The massive protest organised against the FARC guerrillas on 4th February has further concentrated the attention of world media on Colombia’s domestic politics. The initiative, which surprisingly came into being thanks to the creation of an anti-FARC group set up on Facebook, later turned into a street march, demonstrating quite clearly a popular rejection of the practices adopted by the FARC. The march, which has allegedly gathered 5 million people in 193 different Colombian and foreign cities, expressed its disgust towards the guerrilla and asked for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages. The demonstrations have taken place amid a situation where FARC’s reputation has suffered from another blow, following the emergence of new evidence demonstrating their rough treatment of hostages.
Although the FARC were born as a defensive army against peasants’ repression, they have now become a violent machinery with motivations that go beyond those of their original struggle. Their continuous abuse of human rights, their resort to narco-trafficking as a means of financing, and the practice of kidnapping, have alienated of a great part of Colombian society. A Gallup Poll has recently revealed that 96% of the population opposes the FARC. Even though this may well be one of the many manipulations carried out by the media, which have unleashed a striking campaign against ChÃ¡vez and the FARC, it is true that the disrespect of basic humanitarian principles has distanced a huge number of people from their causes, especially in urban areas.
President Uribe has been very astute in taking advantage from the whole campaign through an explicit backing of it, which has involved the granting of a day off for civil servants and school children to take part to the march, as well as the deployment of logistical support. The protest, which was intended to be apolitical, has unavoidably taken an ideological connotation. Many leftist organisations, including the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA), faced with Uribe’s appropriation of the movement and its recalcitrance to extend their disapproval to all forms of violence, have distanced themselves from the march. Their line of argument has focused on the inherent bias in blaming only the FARC for the violence in Colombia, and the neglect of the big socio-economic problems faced by the majority of Colombia’s population, which underlie much of the conflict.
This line of criticism finds particular relevance if we consider two recent developments that have received little resonance in the mainstream media. The first one has to do with a report recently made public by Human Rights Watch, which points its attention to the failure of the paramilitary demobilisation process, as a result of Uribe’s scarce efforts in making effective his supposed intention to conduct peace talks with the AUC. Accordingly, paramilitary activity is still very active, and those who have been demobilised were not real paramilitaries, excluding a few extraordinary exceptions. Secondly, Jorge Noruega, former presidential campaign manager and close ally of Uribe, has been charged with collaborating with the paramilitaries, thereby casting a further shadow over the real constituencies which lay behind the government, which has already suffered from various similar scandals.
The attempt to polarise society on the FARC issue, accompanied by the very divisive rhetoric of Uribe, has created a tense environment, which seems to obscure the origins of the vicious circle of violence that has plagued Colombia for decades. This has also concealed the strong connivance of the current government with the business sector, some important narco-cartels and the extreme right-wing. Uribe has been able to draw a demarcation line between those with him and those with the FARC, so as to push forward a militarist hard line against the insurgents, to the delight of capital and the US, which have greeted the “democratic security” with a good dose of money and arms. What Uribe has not been able to solve is the continuous assassination of trade unionists, the unstoppable displacements of peasants, the endemic poverty of the rural population.
Neither has he been able to do much about the hostage crisis. His attitude towards the possibility of a humanitarian exchange has been shifty, and has preferred to maintain military rescue as the primary option, which has historically been also the most tragic, as the death of 11 regional deputies during a military assault last June confirms. The mediation of Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez has been presumably interrupted as a result of US pressure, which perceived a danger in the potential success of his diplomatic efforts. In a recent interview to SEMANA, a Colombian weekly magazine, Yolanda Pulencio, Ingrid Betancourt’s mother, has defined as ‘an invented pretext’ the excuse provided by Uribe to terminate ChÃ¡vez’s mediation. The families of the hostages have also preferred to stay away from the march, in the belief that the march was not the most adequate way of creating favourable conditions for an agreement. The families continue to be very critical of Uribe, especially in relation to the official exclusion of the Venezuelan leader from the mediation.
On the other hand, ChÃ¡vez has not been able to capitalise on the hostages’ release, as he has engaged in an unilateral verbal war with Uribe, which has been detrimental to his own image in Colombia. The excessive rhetoric that he has used against the Colombian President has had the effect of uniting a significant part of the Colombian population against what is often seen as an external interference on domestic issues. Also, the media have intentionally strengthened this negative image by speculating on his links with the FARC, casting a further shadow on his figure. Another element which has had a boomerang effect is the proposal to recognise the FARC as a legitimate belligerent force. Even though the intention was that of getting the FARC to comply with international regulations regarding the treatment of civilian population established in the 1949 Geneva convention, the label would not necessarily mean much, because their practice of kidnapping predates the 2001 decision of the Colombian government to define the FARC as a terrorist group. However, another unconditional humanitarian gesture is forthcoming, according to an announcement released by the FARC in the last few days.
Uribe has instead gained a broad international support in his struggle against FARC during his recent European trip, and continues to enjoy an extended influence at home. Abroad, the only obstacle was represented by Sarkozy’s intention to get ChÃ¡vez back as a mediator, but the French President has not tried to force the question. At home, the Polo Democratico Alternativo, at the moment the only political organisation able to rival Uribe’s La U, has divided itself on the issue of the march, some calling an alternative march the same day, some participating in the official march, including Samuel Moreno, BogotÃ¡’s mayor. This reflects the fragility of the coalition, which includes elements stretching from the far left to the centre of the political spectrum. The President’s party is now seeking a constitutional amendment to permit him to run for a third presidential mandate. The attempt is likely to succeed.
Quite surprisingly, a source of trouble for Uribe could come from the United States. The recent visits of many US state officials and legislators to Colombia concerned the Republican preoccupation with the opposition of the Democrats to the bilateral Free Trade Agreement, already ratified by the Colombian Congress. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not likely to set the vote for this year, as AFL-CIO, the largest US trade union, and many Democratic representatives have spoken out against the history of violence against trade unions in Colombia and the neglect of the government towards this issue. It is also important to consider that Barack Obama has been quite critical of Bush’ personal relationship with Uribe, raising concerns about Uribe’s links with the paramilitaries. Even though Obama has so far said quite little on what he would do with regard to Colombia and Latin America in general, it is not unlikely that, were he to become the new President, the terms of Plan Colombia may undergo considerable revision.
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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini