Monday, September 22, 2008

Some Thoughts About Uribe's UN Visit


What Alvaro Uribe Won’t Talk About at the United Nations This Week, (But Probably Discussed with President Bush Over the Weekend)

By Mario A. Murillo (Bogotá, Colombia)

Was Uribe Snubbed in Washington?

At a certain level, I must admit, I almost felt sorry for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe last week. His high-profile visit to Washington was unexpectedly shortened because it became readily apparent that members of the U.S. Congress were not really interested in hearing his last ditch effort to get them to approve the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, FTA.

The President had hoped to spend a few days lobbying both Democrats and Republicans about the need to give the bilateral trade deal a green light before they broke up for a long winter’s nap in a few weeks. But Congressional leaders, who have been so caught up in the ongoing battles of a tight election campaign, expressed that they had very little time – and probably less of a stomach – to sit down with this close friend of outgoing President Bush to discuss trade issues that, for the most part, are not very popular in the current U.S. economic context of banks going belly-up, housing and stock prices plummeting, and the Federal Government bailing out one of the country’s largest private insurers. Clearly they were not interested. This was not the time. Come back next year.

But with the propaganda skills that he has honed to perfection, Uribe was quick to save face about the abrupt “change in plans.” He too had been tied up with a regional forum in Santiago to discuss the crisis in Bolivia, so it wasn’t only the gringos who were too busy to meet with him. And besides, just before leaving Bogotá for the U.S., one of the two men who will most likely replace Bush come January actually called Uribe by telephone and talked with him for a grand total of 12 minutes! Despite the cool relations between Senator Barack Obama and the Colombian President, tensions that stem from the Democratic Candidate’s stated opposition to the FTA, Uribe reveled in the attention he received from the soon-to-be-President of the United States of America. The brief telephone call made front-page headlines in Colombia, allowing Uribe to bask in the glare of self-importance, while once again exposing to the world the profound levels of subservience that continue to dictate relations between the two countries, regardless of who occupies the White House.

That was last week.

Since then, Uribe has met behind closed doors with the lame-duck and highly discredited George W. Bush, a mutual love fest that marked the end of a long and close relationship between two leaders cut out of the same political cloth. At a joint news conference at the White House Rose Garden on Saturday, Bush called on his successor to stand beside Uribe in the interest of the United States, and pushed the Congress to approve the FTA in order to avoid giving more ammunition to “populists in our neighborhood,” referring of course to the democratically-elected Presidents in Bolivia and Venezuela. Again, front page news in Colombia, nary a mention in the U.S.

In the wake of that triumphant photo-op, Uribe is now planning a series of very important meetings in New York, the financial capital of the world which last week suffered through a psychological trauma not felt since 9/11, or worse yet, the Great Depression. Again, Uribe’s timing could not be more off. Nevertheless, he’s hoping to make the most of it, at least in the Colombian press, which continues to provide Uribe with a thick coating of Teflon, regardless of what he does or where he goes, nor the disturbing conditions on the ground in Colombia.

The list of dignitaries he is meeting with this week is quite impressive: French President Nicholas Sarkozy, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the head of the European Union’s Foreign Ministry Javier Solana, and former hostage and “opposition candidate” Ingrid Betancourt. Uribe will address the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.

Which makes one wonder what exactly Uribe will be telling all these very important people while in New York? One would guess these leaders will get an earful from Uribe about the controversial “Operation Jaque” that led to the release of Betancourt, as well as the other so-called successes of his “democratic security” strategy. Certainly he will make the arguments about the urgent need to sustain this approach in the coming years in the interest of regional stability. Did anybody say “re-election?”

Some Disturbing Questions Should Be Raised, But Will They?
There is no doubt, however, that there are a number of issues that will not come up in these many high profile encounters. Or at least there are some things that President Uribe would prefer not be brought up during his visit, lest they interfere with the carefully crafted message he brings with him.

