Colombia: Gustavo Petro and the Civic–Military Campaigns
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
23 November 2022
President Petro meets wuth Gen Laura Richardson of U.S. Southern Command.
The Petro – Márquez government is one which proposes to bring us to what they term Total Peace. The term and the proposal as such have been subjected to justifiable criticism, not least because it places the insurgency of the ELN on the same footing as armed drug trafficking groups. But there is another aspect of their government that calls upon us to reflect on what Petro – Márquez understand as peace and a demilitarized society that breaks with the past and the present of a repressive state where the answer to everything is a military response. A first step would be to remove the military from civilian settings.
But Petro has already made statements that indicate that neither he nor Márquez think that. Shortly after taking on the presidency, he declared that the answer to deforestation of the Amazon was not only military, but Yankee. In their electoral campaign their proposal was different, they did not talk about the military anywhere, but rather of democracy, autonomy, measures against drug trafficking and money laundering.
We will stop the deforestation and the burning of the jungle. We will dismantle the engines of deforestation, amongst them: displacement of the unemployed and landless peasants from the interior of the country towards the Amazon; land grabbers and promoters of extensive cattle ranching and other monocultures; corruption in public bodies; laundering of foreign currency through the purchase of deforested land, a by-product of drug trafficking and corruption; the uncontrolled extraction of wood etc.(1)And he also said that the pacts to protect the jungle would be with the communities and not national or foreign militaries.
We will build a broad national pact of regional and global importance for the environmental defence of the Amazon, Orinoco and the biogeographic corridor of the Pacific. We will set up community agreements for the regeneration and ecological restoration of these eco-systems based on organisational processes, proposing to increase the size of collective territories, registry of plots and the strengthening of traditional and ancestral authorities. We will recognise the rural communities’ own lifestyle in strategic eco-systems and their own ecological and economic forms of production in these habitats, as well as their own environmental management.(2)It all sounds very nice, but it goes hand in hand with militarisation. He proposed a sort of military alliance with the USA to avoid the burning of the jungle, copying the already existing model in Brazil where the USA has a base from which to put out fires. Of course, in Brazil the mining and logging companies, etc. invade the territory with the approval of the government. The presence of north American troops never prevented any of the extractivist policies and less still poverty under the governments of Lula, Dilma and Bolsonaro.
As others have pointed out, it is nothing more than the militarisation of environmentalism and it is an old slogan of the imperialists that they should be in charge wherever they want and that includes the Amazon. They used to brandish the anti-narcotics struggle as an excuse and now it is global warming. Al Gore once said that “The Amazon is not their property, it belongs to us all”. Of course, by us, this miscreant means Yankee imperialism: the USA. It is the same discourse they have in relation to oil; it does not belong to the countries that have it but rather to all of us i.e. the US and European companies. Al Gore’s fame as an environmentalist is undeserved but his reputation an old imperialist is completely justified. Other governments have come out with similar feelings, Gore’s was not an individual outburst. Macron, NATO as such and the influential magazine Foreign Policy have argued for a military intervention in the region with the aim of protecting the planet.(3)
For the moment, Petro is not in favour of Colombia becoming a member of NATO, rather he proposes a regional military alliance.(4) Against whom would this alliance fight is not at all clear, or whether it would simply be an unofficial appendage to NATO. We should be concerned and not just a little bit. In November he met with representatives of the US Embassy and the Subsecretary of Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland. Following the meeting Nuland tweeted.
Thank you, Gustavo Petro President of Colombia for our productive meeting reaffirming the importance of our continued partnership on security, peace, progress for Venezuela and protecting our planet.(5)Bearing in mind the murky past of Nuland in Ukraine in 2014, we should be very careful with her, but there are those who believe that Petro is charge.
It is not the only issue where he proposes military rather than civilian solutions. Faced with the lack of access to healthcare in the territories of the Pacific, he also proposed to militarise the response. The Pacific is one of the regions with the worst indicators in the area of healthcare. Nobody doubts about the need for an urgent and comprehensive response for the region. The military boat USNS Comfort visited Colombia to provide medical assistance. It was not the first time, the said boat has visited the country four times as part of the Continuing Promise(6) mission, a medical and public relations initiative of the US, deploying its Soft Power. This boat also took part in the two wars in Iraq as a military hospital, and in the invasion of Haití in 1994. Petro’s response on Twitter was:
I am grateful for this support in healthcare from the US government to the people of the Caribbean. It is important that we think about the Pacific. A mission for the National Navy, along with the building of the first frigate “made in Colombia” will be the building of a hospital ship.(7)In a non-militarised state healthcare should be under the remit of the Ministry of Health and not the Ministry of Defence, but Petro – Márquez want to bring healthcare to the Pacific through military rather than civilian institutions. Such incoherence with his public discourse! In previous governments the military has used its economic power and civic-military days as part of its military and armed operations. The mobilisation of troops and the demand for collaboration from the civilian population is justified on the basis of access to medical services that are provided for by civilians in Bogotá and other parts of the country without the need to explain themselves to military institution in the midst of a war.
