After 52 years of war and four years of negotiations, the Colombian people will vote October 2 in a plebiscite on the peace agreement signed by the government and FARC-EP insurgency on August 24. Public opinion polls say the agreement will be approved. Even ex-President Álvaro Uribe admittedon September 12 that “it’s very possible that on October 2 the yes vote is going to win in the plebiscite.”
Uribe is allied to big landowners and infamous for familial and political ties with paramilitary leaders. He has headed forces opposing a peace agreement. And that side very likely will be fueling conflict of some sort once the agreement takes hold and implementation begins
A Uribe ally recently described circumstances potentially giving rise to strife. Wilson Rey Arias of Meta department was explaining why, surprisingly, he and Uribe honchos in two other departments would be voting yes in the plebiscite.
He noted that, “My greatly admired friend President Uribe … walks around with more than 20 bodyguards. Their corrupt senators each have four or five body guards. They live in the capital cities, [while] millions of anonymous citizens have no security and live in war zones. That’s why those people are saying “yes” to disarmament. [And] “the corrupt politicians and big capitalists … will say no on the plebiscite … But the defenseless farming people, those who don’t live from politics and furthermore reject the corrupt Santos government say yes. It could be the beginning of peace.”
The skewed distribution of land and wealth that precipitated armed conflict in 1964 hasn’t gone away. The stage is thus set for continuing struggle. A premise of the peace agreement is that political agitation will be peaceful. How will that aspiration fare as fight for justice and survival of all Colombians continues, or intensifies?
The looming presence of war makers complicates matters, and that’s where a U. S. hand is evident. Presently Colombia’s military and police number 450,000. The U.S. government has long backed them, most recently with $10 billion provided during Plan Colombia’s fifteen-year tenure.
And paramilitaries, having harassed, bullied, and killed recalcitrant rural inhabitants and dissenting political activists, haven’t gone away. Ever since 1964, the United States has encouraged, financed, and facilitated paramilitaries as an adjunct to the national army’s fight against insurgents. AnalystNoam Chomsky refers to an “official US recommendation to rely on paramilitary terror against ‘known Communist proponents.’”
The U.S. government did support Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ leadership in pursuing a negotiated peace. But recent assaults on politically active civilians – presumably by paramilitaries – raise uncertainties as to what that support might look like in the future. Colombia’s government may partner with the United States, yet hang on to old ways in attempts to quash popular struggle for rights and justice.
Such concerns are relevant now, because paramilitary formations are resurging across the length and breadth of Colombia. Reports document their activities particularly in areas good for mining and hydroelectric projects and for industrial-scale agriculture. The FARC-EP has been strong in these areas and now, under the peace agreement, will be leaving and the door will open up for exploitation. Municipalities throughout the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, Córdoba, and Cauca are examples.
In Antioquia, 50 well – armed men belonging to the “Gaitainista Self-defense Forces of Colombia” showed up September 8 in the village of San José de Apartadó, Antioquia. – “under the noses of thepolice and the army.” Elsewhere in Apartado, paramilitaries have carried out “property damage, death threats against community leaders, verbal harassment, and torture.”
San José de Apartadó sticks in the memory. In 1997, having declared themselves to be neutral in conflict raging about them, some 500 farming families established themselves there as a peace community. In all, they’ve suffered 200 murders.
The following is a partial list of recent murders:
Neiman Agustín Lara, July 15,2016, Afro-Colombian leader, Community Council of Sierrita, Chiriguaná municipality- Cesar
Evaristo Dagua Trochez, July 28, Patriot March member, founder of Association of Peasant Workers, Peasant Reserve Zone, Corinto, Cauca
Camilo Roberto Taicus Bisbicus, August 26, indigenous leader, Nariño
Diego Alfredo Chirán Nastacuas, August 26, indigenous, Barbacoas, Nariño.
Luciano and Alberto Pascal García, brothers, August 29, Indigenous, Llorente, Nariño (For murders in Nariño, see here.)
Joel Meneses Meneses, Nereo Meneses Guzmán, Ariel Sotelo. August 29, Indigenous and peasant leaders, Almaguer, Cauca
Martha Pipicano, Libio Antonio Álvarez, Simón Álvarez Soscué, Salvador Acosta, September 5, farm workers, Sucre, Cauca.
María Fabiola Jiménez, September 9, community leader, Barbosa, Antioquia
Álvaro Rincón, September 11, affiliated with Community Action Board, San Pablo, Sur de Bolívar
Néstor Iván Martínez, September 11, spokesperson for Congress of the Peoples, member of Afro-Colombian community council, opposed big mining projects, La Sierrita, Cesar
William García Cartagena. September 16, lawyer, defended victims of armed conflict, Medellín, Antioquia
In its report for 2016, the Somos Defensores (We are Defenders) NGO lists 35 “defenders of human rights” murdered in Colombia in the first half of 2016. Of 232 death threats, the paramilitary Black Eagles group accounted for 119; the Gaitanista Self-Defense paramilitaries, 51.
The killing September 7, 2016 of Cecilia Coicue, a member of Patriotic March and other peasant and indigenous activist groups, was emblematic of the hazards of peace-making in Colombia. She had offered her 175-acre farm in Corinto, Cauca as a “zone of concentration” – There are 23 of them – that, under the peace agreement, would be where FARC insurgents go to give up arms. She “was vilely tortured and murdered 200 meters from her humble farm,” reported journalist Dick Emanuellson,who asked, “Who is interested in torpedoing the process in that zone in Colombia?”
Cecilia Coicue was a member of Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural workers union. Discussing the killing with Emanuellson, Fensuagro’s president Eberto Díaz Montes declared that, “We know that Cecilia’s murder occurs just as the process of peace between the FARC and the government is culminating. We know that the process has many enemies – landowners, cattle ranchers, agro-businesses, and military sector. They oppose a negotiated political solution.”
“They want the political solution to be hobbled,” he added, “so they can reverse whatever possibility for peace in the country… Cauca is one of the richest and most biodiverse areas we have Colombia.” Díaz cited water resources, the hydroelectric industry, cattle ranching, gold and other mineral resources, and “mono cultivation of sugar.”
And, “We are also disturbed that the government and the bourgeoisie don’t accept the idea that for there to be peace there must be redistribution of wealth and land. The free trade model has to be revised. In general, Colombian politics has to fit with the needs of the Colombian population.”
Díaz thus poses questions for U. S. defenders of peace and social justice in Colombia. One, what will the U. S. government do when political movements emboldened by the peace agreement do seek redistribution of wealth and land? Two, will the United States revert to the “dirty war” methods characteristic of its response to earlier popular movements defying the Latin American status quo?
Those in charge in the United States have a stake in Colombia, as indicated by the U. S. free trade agreement with Colombia and by $17 billion in U. S. exports there in 2015, and $14 billion in imports. The U. S. and Colombian governments will most likely continue to collaborate in promoting and protecting U.S. investments and business ventures. One asks, are there parts of that collaboration that are off limits?