Nov. 27, 2017

An interview with Dan Kovalik

Murders of trade unionists and social leaders, paramilitary activity, coca production… If we only paid attention to the mainstream media we would not get the idea that these problems are actually growing in Colombia, one year after the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC came into place. To get a better picture and understand how all these elements connect to US policy and corporate interests, we interviewed Daniel Kovalik, a lawyer and human rights activist who has long been involved in the struggle for peace and justice in Colombia.

The peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government was brought into place about a year ago. And yet, as you stress in a recent article you wrote, trade unionists, social leaders, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, are actually being murdered at a higher rate than before. How do you explain this?

Yes, that’s true. And in fact, they are being killed at a higher rate even though the overall violence level in Colombia has gone down in recent times. I think it’s very easy to explain. The paramilitaries are still very much a factor and a force in Colombia. They are now starting to take over territory that the FARC once held, and frankly they are also feeling emboldened by the peace process.

This was a fear that a lot of folks had. You probably recall that in the 1980s the FARC also signed on to a peace agreement and put down their arms to run as a political party, the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica, UP). And 3000-5000 of their members were killed by the paramilitaries. That’s what led the FARC back into the jungle. So there was always this fear that this could happen again, and I think we are seeing this happening again. Only this time the Colombian government and the US government don’t even admit that there are paramilitaries. But they are very much there.

Recently there was this indefinite national strike (paro nacional indefinido) in Colombia. What were the reasons behind it?

Well, again I think some of it had to do with this violence against social leaders, and the strike was to put pressure on the government to protect the social leaders. But there are also grave economic injustices in Colombia, it is one of the most unequal societies in the world. There are very few workers under union contracts, and the protests were also in support of labour rights.

As you’ve said, there are many people fearful that the peace agreement is not being upheld by the Colombian government. The FARC even submitted a complaint to the United Nations last week. What exactly are they accusing the government of not doing?

Part of the peace deal was that the government would go after these paramilitary groups, which again the government doesn’t admit exist, they claim they are these criminal groups, the bacrim(bandas criminales). And the government is not doing that. Again, I think the view of the social movements, the view of the FARC, is that the government is, at best, turning a blind eye to these groups because they want to see the social movements eradicated.

The fear of course is that, now that the FARC have laid down their arms, giving them to the United Nations, the government feels like they don’t have to make any concessions to the FARC or even follow the agreement. Because what leverage does the FARC have now? None… It’s a very cynical position to take, but I think that is the position that the Colombian government is taking.

Back in 2003, then president Álvaro Uribe announced that the paramilitary groups were being dissolved but it seems they are alive and well. What are the (economic) interests for them to move into these territories where the FARC used to be?

Well, as you say, there was this fake demobilisation of the paramilitaries. Most human rights groups, Human Rights Watch for example, acknowledge that it was not a real demobilisation. And the paramilitaries have a number of interests in the land in Colombia. For example Francisco Ramírez, who is an attorney and trade unionist there, wrote a book that shows that, as mining interests move in to various zones, the paramilitaries tend to go in before them to subjugate the area. So the paramilitaries make money, both from their own engagement in illegal mining, but also they see their interests aligned with corporations, both domestic and international. They are basically the vanguard of these mining and agricultural interests.

Buenaventura is probably the most enigmatic instance of this economic reality. This is a city on the Pacific coast whose ports were built up in anticipation of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. There the paramilitaries have really taken over the city, engaging in a real social cleansing operation, forcibly disappearing hundreds of people. They chopped them up alive in these “chophouses”, it’s a very grisly situation. But again, the paramilitaries are very much aligned with mainstream corporate interests, both Colombian and foreign. These may be from from South Africa, like Anglogold Ashanti for example, or from the UK, but they are primarily from North America, from the US and Canada.

There was a story a few years ago of paramilitaries going after trade unionists in the Coca-Cola bottling plants, there was also a story about Chiquita paying paramilitaries to wipe out resistance. Therefore these groups are not a kind of isolated, lawless, southern phenomenon, they work very much hand in glove with transnational corporate interests, wouldn’t you say?

Yes, very much. By the way, I was involved in that Coca-Cola case, in the lawsuit and all (1). But Chiquita is probably the best example, because Chiquita has admitted to what they did. They pled guilty to paying the paramilitary groups 1.7 million dollars over a 7 year period, between 1997 and 2004, and giving them 3000 kalashnikov rifles. And while they claimed they were essentially being extorted by the paramilitaries, Uribe’s own attorney general, Mario Iguarán, disagreed with this. He said that they were not paying for security, they were paying for blood. Those are his words. They were paying for the subjugation of the banana region of Urabá. And they paid in blood, thousands of people were killed by the paramilitaries that Chiquita paid.

Not only that, paramilitarism was really able to take hold throughout all of Colombia because of what Chiquita did, and Chiquita never had to pay a real price for this. They pled guilty to this crime because they had been giving this aid to the AUC paramilitaries, who were designated terrorists by the US. But the plea agreement did not require anyone to go to jail, it only fined Chiquita 25 million dollars, which they were allowed to pay over a five year period, and the 8 Chiquita officials involved in the payment scheme had their names were actually kept secret from the Colombian government, so that Colombia could not extradite them. By the way, one of the Chiquita lawyers who helped negotiate the plea agreement was Eric Holder, who would become attorney-general under Obama.