For example, there’s the growing evidence pointing to his administration’s cozy relationship with top paramilitary leaders, including the now widespread acknowledgement that members of his government met several times with representatives of these international criminals in the Presidential Palace. Apparently, these “underground” encounters – literally in the Palace basement- were designed to plan a collective response to the so-called “para-política” scandal, which over the last two years has led to the arrest of and investigation into dozens of members of the Colombian Congress, and the government, who just so happen to be allies of the President.

There’s also the uncomfortable issue of the widespread corruption within the prosecutor’s office in Uribe’s native town Medellín, where the chief prosecutor, Guillermo León Valencia Cossio, was forced to resign after recordings of his conversations with Juan Felipe Sierra, the business representative of paramilitary boss Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario,” were made public in August. Since then, a number of top police and security officials in Colombia’s second largest city have been implicated in the corruption link, forcing them to resign as investigations into their ties with paramilitaries widen. While Uribe has publicly characterized these revelations as “lamentable,” it has been difficult not to notice that Valencia Cossio’s brother, Fabio, Uribe’s Minister of Interior and Justice, has lost all credibility within the Congress and other opposition circles, especially in the area of the reform of Colombia’s justice system.

Indeed, the unfolding revelations of links between government officials and paramilitary leaders is lending more credence than ever before to the accusations that opposition figures have been making for some time: that for the last six years, the Uribe government has been overseeing the consolidation of a paramilitary-state with close ties to some of the country’s most powerful private economic interests, all under the watch of a compliant Washington. As I have written in previous posts, this process has come at the expense of some of the most dynamic movements of community organization and mobilization that we’ve seen in recent years in Colombia, particularly in indigenous communities. Therefore, while Uribe proudly touts the accomplishments of his policies before the United Nations, and with all the world leaders he will be meeting with in the coming days, I feel it is important to keep in mind some of these alarming issues and trends that will most likely be kept off his agenda.

Former Cauca Governor and Uribe’s Ambassador to D.R. A Paramilitary?
One of the clearest examples of the expansive paramilitary-government axis can be seen in the southwestern department of Cauca, where another recently revealed component of the para-state scandal involves the former governor of Cauca, Juan José Chaux. In late August, President Uribe was forced to acknowledge to the press that lawyers of para-military leaders Diego Álvarez, alias “Don Berna,” and Antonio López, alias “Job,” attended a meeting at the Presidential Palace with high level government officials back in April. What was not mentioned in this press conference was that Chaux was also present at this meeting.

According to a report in Semana magazine, the meeting in the Palace was a great opportunity for Chaux to try to clear his name. This was because “Job” was seen as a direct link to “don Berna,” who in turn could persuade another major paramilitary leader, Ever Veloza, alias “H.H.,” from providing any more information to investigators about Chaux’ ties to the AUC. It turns out that Veloza had revealed to investigators in November 2007 that Chaux had met with the leadership of the notorious Calima Block of the AUC a few years back to seek support for his gubernatorial campaign, support the imprisoned paramilitary leader says was instrumental in Chaux’ eventual victory in Cauca. The startling revelations of his direct ties to the paramilitaries forced Chaux to resign last week from his post as Uribe’s Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. This is the same Chaux who, as governor of Cauca, proclaimed “Not one more millimeter of land for the Indians,” all the while enriching himself with the illegal wealth generated by paramilitary terror.

The endemic contradictions in these developments become even more pronounced if one considers the harsh conditions of warfare that the indigenous communities in Cauca are facing today, despite the grandiose claims of the government about the successes of the U.S.-backed democratic security strategy. Last week, as Uribe made his rounds painting a rosy picture about Colombia for his audiences in Washington, an all-out war was being waged in the indigenous towns of Toribio and Jambaló in northern Cauca, resulting in the death of at least one local in Jambaló. Another target of the fighting over the last few days was La Emperatriz estate in the municipality of Caloto, where indigenous activists have been mobilizing for years, demanding a return of lands to the communities victimized by the 1991 massacre of 20 Nasa activists, perpetrated by government forces with local paramilitaries.

The latest confrontations between the national police, the army, and guerillas of the FARC in these areas lasted several days, between September 18th and 21st, and were characterized by sniper fire, low-flying helicopters, and the launching of rudimentary explosives by FARC rebels into Toribio.