The Petro – Márquez government is also going to continue with the proposal of the Santos government to build a military base on the Gorgona Island. It is worth remembering that Santos was one of these other men of peace that are in abundance in Colombia: hawks dressed as doves. The Gorgona Island was, for many years, a penal colony, the Colombian version of the infamous Devil’s Island immortalised in Papillon film with Steve McQueen. In 1982 it was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO due to it high ecological value. Now they want to go ahead with the plan to place a military base there. What is new in the Petro – Márquez government is that there is a rumour that the USA will have access to the base. It is not an absurd idea, as the project has anti-narcotic aims and is financed by the US Embassy in the country.(8) With absolute certainty, the DEA will at least have access to it. There are alternatives, such as a warship as a centre of operations. Petro wants the Navy to build a hospital ship but is not up to telling them to build a ship for what does fall within its remit.
He says he wants peace but he wants to promote the military at every turn, even turning up every time he can in military caps. So far, he hasn’t acted ridiculous like Iván Duque dressing up as a police officer in the midst of the National Strike of 2021, but as his supporters point out he has only been president for a little more than 100 days and we have to give him time. In every circus you have to wait for the clowns to come in. We can’t always see the lion tamer but clowns and clownish antics are always there.
Some social climbers from social and human rights organisations ran to take up posts in the ministries of Defence and also the Interior. They used to be critics of the armed forces and police of the state, now they look out for its good name in the area of human rights and international humanitarian law. They also promote the military at each turn. The recently nominated Alexandra González, a former functionary of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners, who is now the Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of National Defence published an effusive tweet full of praise of the Ministry of Defence what stated “Military engineers will build tertiary road to benefit the peasant population.”(9) She doesn’t understand that the armed forces are never for anything other than war, even in peace time they are preparing for war. It is their only function. In any case, no one can explain why the military have to the ones that are building those roads. But as a good political opportunist she claims as her own that which does not belong to her. On twitter they replied to her, pointing out that those projects were old ones. A retired military officer and former advisor to the High Commissioner for Peace pointed her in the direction of an article in the regional newspaper El Quindiano written by himself, speaking of the beginning of these civic – military projects in the 1960s.(10)
All governments have carried out infrastructural projects through the Ministry of Defence and in all governments, they were referred to as peace projects. Perhaps the fugitives from the human rights organisations feel the need to say that it is new in order not to make evident that there is a continuity between this government and all of the previous ones. I don’t understand why they signed up to the non-binding declaration on safe schools, if they are promoting the military presence in all other aspects of civilian life. The ideal situation would be to not permit the military to use schools as bases or human shields in the midst of fighting nor use the military to build infrastructural projects.
If the government was really progressive (an imprecise term) it would take away the civilian contracts from the military, healthcare would be the exclusive responsibility of health bodies and not the military, it would not propose a military alliance in a world with an excess of them and the symbols that he would put on a pedestal would be civilian ones, from the people, the communities, even from some trade union, even if it were just out of pure nostalgia, as when he was Mayor of Bogotá he didn’t think much of unions.
(2) Colombia Potencia Mundial de la Vida, Programa de Gobierno 2022 - 2024 pp 14 y 15 (disponible en https://gustavopetro.co
(3) Harris, R. (28/10/2022) NATO in the Amazon: Petro Plays with Fire https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/10/28/nato-in-the-amazon-petro-plays-with-fire/
(8) El Tiempo (26/10/2022) Pese a cuestionamientos, la Armada construirá muelle en Gorgona https://www.eltiempo.com/vida/medio-ambiente/gorgona-pese-a-cuestionamientos-la-armada-construira-muelle-712305
(10) Castaño, C. (24/03/2022) Un plan militar para la paz https://www.cronicadelquindio.com/opinion/opinion/un-plan-militar-para-la-paz