Return to Recent Articles menu

Colombia: The Ethics of Remaining Silent

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

26 September 2021

Many NGOs and researchers that work for them, in the course of their investigations carry out interviews with the relatives of the disappeared, the murdered, tortured or witnesses to these acts and in some cases with the survivors.  They ask them to talk.  But many of them now remain silent when it suits them, a silence they do not afford those they interview.

I have carried out many interviews in rural and urban areas of all sorts of people, leaders, relatives, ex-prisoners, politicians, NGO functionaries etc.  But when I have interviewed people who may be at risk, I have always been conscious of the risks and their courage, even when I don’t publish their name.  In many cases, going to a farm, I don’t even ask their name, other times it is impossible not to know who the person is.  When they don’t want to talk, I don’t pressurize them, if they change their opinion in the midst of the interview, I accept it or if there are questions they’d rather not answer likewise.  I am not alone in this, many people in the NGOs do the same, though not all of them.

The interviewer, the NGO require that the person speaks and frequently those people accept the risks of talking and give their statements, there are even cases where the leader insists on not remaining anonymous.  This is not problematic, though it is risky.  The lack of ethics can be seen when the interviewer or the NGO decides to remain silent, not out of fear but out of self-interest.

Many of the NGOs that ask people to talk, remain silent in the face of certain economic and political events and also in the face of the Realpolitik of international aid.  I recall how I was advised not to mention Francisco de Roux as a great promoter of African palm and neoliberalism.  I was told it would negatively affect my “career” (I am not sure whether I have one).  A number of NGOs decided to never mention this person.  They talked of palm, but remained silent on his role, they also decided not to mention the role of the European Union, because the EU finances their “human rights” projects.  It is ok for the peasant or trade unionist to talk but they don’t want to endanger their pensions, private health plans and other benefits. That the peasants risk their lives when it comes to talking is well thought of, but they are not willing to put their cash at risk.

I recall a leader and an NGO functionary in Cauca (it seems to be a contradiction in terms) who said that the Europeans were the good imperialists because they didn’t pull the trigger in Colombia.  He is wrong, the European Union does sell arms to Colombia, it does train state forces, but even if they did nothing in Colombia, it is not very ethical to say that “whilst they only kill Africans, I don’t care, as long as they continue to finance my projects, I have nothing to say against them.” And that is precisely what many NGOs and also various social leaders have done.

Everything is up for negotiation when it comes to putting forward a project, including the truth.  Many of those now in the election campaign or readying their base to come out and vote come from the NGO world and social organisations and more than one of them has long experience in negotiating the vote of their organisations.  I recall once how in a semi-private meeting a social leader openly demanded benefits for his organisation in exchange for supporting the candidate for the governorship.  The candidate who went on to win the electoral contest explained that it would be illegal to use public funds in such a manner.  He showed himself to be a little bit more ethical than the social leader in this case.

Now we are in the midst of an electoral campaign and there are those who decide to remain silent.  The NGOs who talk so much about the dignity of women and in their projects include the “gender component”, are not going to say much about the Christian churches supporting Petro.  And it is to be presumed that the call for churches to pay taxes will not be mentioned much either.  Many of those joining Petro’s campaign have very dubious backgrounds, they supported policies that produced the long list of peasants, trade unionists, students etc., that we have all interviewed over the years.  But they don’t talk about this, it is ok for the victims to talk and describe the violence they suffered, but in order to ingratiate themselves with those who may be in charge of the state’s budget next year, many such personalities will not connect one thing to the other.

Those who ask the victims to speak out and remain silent on the role of various personalities, some NGOs and the European Union etc., have neither dignity nor ethics.  It is totally unethical to ask peasants to speak out, but remain silent in the name of political accords, projects or the opportunity of getting fat on the public purse.

To remain silent about the participation of neoliberals in the so-called Historic Pact is not ethical.  Those who submerged us in misery are part of the pact.  To say that you defend the peasants or teachers and then vote for those who brought us to point we are at is not ethical.

Neither is it ethical to remain silent on the participation in the Historic Pact of evangelical leaders who have campaigned against women’s rights.  Saade, the right-wing preacher who announced his support for Petro was very clear before.  He said straight up “No marriage equality.  No legalisation of marihuana.  No abortion.  Yes to the family.  Yes to life.”(1)  But as Petro said recently, he, no one else, invented Working Class Feminism, his disdain for women is evident.  However, many feminists will remain silent regarding the Historic Pact and its positions on women.

Piedad Córdoba who once said of Petro that he would never be president and that she wouldn’t vote for him, now is part of the Pact’s list.  She stated that:

He (Petro) is only interested in himself.  Many people who voted for him did so to prevent the other candidate winning, but they didn’t really cast their ballot for him.

I personally did not vote for him, I would not vote for him, I will not vote for him and I can say with full confidence that he will never be president of Colombia.

