Thursday, October 23, 2008

Who is Behind Today’s Six Bomb Blasts in Bogotá?

As Indigenous Protesters Camp in the Darkness of Villarica, Cauca - on Their Way to Cali for Monday’s Popular Minga - Fear of Real “Dark Forces” Lingers Overhead

By Mario A. Murillo (Bogotá, Colombia; October 23, 2008)

The explosion of six small bombs in different points of the north and west of the Colombian capital of Bogotá marked…a chaotic day with a total of 16 people wounded, none seriously. The most important thing to keep in mind in the face of this wave of terrorism is the need to stay calm, not to exaggerate these incidents, nor contribute to the state of collective fear by creating alarmist interpretations or irrational theories.

So begins Friday’s front-page editorial, posted Thursday night on the website of Colombia’s paper of record, El Tiempo.

Despite the editorial’s words of reasoned caution, I cannot help but try to interpret what these coordinated actions of small-scale attacks actually represent, given the current context of what went on in the rest of the city and throughout the country on this same day.

Indeed, these are extraordinary times in Colombia:

• The Indigenous and Popular Mobilization, or Minga, spearheaded by the Nasa communities of northern Cauca, but joined by the entire national indigenous movement throughout the country, continued in its long, deliberate march towards Colombia’s third largest city, Cali, reaching the municipality of Villarica after three days on the move, as thousands of women, peasants, and non-indigenous workers accompanied them along the way;

• The Central Workers Union, CUT, organized and held a successful general strike involving educators, health care providers, and a broad cross section of other public sector workers, who marched into downtown Bogotá and into other cities to protest salaries that have not kept up with inflation, among other issues;

• The predominantly Afro-Colombian cane cutters continued to maintain their disciplined work stoppage in the massive sugar plantations throughout the southwest of the country, marking 39 days of resistance to working conditions that at best can be described as indentured servitude, this despite consistent accusations from the government of being “manipulated by dark forces,” and the arrest of six of its primary leaders earlier in the week;

• On Wednesday night, the same night that President Alvaro Uribe finally admitted that government forces had fired weapons at indigenous protesters in last week’s mobilizations in the municipality of Piendamó, (something he was forced to do once CNN presented videotape footage of the incident on international television), the owners of some of the biggest plantations called on the government to declare a “state of commotion” on the striking workers, which would have given the public security forces the green light to forcibly remove the cane cutters from their makeshift encampments blocking the entrances to the plantations, a show of force against the constitutionally-protected, non-violent, civil disobedience being carried out by these workers now for over a month.

• The director of the Department of Administrative Security, DAS, the government’s internal security agency, was forced to resign after it was revealed that agents within her department were illegally monitoring the movements of leading opposition figure and potential presidential candidate Gustavo Petro of the Alternative Democratic Pole, PDA. These revelations came just days before partisans were going to vote on the Party’s slate for the upcoming PDA Congress.
If we weren’t in a Colombia governed by President Uribe, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Thursday marked the start of what, for all intents and purposes, could be described as a popular uprising against a very unpopular government.

But why the six bombs in Bogotá?

The editorial writer for El Tiempo, (which just so happens to be owned by the Vice President’s family) tells us we should not come to any preconceived conclusions that ultimately play into the hands of terrorists by “planting uncertainty in the people,” thereby destroying “the confidence the country has recuperated in its institutions.”

It is ironic that this so-called “confidence” in the country’s institutions comes amidst the troubling revelations at the DAS, the mass indigenous mobilizations in the south, and the ongoing Para-política scandal surrounding close allies of the president, a scandal that, for various reasons, seems to have been put on hold for the time being as the media focus on other unfolding crises. Less than a week ago, Human Rights Watch put out a report that documented how the Uribe administration was directly interfering with the ongoing investigations of various Uribe supporters linked to right wing paramilitary groups, making it almost impossible for investigators to get to the bottom of the situation.

All of this points to an accelerated crumbling of public confidence, despite the constant drumbeat of the corporate media, reminding us of the unprecedented popularity of Mr. Uribe. Can those numbers be for real, given the objective reality surrounding the country today?

