Thursday, October 16, 2008

Colombia Free Trade Addressed in Last Presidential Debate, Betraying Both Candidates’ Limited Knowledge of the Crisis Facing the Andean Country

Some Thoughts About McCain, Obama and the Crisis in Colombia

By Mario A. Murillo
(Bogotá, Colombia; October 16, 2008)

While listening on-line to the last presidential debate from my home in Bogotá last night, it occurred to me how little knowledge people in the U.S. have of this troubled country, including those individuals aspiring to become the next occupant of the White House.

That the debate took place on the same day that Colombian security forces were brutally confronting thousands of indigenous protesters mobilized in different regions of the country, resulting in at least two dead and 60 wounded, makes one realize that either there’s a complete black-out of information about Colombia in the U.S. news media, or that most people up north simply don’t care.

Or worse yet, both.

For the first time in all the debates between the Republican and Democratic Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, the issue of Colombia was actually raised, and specifically, the controversial Free Trade Agreement between Washington and Bogotá. Arizona Senator John McCain talked about the regime of President Alvaro Uribe as "the best ally” of the U.S. in the Western hemisphere, one that deserves a free trade agreement with Washington, what he described as “a no-brainer.”

Demonstrating quite clearly how disconnected he is from the reality on the ground here, McCain scolded Senator Barack Obama for never having visited Colombia, as if the Republican’s August photo-op with Uribe in Bogotá somehow qualified him as an expert on the desires and concerns of the majority of the Colombian people. Despite trying to distance himself from the Bush White House throughout the debate and the campaign, McCain showed us all to what extent he represents another four years of the same failed policies of the current Administration when it comes to Latin America.

“Senator Obama doesn't want a free trade agreement with (Colombia), but wants to sit down across the table without precondition to -- with Hugo Chavez, the guy who has been helping FARC, the terrorist organization,” he said.

Somehow, in the current U.S. political discourse about Colombia, corporate politicians cannot avoid mentioning the Venezuelan President, and his alleged connections with FARC guerillas, regardless of how nebulous those links happen to be.

On the other side of the table, Senator Obama demonstrated a stark contrast to his Republican counterpart, and used language that is very rare for contemporary presidential candidates when discussing countries the U.S. is supposedly close to. To his credit, and as he has done in the past, Obama recognized the long history of attacks against the trade union movement in Colombia, where “labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions.”

Colombia’s major trade unions say the number of unionists murdered in Colombia in the first quarter of 2008 is roughly two times that of the first quarter of 2007, with 17 killed. During the first six years of Uribe’s presidency, 434 unionists have been murdered. Every year, more trade union activists are murdered in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. This is one of the issues that has struck a chord of solidarity in the U.S. labor movement, which has been consistently against the FTA for years, successfully putting their political capital on the line in the process.

Echoing the position of human rights groups and the U.S. trade union movement, Obama said: “We have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights.”

Needless to say, on Thursday morning, the comments from both candidates in the debate were the main topic of discussion on all the local talk radio stations in Colombia, and is front page news in the daily newspapers. And not surprisingly, the dominant opinions emanating from these commentators in the wake of the debate are highly critical of the position taken by the Illinois Senator, who has maintained cool relations with President Uribe, precisely because of his concerns relating to the U.S.-Colombia FTA.

Uribe has staked a good portion of his presidency on the successful completion of this trade accord, and has stopped at nothing to win the favor of the U.S. Congress. Uribe knows President Bush’s days in the White House are numbered, and is concerned that with Democrats controlling the executive and the legislature come January 20, 2009, a Free Trade Accord to his liking is not necessarily in the cards. Supporters of Uribe in both government and the media punditry, therefore, take offense to Obama’s critical position, and do not hold back from attacking him, often with racial undertones.

Obama Needs to Be Even Firmer on Colombia

However, given the current context of mass indigenous and popular uprisings in the south of the country, and the subsequent military response to these mobilizations, it is my contention that Obama did not go far enough in his criticism of the FTA or the Colombian government. Indeed, he needs to be updated about some of the major labor struggles going on in the country right now, and in particular the month-long strike of Colombia’s sugar cane workers. He has to stop and listen closely to the voices of the national indigenous movement, which has been peacefully demonstrating against the Free Trade Agreement for years because of the dangers the agreement poses for their communities and their territories.

And he needs to clearly understand the profound contradictions surrounding the Uribe government, which include multi-tiered investigations into its links with right wing paramilitary death squads who, along with being on the State Department's terrorism list, were the driving force behind the displacement and de-territorialization of peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian people for the past fifteen years, in close collaboration with the U.S.-trained Colombian Army, all in the false name of combating FARC rebels in the countryside.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch put out a scathing report about the way in which high level government officials have been getting in the way of investigations into the allegations of links between Uribe, his allies and paramilitary groups. Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said many of these investigations can soon find their way into the hands of the International Criminal Court.

As many scholars, human rights activists and independent journalists have described in countless texts, this forced displacement set the stage for the counter-land reform efforts of the Uribe government that are pre-requisites for the kinds of free trade agreements that John McCain blindly supports.

The popular movement is screaming out as we speak, and nobody up north seems to be listening!

And if they are, they are only hearing the propaganda of the Colombian government and its supporters. It is a drum-beat of mis-information that equates every popular struggle in the country, or anybody who criticizes the policies of President Uribe, with terrorists of the FARC.

When thousands of sugar cane cutters began to protest their slave-like working conditions one month ago yesterday, demanding a living wage and a more just contract by going on strike against the multi-billion dollar domestic sugar industry, President Uribe and his ministers were quick to say that “dark forces” were manipulating these poor workers.

