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Colombia: An Unhistorical Memory

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

29 August 2017

The question of historic memory is of utmost importance and not because Colombia is in the midst of a peace process where we have to talk about the conflict and it has been proposed that confessions are made in the framework of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, but rather it is important for the workers’ movement in and of itself.

Historic memory is the telling of what happened and why.  Historic memory should deal with the interests in play, the actors in the conflict, and their proposals for society.  A list of the dead and tortured is not enough.  That can only tell us how many died, neither is a list of executioners sufficient as that will only tell us who pulled the trigger or quartered defenceless peasants with their chainsaws.  It can tell us nothing about those who gave the orders and less still who are the beneficiaries.  Historic memory is current, it is not in the past, and that is why it should tell us who ARE the beneficiaries, as they continue to benefit from the conflict.  They still have land, political power and they changed the labour, social and economic legislation of the country and those laws are still in force.  Memory is not in the past.

This would seem to be obvious, but not in Colombia.  Currently we do not speak about historic memory in all its complexity.  The National Centre for Historic Memory has produced various reports on different aspects of the conflict, some of them better than others, but it has been criticised for its lack of criticism of the State.  One exception is the report on the massacres of Segovia and Remedios where they clearly blamed the military for their role.  But as has been stated, it is not about a list of events and executioners, but rather about the state’s responsibility for a counter-insurgent strategy based on the systematic violation of human rights.

Once upon a time, saying that the paramilitaries were a state strategy was not controversial.  All the human rights NGOs, union leaders, left wing groups and even one or other confused liberal blamed the state directly.  They pointed to the legislation that legalised paramilitary structures, from Decree 3398 and Law 48 of 1968 to the Convivir (Rural Security Cooperatives) and Uribe’s peasant soldiers.  They cited Amnesty International’s first report on human rights violations in Colombia (1980) and they spoke of the Courts Martials under the government of Turbay, the retaking of the Palace of Justice, the political genocide of organisations such as the Unión Patriótica and Al Luchar, the massacre of Trujillo, amongst others and they commemorated lawyers such as Umaña Mendoza or comedians such as Jaime Garzón.

It is not that they deny this nowadays, it is just not part of their discourse.  History and memory of the conflict begins, for many, on August 7th 2002 when Uribe took up the presidency, and now and again they look back at his period as Governor of Antioquia.  It would seem that the main architect of the Colombian conflict is a man who was barely 12 when the FARC and ELN took up arms.

The Myth of Uribe

There can be no doubt as to the bloody role of Uribe in the war in Colombia.  But neither can we ignore the fact that he is just one of the many bloody personalities that have occupied the presidency.

After the first year of Uribe’s government, a coalition of human rights NGOs published the Embrujo Autoritario (the Authoritarian Spell), where they criticised his policies in the following terms:

A drastic deepening of the policies adopted by previous governments can be seen… the Uribe government has not put forward major changes to the tendencies of the 1990s and his predecessor Pastrana.  On the contrary, it has strengthened them and applied them in an even more drastic fashion, in line with the deepening of the neoliberal model.

Although the document deals more with economic, social and cultural rights, when it deals with the issue of repression it leaves us in no doubt that it is the deepening of tendencies and policies already in place.  In time, the discourse regarding Uribe would change, particularly in the presidential elections where Santos was presented as a little angel, different to Uribe, the thug.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Convivir

One of the issues on which history is most rewritten in the country is the issue of the Convivir (Rural Security Cooperatives).  Uribe is presented as the man who gave us the Convivir, when in reality he applied legislation drawn up by others.  The Convivir were legalised through Decree 356 of 1994 signed by the then president, César Gaviria and his minister for defence, Rafael Pardo.  When Samper became president a few months after the passing of the decree, he did nothing to revoke it and put it into effect in September of that year.  Uribe was a Senator when the decree was passed, he didn’t become Governor of Antioquia until 1995 when he applied the decree put into effect by Samper.  Of course, he is the one who implemented it the most and defended the decree and the Convivir, but he had little or nothing to do with the legislation that legalised that paramilitary structure.

But there is a problem when it comes to explaining the origins of the Convivir, one has to remind the country that the executioners are many, they abound and are to be found everywhere.  Rafael Pardo is now the Minister for Post-Conflict, a man of peace, they say.  To talk about the history of the Convivir is to place in doubt the virtues of that representative of the oligarchy.  Samper reinvented himself as a human rights defender a long time ago and this year he was invited to give a speech to the delegates at the Congress of the Communist Party of Colombia.  The Communist Party’s newspaper presented Samper’s speech as an intervention in favour of unity.  Samper’s speech is disturbing, not so much for its surprising content, but rather because it wasn’t criticised.  As far as its content is concerned, it seems to be a work of comedy worthy of his nephew Daniel Samper (a well known Colombian journalist and comedian).