You can’t vote for a bad person because you should choose someone who above all should be coherent have values and be a patriot.(2)

But the waft of the smell of cash and power and Petro is now a different type of man for her.

Clara López also wants us to forget a few things.  She recently came out in defence of General Maza Márquez who was sentenced for the murder of Luís Carlos Galán stating in a letter sent to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace that Maza Márquez protected the members of the Unión Patriótica.  In his defence she stated:

General Maza Márquez acted to protect the Unión Patriótica (…) with his diligent but frustrated investigations, hampered by narcotraffickers, members of the Armed Forces, cattle ranchers, civil and military authorities that formed an unholy alliance to physically eliminate social inconformity.(3)
She even wants to convince us that this man investigated those responsible for the persecution of the Unión Patriótica in order to try and stop the massacres.  She is brazen faced, even the former president César Gaviria (who signed the decree giving us the Convivir) tried to wash his hands of such a person, but not López.  Gaviria stated that “How did Barco and I make a mistake?  We trusted General Maza and Barco trusted him blindly (…) Barco thought that Maza was a trustworthy person and believed everything he said.”(4)  Clara López is part of the Historic Pact and will be a candidate for the Senate.  Aida Avella and the NGO Reiniciar, who see themselves as the sole owners of the UP issue remain silent.  Is it the case that the truth about the thousands of murders of militants of the UP is being negotiated for a place on Colombia Humana’s closed list of candidates?

They can smell the gravy train that is coming down the road if the Historic Pact wins the elections next year.  They see a chance to get money out of the exchequer.  How do we know this?  Well, it was what they did in the various “left” mayorships in Bogotá.  The left press almost never criticised Lucho Garzón because he paid for advertisements in their papers and members of their organisations got good jobs in the Mayor’s Office, as none of the “left” mayors fought for a professional mayorship with hired functionaries but rather opted to dole out jobs left, right and centre amongst their friends to pay for electoral favours.  It was more important to be the son of some friend of the various mayors to get a job rather than have studied and trained for the role.  Colombia is the only country in the world where even the doorman on some municipal building might be a political nominee.  In other parts of the world the mayor’s team is drawn from their party, but the functionaries are career civil servants.  Also in those mayorships, many NGOs and left groups etc, put forward projects to finance their “political work” in the neighbourhoods.  They know how much cash they got out of those mayorships and they drool when they think of what awaits them next year.  Otherwise, there is no explanation for the silence on the huge differences between the different candidates and groups that make up the Pact.  It seems that the slogan is, Everyone against Uribe, anything for money!

What is difficult to understand is how the human rights NGOs remain silent on the hotch potch that Petro is cooking up, nor how feminist organisations have nothing to say about the support given to Petro by the Christians and how he actively seeks out their support, stating in a public square that he was not an atheist but a believer.  He said in Barranquilla that “Here we want a pact with peace, a pact with the Jesus that prefers the poor.  Where we can live together in love.(5)  Petro seeks the support of the evangelicals with the same certainty that he had when he voted for the extreme Catholic, Ordóñez.  It should be remembered that Saade was part of the extreme right-wing party Cambio Radical (Radical Change).

Petro always defends the 1991 Constitution and it seems he has forgotten that freedom of religion laid out in articles 13 and 19 do not just guarantee freedom of religion but also freedom from religion, i.e. no church shall have power over or a say in the exercise of civil authority, as was the case in the previous constitutions.  Now that the reactionary evangelicals support him, Petro sacrifices one of the few real examples of progress in the 1991 Constitution that took away power from the Catholic Church.

There are opportunists who believe they can make deals with saints and sinners as the saying goes and that following the elections we will see their real positions.  But history tells us the opposite, they will remain silent forever.  And if there are human rights violations under a future Petro government, and that there will be is almost guaranteed, they will remain silent.  How do we know?  We only have to look at what they say about the eight years of Santos.  To listen to various members of Congress, NGOs and even social leaders talk about the government of the oligarch, Santos, you would believe that it was a time when we almost turned into Switzerland.

Ethics are in the dirt, stomped on by those who supposedly defend the communities and human rights, who believe they themselves are the greatest example of ethics: another word emptied of all meaning nowadays.


(1)  Semana (14/09/2021) ¿Quién es Alfredo Saade, el cristiano que apoya a Gustavo Petro?

(2)  RCN (23/04/2019) Piedad Córdoba arremete contra Petro llamándolo “Mal ser humano”

(3) Canal Uno (02/09/2021) La defensa de la exalcaldesa Clara López al general (r) Maza Márquez

(4) El Espectador (17/01/2021) Barco yo no nos equivocamos al confiar en Maza Márquez, César Gaviria sobre exterminio de la UP

(5) Semana (14/09/2021) Op. Cit.

Return to top of page