Dreaming of a different tomorrow

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by Howard Clark

What do you associate with Colombia? Biodiversity? The writer Gabriel García Márquez? The painter Fernando Botero? Or do you think of the world's main source of cocaine, the country with the highest rates of killing and kidnapping, the site of a multi-sided war that has now lasted nearly 40 years?

The point of dedicating this section of Peace News to Colombia is partly to show some of the processes at work behind the headlines, and more still to show what people - Colombians and outsiders - are doing to break the various interacting cycles of violence.

Many of Peace News's regular themes can be discussed in the context of Colombia:

  • Social empowerment? In the face of the conflicting pressures from various armed groups (including those of the state), this has been a fundamental concern for groups in Colombia. Responses range from a host of training workshops to the women's community houses and lunch canteens of Barrancabermeja.
  • The militarisation of everyday life? And how! Even onions now carry a five percent tax for the war; the president plans to build up a “civilian” network of a million vigilantes; while the paramilitaries try to impose authoritarian social norms wherever they hold sway.
  • Gender? The women's networks in Colombia not only play an important role in opposing the war and defending the space for civil action, they also have documented forms of violence that otherwise might pass unseen.
  • Impunity? Colombia's articulate network of human rights groups has presented plentiful evidence of human rights violations, including several by high ranking military officers. Under US pressure, a few have been charged, but the general pattern is that “small fry” can be disposed of, while the “big fish” continue to be rewarded.
  • Peace processes? The peace networks in Colombia demand that negotiations should not be left to the government and to the guerrilla but that the people should have a say. Since 1990 a number of guerrilla movements have negotiated their own demilitarisation - and their members have subsequently paid the price at the hands of death squads.
  • New trends in the military? With guidance from former US generals still paid by the US, the Colombian military is reforming and professionalising in order to be more effective against the guerrilla and in protecting international economic interests.
  • Globalisation? From the loggers to the oil companies, Colombia's indigenous population and its biodiversity are under threat while the state courts international investment. There is little subtlety about the role of multinational corporations: they back “la mano dura” (the hard hand) approach of the new government, and some are accused of employing the paramilitaries to overcome various “local difficulties” (from stroppy trade unionists to people who want to stay living on their own land).
  • International nonviolent intervention? Colombia is the setting for Peace Brigades International's most substantial project yet. Considering the scale of the violence and displacement in Colombia, there remains much more potential for international solidarity with civil society groups and for international pressure on both governments and multi-national corporations.
  • Refugees? As well as the massive numbers of internally displaced, hundreds of thousands of Colombians are seeking refuge in other countries and encountering all the problems that that involves. Life is hard even for those who leave as part of the life-saving programmes organised by Amnesty International for threatened human rights activists.
  • Utopian visions? Even in the desperate conditions of displacement and faced with the harassment of paramilitary butchers, people struggle to maintain hope and vision. Listening to a Colombian woman activist the other day, a phrase she used repeatedly was “dreaming of a different tomorrow”. There are now 54 “peace communities” in Colombia, not single households but thousands of people committed to working the land in common without arms.

These links were made when we first discussed this issue of Peace News, but perhaps the clinching argument in favour of adopting Colombia as a theme was the fear of only reacting to the situation once it is headline news. Even before “Plan Colombia” - the Clinton administration's aid package, ostensibly anti-drugs but also strengthening the Colombian military to protect a range of interests - there was endemic violence, massive population displacement and armed conflict. The subsequent escalation could be just the first steps towards an even greater catastrophe:

  • the “war against terrorism” has channelled even more military aid to Colombia;
  • the negotiations between the largest guerrilla group, the FARC, and the government broke down, leading to a further increase in killings and displacement;
  • Álvaro Uribe Vélez has been elected as president to be “the hard man” who will re-establish “authority”. Naturally, he therefore decreed a state of “public unrest”. This grants the state the power to declare zones of “rehabilitation and consolidation”, zones of total control ofthe civilian population in order to eliminate the guerrillas.

Uribe sees no space for neutrality in the war against the guerrillas and various government spokespeople have attacked peace and human rights groups as being “pro-guerrilla” because they criticise state human rights violations and complicity with the paramilitaries. He has, it seems, been well received on his diplomatic tour of foreign capitals, with both the USA and the European Union states more interested in Colombia's economic prospects than in human rights. A final word to the reader is about the difference that a context makes. A friend travelled in a 1,000-person, 33-bus convoy from Medellín to Bogotá for the women's peace demonstration on 25 July, and I nostalgically remembered the convoys from Yorkshire to London for the anti-nuclear demonstrations of 20 years ago. Our main hardship had been getting up early in the morning. The Medellín organisers, however, negotiated their passage with the army, the police, the guerrilla and the paramilitaries; the buses needed to be in contact by radio; and there was a strict agreement that if one was stopped all would. The journey (perhaps 300 kilometres) took 16 hours, and apparently the last buses were stopped near Bogotá by paramilitaries demanding la vacuna (the vaccine - their tax), but everybody arrived safely and without paying. In such conditions, a demonstration of perhaps 30,000 people acquires a significance that we need to draw on our imagination to appreciate.

Often talking with a Colombian activist, it has emerged that the violence has claimed at least one loved one. Initiatives such as the peace communities have grown out of the experience of vicious massacres. We have to hope that for the nation as a whole, out of the existing humanitarian disaster will grow a different Colombia. The Colombian activists do not lack the courage or vision for this, but they also need the strength of international solidarity to realise their vision.

Topics: War and peace