These and other confrontations are often described by the government as a necessary byproduct of the military’s efforts to counter the pervasive presence of guerillas in indigenous territories. As FARC rebels continue to operate in indigenous territories, the government argues, the state security apparatus will continue to respond in kind. Televised reports over the weekend made it appear as if the indigenous communities themselves were attacking state security forces in the area.

Eyewitnesses in turn, have described a completely different scenario, one that deliberately tries to link the autonomous indigenous movement with the guerillas of FARC in order to justify a military response. The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, put out a series of emergency communiqués last week, describing a pattern of strange activity in the region by what seemed to be agents of the state. This included the presence of unmarked cars with tinted windows that continuously passed by the offices of ACIN and their community-licensed radio station in Santander de Quilichao throughout those three days. Some of those same cars were also seen driving back and forth from Caloto to the town of El Palo, where some of the fiercest confrontations took place. According to ACIN, it should be seen as no coincidence that the confrontations escalated just as these suspicious vehicles made their presence felt.

For the mostly indigenous inhabitants of these areas in Northern Cauca, the constant fighting has “converted the territory of the great people – el Gran Pueblo - into a theater of operations in permanent dispute through the use of terror and death.” Local indigenous leaders are denouncing the presence of all armed actors in their territories, and see the almost daily incursions as a deliberate attempt to destabilize their movement and their demands for autonomy, and respect for their territorial rights.

As I’ve written in previous posts, the fight in Cauca remains focused on the issue of land and territory. Among the many challenges facing indigenous communities in the current context is developing a national strategy to confront the egregious counter-reform process that has been unfolding vis a vis territorial control under the government of Alvaro Uribe, whose own minister of agriculture proudly proclaimed “no more land reform” in 2003. At the time, he was referring to the dissolution of the Colombian Institute of Land Reform, INCORA, which was replaced by a toothless multi-faceted agency with 20% of INCORA’s original budget, now known as The Colombian Institute for Rural Development, or INCODER. The INCODER, for all intents and purposes, has been tasked to oversee the dismantling of collective land titles in the interest of opening up vast chunks of the Colombian national territory for private domestic development and foreign investment. Therefore, the uneven concentration of land will remain for the near future, given the limited budget and the generally weak mandate of INCODER under the Uribe government. This is not a coincidence.

Land Reform and Paramilitaries
There is a powerful sector of Colombia’s political and economic class that continue to make the erroneous argument that land reform is no longer necessary in an era of smaller government, open markets, and corporate globalization. Among them is the former Ambassador Chaux, whose public declarations against the indigenous movement when he was governor of Cauca were eerily reminiscent of the dirty war communiqués put out by AUC death squads throughout the Colombian countryside.

These are the same people who take offense to the indigenous community’s demands about the reintegration of land into their territories and the expansion of the resguardos, issues that were addressed in favor of the indigenous communities in the new Constitution of 1991. This powerful alliance of paramilitaries and the economic/political elite of Cauca has been fiercely opposed to returning any lands to indigenous communities, even those that previous governments had already agreed to surrender based on settlements like the one over the Nilo massacre in 1991. For these private interests and their puppets in government, represented faithfully by the Uribe Administration, the current, perversely imbalanced distribution of land in the country is not a problem: 61.2% of the land is concentrated in the hands of 0.4% of the overall population, which is less than 15,000 private landowners. Compare that with 57.3% of the country’s population controlling less than 1.7% of all the land, mostly smaller holdings of less than 3 hectares. It is evident that the bigger problem for the current government is not this uneven concentration of land, but the collective land titles of Afro-Colombian communities, and the resguardos of the indigenous population.

In Cauca, the struggle for land reform has been among the most visible in the country, and has resulted in some of the most dramatic acts of mobilization in recent years, as well as confrontations between indigenous communities and state forces. But any efforts to truly address the community’s demands have been set back by the intransigence of the Minister of Agriculture and other government officials, all of whom have been pressured by traditional landowners in the department to resist at all costs any attempt to hand over land to the indigenous population.