And what does this say about the role of the US government?

I think this is very revealing. By the way, Salvatore Mancuso, one of the top paramilitary leaders, said it wasn’t just Chiquita paying them, but also Dole and Del Monte. So we not only see the corporate links but we see the US government’s true feelings about the paramilitaries, right? If Chiquita had been paying a group like al-Qaida, or ISIS, or even the FARC, let’s face it, some of their people would have gone to jail. But they were paying the US’ guys. The paramilitaries are the “good terrorists” in Colombia, according to the US government.

A few years ago there was a Washington Post story about how the CIA was crucial in helping the Colombian government weaken the FARC. The CIA helped the Colombian government track various FARC leaders, and also provided the smart bombs that were used to kill them. Meanwhile there is a little note in the Washington Post story. It says that at the same time the CIA for the most part left the paramilitaries alone. So both the AUC and the FARC were designated terrorist groups, but the AUC was left alone, because in the end they are doing the bidding of US interests.

You get the idea that they are there to do the dirty work…

Exactly. And we’ve known this, this has been true for decades! It was US General William Yarborough, who had the idea to create the paramilitaries in the first place, in 1962. This is even before the FARC was formed, that only happened in 1964.

Another interesting story appeared in the New York Times more recently. It is about how the CIA helped fly at least 40 paramilitary leaders out of Bogotá to the United States, so that they would not be held accountable for human rights crimes in Colombia. Because the fear was that they would start naming names, including Álvaro Uribe and his associates. So they were brought to the US, tried only on drug charges, given very light sentences, even though they are believed to be responsible for massive human rights abuses. Salvatore Mancuso, for example, is believed to have killed himself alone over 1000 people. And they are giving amnesty, or asylum, to some of those people as well, in the United States.

If I remember correctly, some of them are about to go free very soon, right? They are having their sentences commuted and being released early…

That’s right. These are real terrorists, people who have raped, killed with impunity. One guy, highlighted in the New York Times article, was known as “The Drill”, because in addition to killing people he was known to have a penchant for raping girls as young as 9 years-old. And this guy could be coming to a neighbourhood near you. So it’s pretty incredible, and once more this is all pretty revealing of the US’ true feelings about the paramilitaries.

Let’s switch to the drug trade for a second, because the “War on Drugs”, at least officially, is the justification for the huge US military presence in Colombia. Very often you would hear the description that the guerrilla problem and the drug problem were the same. However, after the FARC have demobilised, you saw one of the highest coca yields in years. So what’s the real story there?

That’s very important to point out. Namely that the FARC was being entirely blamed for the drugs and the human rights abuses, and yet the FARC is gone as an armed group. And as we’ve discussed, more social leaders are being killed than in years prior, and 2016 saw a bumper coca crop. And I know this, I was at the US embassy in Bogotá in March of this year, and folks in the embassy were saying that the CIA, the DEA were down here and they were panicking! Because they had to announce that 2016 saw the biggest coca crop ever in Colombia.

The FARC had been engaged in the ceasefire at that time, they were largely not a factor, so we see who the real drug traffickers are, and that’s the paramilitaries and, honestly, the Colombian military. I mean, the US, as we see time and time again, is not really worried about drug trafficking per se. They just want to make sure their buddies are the ones to profit from it and how the “war on drugs” can be used to serve US interests. We saw this during the Vietnam conflict, we saw this of course with the Contra-cocaine connection, that Gary Webb from the San Jose Mercury News exposed (2). When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had pretty much eradicated the poppy crops. Now, post-invasion, and with all these US soldiers, the CIA and the DEA running around, Afghanistan is providing 85% of the world’s heroin.

There are beautiful photographs of a military bases right next to huge poppy fields…

Yes, you also see pictures of soldiers running through the pink poppy fields. It’s a joke! There is no war on drugs. There is a war against poor people, under the pretext of the war on drugs. There was a war against the FARC, which was covered under the war on drugs. There’s a war against social leaders in all of Latin America, again under the pretext of the war on drugs. It’s a lie! It’s always been a lie.

Perhaps this absurdity has no example more striking than saying that you are going to fight drugs and that your biggest ally is going to be Álvaro Uribe…

You might remember that there was a document leaked a few years ago, in which Álvaro Uribe was listed by the US DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) as the 82nd most important drug trafficker in Colombia, and as having close ties to Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel. We know he’s a drug trafficker! And yet he got the presidential medal of freedom from the George W. Bush. He was welcomed into the White House by Barack Obama. It’s a joke! It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic…

In a slightly different perspective, Colombia is always painted in a very positive light, and not just political leaders but also business people always describe Colombia as being “great for business”. They might say that it’s great for business despite all these atrocities we’ve been discussing, but I would actually say that it’s great for business because of these atrocities. Would you agree?