We made progress by democratic and peaceful means through the accords in Havana, progress that we were unable to make over three decades.  But it must be fulfilled, otherwise we will end up with the peace of the graveyard, which is what the oligarchy wants.  We have to build an edifice called democracy and that political differences never again be resolved through violence…
We need the candidates to show their determination to protect peace and the dialogues and to support a single candidacy for the presidency in a consultation in favour of whoever gets through to the second round or wins in the first.  If there is no unity amongst those in favour of peace, we will have two enemies of peace competing in the second round for the presidency.  We must organise ourselves in favour of peace.  If the right-wing enemies of peace get through to the second round it will be like handing over the management of the blood bank to Dracula.  As a liberal, I say that it is not a question of parties.  All those who wish to uphold peace in Colombia are welcome.  This is a problem between those who are in favour of peace and those in favour of war, everything else is rubbish.(1)

In this comedy show, Samper talks as if he were not a representative of the Colombian oligarchy, as if his ancestors don’t crop up all over the history of the country and as if he never declared a state of siege or internal unrest, as if his government were a period of democracy.  Moreover, he proposes unity with the CCP and other forces.  Who wants an alliance with the father of the Convivir?  Nobody does, right?  If we talk about the Convivir and their real history, if we point out that the architects of the Convivir are Gaviria, Pardo and Samper and that Uribe was initially a disciple of theirs, the pupil turned teacher, but at the end of the day a pupil, the proposed unity cannot go ahead.

I remember looking at some drawings made by some children in Barrancabermeja as part of a pedagogical exercise on human rights.  One child drew two skulls talking and one says to the other “Were you killed by a farewell bullet from Samper or a welcoming one from Pastrana?” The child was clearer about it than the NGOs and the current left.

Thus, we have been changing the focus for almost a decade, where once we talked of the oligarchy, now we talk about Uribe, where we used to talk about the Liberal Party now we talk about Uribe and his current political formation, Democratic Centre of Colombia.  There is no doubt that Uribe did what he did, but he wasn’t the only one and he didn’t do it on his own either.

The Myth of the False Positives

The False Positives, i.e. the ruthless murder of youths at the hands of the army in order to present them as guerrillas killed in combat was one of the huge scandals of Uribe’s government.  He did it, there are no doubts about it, but he wasn’t the first and he didn’t do it all on his lonesome.  The False Positive go back a long way.  They have always been a part of the State’s strategy, but under the Uribe regime they increased in a dramatic fashion.  His Minister for Defence, i.e. the one who paid the soldiers special rewards for every guerrilla captured or killed in combat was none other than Juan Manuel Santos, the current president.

Once again they are faced with a problem.  If they don’t lay all the blame at Uribe’s feet, they will have to explain why they are proposing an alliance with one of Uribe’s loyal servants.  Santos, just like Samper is another oligarch and he has a long criminal record and it has to be referred to as such, as Santos is as much a criminal as Uribe, either both of them are decent people or both are criminals, they governed jointly.

Other Criminals

The list of human rights violators is long.  Basically, there is not a single president of the country who has a clean record.  There is also a long list of military personnel and not just those who prospered under Uribe but rather military officers such as Manuel Bonett, commander of the III Division during the Trujillo Massacre or Harold Bedoya from the paramilitary group AAA, both of whom were promoted by Gaviria and Samper.

The memory they put forward is not historic.  In my conferences I come across youths who are unaware of many aspects of the conflict and lay all the blame on Uribe, without knowing that Uribe was, depending on the moment, pupil, disciple, ally and teacher of all the champions of peace and he did nothing that they didn’t do.  The only thing that distinguishes him from the rest are his well know relations with drug traffickers and his brazenness when it came to doing what he did.

At the beginning it was stated that historic memory is more than a list of executioners, but it would seem that in Colombia we have to begin with that as the work of human rights and social organisations in documenting the state’s actions is being cast away.

There is not a single organisation nor political personality that is unaware of the role of the other executioners, there is nobody who would deny the crimes of the other politicians and soldiers.  For the moment, nobody openly denies anything, rather they proceed as if the past was a faraway country and as if the past of personalities like Samper was of no importance.  The saddest thing is that the new generations learn a history that omits the big crimes of the oligarchy because there are sectors that propose an alliance with those very same criminals.


(1) Semanario Voz (21/07/2017)  Unidad para construir un nuevo país

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