The Minister of Agriculture, Andrés Felipe Arias, is one of the most outspoken advocates of the proportional argument with regards to the population of the indigenous community and the amount of land that they collectively control. In advocating for the Law for Rural Development in 2006, he openly talked about the need to reduce the size of the indigenous resguardos in order to more adequately serve the proportion of the population living within those territories, saying that the current system was not economically sustainable in the long term, and was getting in the way of large-scale agribusiness that is ultimately in the best economic interest of the entire country.

In making this argument, he fails to acknowledge that 95% of the land that make up the resguardos is not suitable for agriculture, because they are located in dense forests, high altitude mountain peaks, and in areas in close proximity to important sources of water. This leads the indigenous communities to suspect that the government’s intentions are more directed at opening up some of these sensitive areas to the development of so-called megaproyectos, or mega-projects, funded in large part by foreign investment. These mega-projects – dams, roadways, large-scale extractive mining developments - run counter to the indigenous philosophy of ecological balance and defense of the environment. The FTA that Uribe is openly promoting in Washington would facilitate this process of territorial consolidation.

To make matters worse, the government’s position regarding land reform conveniently ignores the long history of the deliberate, violent expulsion of indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian people from their territories in the interest of large landholders. The resguardo system was set up precisely as a result of the pressures from the indigenous communities who survived the genocide of the Spanish colonialists, and was not originally meant to be a long-term resolution to the unequal distribution of land throughout Colombia. This was at the heart of the earliest struggles of the indigenous movement.

The government’s current intransigence, therefore, deliberately fails to recognize the primordial importance of the concept of “territory” for the cultural, social and political affirmation of indigenous autonomy. In essence, they are completely reversing the 1991 Constitution, and declaring as irrelevant the reasons why indigenous communities participated in the Constituent Assembly in the first place.


The current government is utilizing mechanisms of the past in order to diminish the possibility of true land reform, and to allow those sectors which have either violently taken control of, or fraudulently co-opted properties, to maintain permanent control of those territories. It is a 21st century manifestation of the dismantling of the resguardos, a process that stems back to the post-independence period in Colombian history.

It cannot be overemphasized the impact the paramilitary project of the last 20 years has had, both on land reform for agricultural development, and on mining and the extraction of natural resources. This process has fundamentally altered the control of land throughout the country, with profoundly destructive consequences for the communities that have been targeted. Many human rights advocates, political economists, and historians have argued that the paramilitary strategy was deliberately executed as a way to displace indigenous, Afro-Colombian and other peasant populations from their territories in order to surrender those territories to private interests completely alien to the communities.

The brutal violence and the forced displacement that followed was justified by the AUC leadership and their political mouthpieces as a necessary evil that was required in order to dislodge the guerillas from their base. It is a deliberately misleading argument that for various reasons has been generally embraced by the Colombian middle and upper classes, who, for years, have been spoon-fed large doses of guerilla atrocities on the nightly news, while hearing much less about the political strategy behind the paramilitary terror that was being waged simultaneously, with the complicity of the state.

Today, there is widespread acceptance that the paramilitaries were deeply entrenched in the illicit, global drug trade, and as a result, its leaders have been widely condemned in the media. However, because of the manner in which the demobilization process with the AUC was executed by the Uribe administration, very little information about the so-called legitimate political and economic interests behind the AUC has been widely disseminated through mainstream channels. The truth has been tragically compromised as a result.

Only now, through the heroic efforts of human rights and social justice activists, victims of paramilitary terror, and their allies within independent sectors of the Colombian news media, is it becoming clearer how profound these connections are between so-called “illegitimate actors,” and the apparently “legal” political, and economic forces that dominate Colombian politics, all the way up to the highest reaches of power.

The paramilitary state is being exposed, slowly but surely. The emperor indeed, has no clothes. Whether or not the people visiting with Uribe this week in New York will understand this - from the fancy U.N. cocktails, to the private V.I.P. meetings, from the open forums in the Colombian community, to the local news media – is a completely different issue.

Mario A. Murillo is author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. He is currently living in Colombia.

1 comment:

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