That’s absolutely true. And again, I’ll give you an example of this. Years ago, we sued Occidental Petroleum for its very intimate involvement with the bombing of Santo Domingo (3), you can read about this in a great exposé in the LA Times. So we sued Occidental Petroleum and the US State Department sent a letter to the court saying that they wanted the case dismissed because it was going to hurt US foreign policy interests. And if you read the letter, the implication was that if companies were to be held accountable for murdering poor peasants, it would be bad for business.

So I agree with you, I do believe that it is good for business, because these murders and atrocities have done a great job of wiping out the union movement there, a great job of wiping out the social movements, all to make it safe for business. It’s not safe for human beings! You know, Colombia has the hemisphere record for forcibly disappeared people, at 92.000. Argentina is usually taken to be the capital of the forced disappearances, but the total there was around 30.000.

It also has a very large number of internally displaced people, more than Syria I believe…

It’s almost 8 million now, out of a population of around 50 million. Can you imagine that? And yet, the only thing we hear on the news are bad things happening in Venezuela. But nothing on this scale is happening in Venezuela. There are no mass assaults on social and human rights leaders in Venezuela. There isn’t this huge internally displaced population. In fact, what a lot of people don’t know is that Venezuela has taken in 6 million Colombian refugees. You often hear on the news that there’s a wave of Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia, but the estimates are of about half a millionVenezuelans in Colombia, compared to those 6 million Colombians in Venezuela.

Yes, it’s way beyond a “double standard”… So let me ask you about the role of the media in all of this. Why do you think there is, not only this double standard, but this kind of “kid-glove” treatment when it comes to Colombia?

Well I think it goes back to what the late Edward Herman explained. A lot of people don’t know his name, he was Noam Chomsky’s co-writer in the book “Manufacturing Consent”. In fact Chomsky gave him the primary billing for the book, his name came first even though alphabetically it would be the other way around.

Herman was the person who came up with the idea that there are “worthy victims” and “unworthy victims” in the world. The worthy victims are those who are killed and oppressed by the US’ enemies and adversaries. So, if somebody’s oppressed in China, or Russia, we know about it. But if someone is (wrongly) killed by the United States, or by its allies like Colombia, which the US’ number one ally in Latin America, then we don’t hear about it, because they are unworthy victims.

Those that we kill are unworthy, even though, if you look at the numbers, these greatly outnumber the so-called worthy ones. In fact, according to Chomsky, after 1960 it’s very clear that the repression by the West was much greater than the repression by the East Bloc and the Soviet Union. But again, you never knew that because the press would always remain silent about those being killed by the West. Colombia is certainly a great example, but another one is Yemen, where literally millions of people, at least 7M, maybe 12M, will die because of the Saudi war and blockade on Yemen, which the US is aiding and abetting in a very real way.

There’s also a cholera epidemic which is unprecedented in modern history…

That’s absolutely right. And yet, you don’t hear about it that much in the news, and when you do, you don’t hear that the US is very much a part of that war. So it goes back to Herman’s argument about worthy/unworthy victims. I’d urge people to go back to “Manufacturing Consent”.

Continuing along these lines of manufacturing consent, do you also get the idea that if there was a brighter spotlight on Colombia, then all this military involvement, all this war on drugs would receive greater scrutiny, which in the long run would be bad for business?

Absolutely. In that way the media is complicit in all of this. I’ll give you an example. I actually listen to National Public Radio (NPR) every day. I don’t know why because I can’t stand it! And I interact a lot on twitter for example with people from NPR, like Scott Simon or Steve Inskeep, and they respond to me sometimes. I have asked them time and again “why aren’t you covering Colombia?”. They have no answer for it. Even when I present them with facts, it never makes it into their stories.

They have an angle, it’s the same angle all the media have. That’s to perpetuate this crazy religious notion of American exceptionalism, that somehow America is this unique force for good in the world, that we support democracy, we support freedom, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. We live in an Orwellian world, where we support dictatorships and support repression in the name of freedom. And people need to wake up to that reality.

Interviewer’s notes

 (1) Coca-Cola has been accused of being directly involved in the murder of several union leaders in its bottling plants in Colombia. Daniel Kovalik led the efforts to get justice for the families of the murdered workers. For more information see here. There was also a documentary made on the issue.

 (2) The original articles published by Webb are available at this link. For more on Gary Webb and the persecution he faced from the media establishment, see here.

 (3) On December 13, 1998, a US-supplied cluster bomb was dropped by a Colombian army helicopter, killing 17 civilians. Occidental Petroleum (OXY) was involved in providing the coordinates for the attack, as it enjoyed direct links with the Colombian military and provided military aid. For more on the lawsuit against OXY, in which Daniel Kovalik represented the plaintiffs, see here.

Daniel Kovalik is a human and labour rights lawyer and professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He has a decades-long history of involvement in the struggle for peace and justice in Latin America, particularly in Colombia, and he has brought cases against companies like Coca-Cola and Occidental Petroleum for their responsibility in human rights abuses. He can be followed on Twitter.