When college students throughout the country organize for more affordable education, or at least better opportunities in public institutions of higher learning, their demands are written off as grievances resulting from what the government describes as the massive guerilla recruitment efforts spearheaded by the so-called “encapuchados” of the FARC, the hooded loudmouths caught on You Tube regurgitating revolutionary propaganda on campuses nationwide. This non-story occupied the major television networks for days, ironically at the same time that it was becoming clear that Uribe’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic and former governor of Cauca, Juan Jose Chaux Mosquerra, had been in close contact with paramilitaries of the infamous Calima Block of the AUC. The ability to change the subject is one of the government’s finest attributes.

Now, as thousands of indigenous people in Cauca protest the government’s failure to comply with dozens of promises regarding land rights, compensation for past crimes committed against them by organisms of the state, or the extensive militarization of their territories, we are told through the uncritical echo chamber of Colombia’s corporate media that the guerillas have deliberately co-opted the movement.

Last night, just moments before the debate began on the campus of Hostra University in New York, three thousand miles away President Uribe held a press conference to denounce the “infiltration” of terrorists into the indigenous protests, with a straight face accusing the protesters of carrying out a “massacre” of heavily armed riot police. It was the latest in a long string of false accusations that the Uribe government has launched against the organizations that make up the country’s dynamic indigenous movement.

It’s a pattern of mis-information that has angered many people, and is rearing its ugly head with a vengeance right now as the Colombian news media kicks into crisis mode in covering the mass, popular mobilizations in Cauca and Valle del Cauca, and the heavy-handed military response to the protests by state security forces.

Popular Mobilization Continues Amidst False Information in the Media

At the moment, over 12,000 indigenous and peasant activists, as well as representatives of other social sectors of southern Colombia, including the striking sugar cane workers, are urgently congregating in the “Territory of Peace and Coexistence” in La Maria Piendamó, in Cauca, confronting a massive presence of heavily armed special forces units who have been ordered by the government to dislodge them with helicopters, tear gas and automatic weapons.

Latest reports say that over 60 people have been injured in the actions, many of them severely, and at least two indigenous activists have been killed.

The popular mobilization began on October 12th, and was called by the indigenous movement to protest the militarization of their territories by the Colombian Army, with the strategic support of the U.S. They are particularly concerned with the so-called “Strategy to Strengthen Democracy and Social Development (2007-2013),” otherwise known as Plan Colombia II, which would be executed through the President’s own Center for Coordination of Integral Action, or CCAI, supported by the U.S. Embassy and the Southern Command in conjunction with various ministries of the Colombian government.

As I wrote in a previous post, in introducing the project to the Colombian press, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos made it clear that, following on the apparent successes of Uribe’s first term, the next several years would be dedicated to the “final recuperation of those zones where there is a persistent presence of terrorist groups and narco-traffickers.” (“Threats Mount Against Indigenous Social Movements in Northern Cauca,”

The protesters are also strongly opposed to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the failure of the government of President Uribe to fulfill several accords with the indigenous communities relating to various issues affecting them, particularly related to return of indigenous lands to the communities.

From the start of this latest mobilization, the protesters have been demanding a face to face with President Uribe, with the objective of expressing their many concerns relating to the government’s policies vis a vis indigenous people. The leaders say only then will they consider ending the mobilization, and eventually lifting their blockade of the Pan American highway. Uribe, meanwhile, says they will not accept any blocking of the highways, and has chosen to meet them head on with the force of the state, not at the negotiating table.

The organizations behind the protest have been putting out press releases and public statements for weeks, letting people know what they were protesting about and why, while also denouncing the intervention of all armed actors – legal or illegal – in their territories. In a massive grassroots education campaign, the leadership has organized workshops and teach-ins to explain why the “Life Plans” of the community are under severe threat of extinction from various sources: paramilitary groups linked to large landowners, FARC rebels who intimidate and harass throughout indigenous territory, the government, through its development plans and extensive military presence.

But none of these positions are known or understood by the Colombian people, who are constantly spoon-fed information from government sources with very little space for more comprehensive analysis or reporting.

If the Colombian media stopped focusing so much attention on celebrity gossip and sensationalist crime stories, and paid some attention to the organizing processes in the communities, it would be clear that the unfolding protests around the country, currently at a crisis mode, is not the work of guerillas, but of a people that is fed up with the way things are in the countryside.

I was in northern Cauca for a week and left on the day the mobilization began, and one thing is clear: there are a lot of angry people in the indigenous and peasant communities. I also visited with the sugar cane workers on strike in Valle del Cauca, living in makeshift tents and basically starving for the past four weeks since they’ve been on strike.

The mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous workers see the Free Trade Agreement as a direct attack against their interests, already compromised by labor laws passed in 2005 that essentially makes them indentured servants for the giants of Colombia’s sugar industry. These workers are not too happy either, and have blocked the entrances to all the major sugar plantations throughout the south of the country. The sugar cane workers have also joined forces with the indigenous protesters over the last week, blocking the Pan American Highway in the municipality of Candelaria, in Valle del Cauca, on Wednesday.

These are the same workers who, when the strike began, were told by Uribe that “they had a right to protest,” but that “dark forces of the guerillas were forcing them” to carry out the work stoppage.

Many of these same workers told me last week, at the encampment outside the Pichichí sugar plantation in the municipality of Guacarí, that yes, they have been obligated to protest, not by “dark forces” or guerilla infiltration, but by their children, who want a better future for themselves.

As I listened to these words, I only wished that Barack Obama, and anybody up north with a conscience, could have heard them as well.

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of communication at Hofstra University and author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. He is currently living in Colombia, working on a book about the indigenous movement and its uses of community media.


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