigh reports from Colombia

9 March 2008

On February 4th millions turned out around the world to march in a protest called against the FARC.  The march was initially called by the Colombian Vice-president Francisco Santos in response to Venezuela’s President Chavez’s call for the FARC to be recognised as a belligerent force by governments and international bodies.  The call was quickly taken up a group of right wing students who proceeded to organise an international protest against the FARC through the internet group Facebook.

The march was called on the supposed basis of the organizers’ opposition to the FARC’s practice of kidnapping.  However, such a basis for the march couldn’t last long and very quickly the organizers were forced to show their hand.  The march was supposed to show support for the far right government’s policy euphemistically called Democratic Security.

They had no interest in the fate of the kidnapee’s and prisoners of war in the hands of the FARC.  That much is clear from the testimony of Gustavo Moncayo whose son has spent ten years in captivity.  He joined the army because he didn’t have enough money to buy his way out of military service and figured that it was better to do his time as a professional soldier who would get paid.  Moncayo, known affectionately in Colombia as El Profe (Teach) has explained that he went to the media and then to the Catholic Church and the authorities to try and organise a march in support of those held by the FARC.  Every last one of them turned him down flat and showed no interest whatsoever in helping him.  Moncayo decided to organize a marathon walk from Nariño in the south of the country to Bogotá to highlight the plight of the prisoners.  He received massive support along the route to Bogotá.  However, when he got to the Plaza Bolívar in front of the Congress, Uribe gave him short shrift saying there would be no demilitarized zone to negotiate with the FARC and no deal.

These same forces that gave a slap in the face to the most famous relative of a FARC prisoner were the ones behind the march on February 4th.  The media geared up well in advance, with constant messages of support for the march and went into overkill in its coverage both prior and after the march.  The day after every newspaper gave over 4 or 5 pages at the least to the coverage of the march.  The State gave all public servants the day off, the banks gave their employees the day off as did most major companies.  The march was huge and the atmosphere was clearly one of support for the government.  Right wing evangelical churches mobilised, the paramilitary killers like Mancuso and Jorge 40 gave their support to the march and never before in the history of Colombia have so many marchers’ turned out wearing Gucci, Armani and other famous brands.  Yuppieland turned out as never before.  The marchers chanted slogans against Chavez more frequently than any slogans showing concern for those in the power of the FARC.  The banners also carried similar messages.

The contrast with the demonstration on March 6th could not have been greater.  The march was called by the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) to protest the tens of thousands of crimes committed by the paramilitaries and state agents.  The figures speak for themselves, between 1988 and 2002 there were 14,700 murders and force disappearances carried out by the paras and state agents.  In the first three years of Uribe’s first government the figure is 3,100.  It should be borne in mind that the State’s responsibility in all of this cannot be explained away by a few bad apples.  The figures are far too high for that.  Moreover, the paramilitaries have been legal for most of their history.  Following on from a visit by the US military in the 1960s the Colombian government issued decree 3398 of 1965 which later became law 48 1968 which authorised the military to form civilian paramilitary groups.  These were later declared illegal in the 1980s by the courts.  However, the Liberal Party under Cesar Gaviria and later under Ernesto Samper gave the paras a new legal basis through rural security cooperatives Convivir.  Álvaro Uribe the then governor of Antioquia rapidly approved the setting up of Convivir, including the one that was managed by Salvatore Mancuso the current head of the AUC.  The cemeteries and mass graves of Antioquia overflowed.

The facts not withstanding, José Obdulio Gaviria, Uribe’s chief advisor and also first cousin of the drug baron Pablo Escobar came out to attack the march and the organisers (Obdulio’s brothers were also arrested in the 1980s for drug trafficking offences in the USA).  He declared that there were no state crimes in Colombia and that the march was being organised by the FARC and their friends.  Right wing journalists like Plinio Apuleyo and the former Minister for Justice Fernando Londoño (who resigned due to corruption allegations) joined in to criminalize the march.

The leading newspapers El Tiempo and El Espectador gave very tepid support to the march in their editorials.  However, this tepid support was more than outweighed by the rabid comments of their columnists who were given a free hand to heap calumny upon calumny against the march.  There was very little promotion of the march and coverage afterwards was wanton.  Despite this 8 million people around the world marched against the crimes of the Colombian State.  The media virtually ignored the event.  The march that received greatest coverage was the one in Manizales were a torrential downpour ensured a poor turn out.  The massive turnout in other cities was ignored.  Some cities such as Popayan out did the government’s march in numerical terms but they weren’t mentioned.  It may seem strange but this author prefers to tune into the US channel CNN for coverage of Colombia.  CNN may be a right wing media outlet but their coverage is far better than the nauseating bile that comes out of RCN and Caracol, channels that have moulded themselves into official mouthpieces without the slightest hint of embarrassment or shame.

The turnout was massive despite the media’s role and also despite the fact that no public employees were given the day off.  In fact many public bodies and companies threatened to sanction any worker that absented themselves from their place of work.

It is quite clear that the Colombian State has no intention of owning up to the crimes against humanity that it has committed and less still has it any intention of affording a debate in Colombia on the issue.  That much is clear from the reaction of the State.  However, some of the organizers of MOVICE took positions that seemed to water down the initial demand.  MOVICE is by no means a homogenous body and there is a debate-taking place within it.  However, some tried to soften the message saying that they weren’t just opposed to State crimes but to all violence when the specific issue at stake was the State.  This allowed what media coverage there was to present the march as being against violence in general.  Whilst some of organisers may hold that position, it was a mistake that lessened the impact somewhat.  The media rarely mentioned the State referring to paramilitary violence or violence in general.  There are very legitimate criticisms to be made of the guerrillas and their armed campaigns and some of their actions show an absolute lack of any form of socialist consciousness on their part.  However, the object of the march was the State’s crimes and there is no way to ignore the fact that the Colombian State has systematically murdered its own citizens in name of economic and social strategies that it was committed to.  Placing that under an amorphous banner of being opposed to all violence lets the State off the hook and does nothing to address the criticisms of other forms of violence, less still from any sort of left perspective.

In the midst of the build up Uribe launched an attack on a FARC camp inside Ecuador in an act that distracted not only Colombian attention but also world attention on the issue.  The attack showed that there is no length to which the Colombian State will not go to in pursuance of what it sees as its strategic interests.  Softening the position in relation to state violence will not help.  Over the years many of the leaders killed by the paramilitaries have been people who have softened their position.  Organizations like Minga, IPC, Colectivo de Abogados who have all softened their positions on different aspects of the State continue to suffer threats from the paramilitaries.  Getting down on your knees and begging to be accepted as reasonable critics of the State hasn’t saved anyone from attack.  That much is also clear from the continued threats against former guerrillas such as M-19 or the Corriente de Renovación Socialista (a dissident faction of the ELN) which all demobilised continue to be attacked not just by the paras but also by the government.  The description of Gustavo Petro, a left reformist senator who explicitly accepts the legitimacy of the State, the army etc, has been described as “a terrorist in a suit” by Uribe because he dared to criticise the regime.

This is something that has to be remembered by MOVICE.  The State carried out a murderous strategy against its own people.  This strategy has gone hand in hand with development plans for the country.  The mass displacement of the peasantry coincides with the location of natural resources such as gold, oil and now water.  Softening their position will not help anyone.  In order to defeat your enemy you must recognise it for what it is.  Despite some of the shortcomings, the march against the Colombian State’s crimes was an enormous morale booster.  The task now is to keep it focused.


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