But what does this have to do with six bombs going off in Bogotá on the same day so many other things were seemingly going wrong?

While no one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, El Tiempo assures us that “all of us know where these bombers come from and what their objectives are,” ironically just one paragraph after urging the reader not to jump to any hasty conclusions.

A guerilla that, after 40 years of armed struggle, finds itself at its highest level of unpopularity and isolation might think that placing bombs in public spaces is one way to have a presence, and debunk interpretations that point to its growing weakness,” reads the editorial.

This is the conventional wisdom repeated again and again by Colombian military officials and echoed regularly in the media. The guerillas are on permanent retreat, so they have now moved on to acts of utter desperation. In fact, today we heard reports that Alfonso Cano, the commander of FARC, had been wounded in the hand during recent combat, and that the top leadership is, for all intents and purposes, completely surrounded.

To its credit, the editorial I keep referring to rightfully pointed out that FARC has always rejected the idea of using urban terrorism as an expression of its political survival in its texts and speeches. However, it goes on to state unequivocally that “everything indicates that today” things are different.

So, if these mindless, seemingly well-coordinated, yet small-scale bomb attacks are proven to be the work of FARC, how should we perceive it within the current state of affairs? Well, once again, the profound bankruptcy of the guerillas’ reactionary ideals will be placed under the national and international spotlight, the relentless peddling of random violence as some revolutionary moment. This would be most unfortunate, precisely because these acts are being carried out at the same time that millions of other working Colombians are struggling to have their voices heard, mobilizing under the most difficult conditions to truly transform a nation that is currently being led by a highly entrenched, yet what many perceive to be an illegitimate regime. The popular and indigenous movements’ righteous demands are inevitably and tragically overshadowed by the “public fear” that is automatically thrust to the forefront of the news agenda.

Whose interests, in this scenario, are actually being served?

But what if these six bombs are not the work of FARC?

As the El Tiempo editorial correctly argues, “to synchronize these acts to the day that there is a peaceful national strike and when there are social marches unfolding in the rest of the country provides ammunition for those who look to criminalize social protest.”
And who, exactly, are they referring to here? From my standpoint, this is the most alarming aspect of today’s events, and should send shivers down the spine of anybody who has been paying close attention to developments in Colombia over the past several years.
Let’s take a quick step back over the last few months:

The sugar cane workers go on strike, demanding better working conditions…and they’re accused by President Uribe of being manipulated by “dark forces.”

The indigenous movement mobilizes to demand a dialogue with the government…and they are accused by President Uribe of being infiltrated by “terrorists.”

Independent journalists put out incriminating reports about possible corruption in the presidential re-election process of 2006…and they are accused by President Uribe of being treasonous.

And the state judicial workers go on strike for over a month, and the president declares a state of internal commotion, automatically assuming extraordinary powers relating to justice and security. Despite the judicial union’s announcement last week of the suspension of their strike, President Uribe has not rescinded the state of internal commotion. Many observers are asking why?

Do we sense a pattern here?

I just spoke by telephone to one of the organizers of the Minga Popular, who was sitting in the encampment in Villarica, Cauca, where the thousands of protesters have chosen to stop for the night until they resume their long trek towards Jamundí on Friday morning, hoping to arrive in Cali by the weekend. He tells me the movement remains united, despite reports that some indigenous leaders in Cauca’s capital, Popayán, had agreed to meet with President Uribe in one of his highly stage-managed communal councils over the weekend.

“This is false,” he said. “The people camped out in Villarica are committed to holding their massive popular assembly in Cali on Monday, hoping the president will agree to meet with them there, on their terms.”

He then told me that the lights in the encampment have been mysteriously shut off.

The mood amongst the indigenous people gathered remains very positive and focused, he assured me, although there is an ominous feeling hovering above just about everybody there.

Today’s events were in many ways unprecedented, but at the same time overwhelming for them.

They don’t want to jump to any conclusions about what might be behind these six explosions.

But some of them fear for the worst.

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