Colombian People in the Frontline of Social Resistance

Andy Higginbottom *

The struggle between the old and the new, between a reversion to extractive capitalism versus socialism of the twenty first century is felt at every level and in every country of the Andean region. Socialists have been rightly drawn to the inspiring developments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, but recent months have revealed the extent to which these popular gains are threatened by the reactionary government in Colombia. After the military raided Ecuador, Hugo Chávez warned of the emergence of a Latin American Israel. Analysts refer to Uribe’s Colombia as the Trojan Horse for US imperialism on the continent.

Yet, notwithstanding the wide condemnation of assassinations of trade unionists (28 killed so far this year), less is known about the situation inside Colombia itself.

There are two ‘Colombia’s, the official and the real. The government and corporate media define the problem as a war between democracy and terrorism, linked to the fight against narcotics, this is the class perspective of ‘official’ society, i.e. the bourgeois strata. When we look from the experience of ‘real’ Colombia, the people without property, we discover a broad, complex, multi-faceted living class struggle. We see that Colombia is torn between neo-conservative reaction and social resistance to the new wave of imperialism.

Imperialist Strategy Coheres

The imperialist offensive into Colombia is full spectrum, led by military and economic dimensions it now includes social control. In the last decade the policy has evolved from crisis management to a coherent strategy, the lynchpin of which is to consolidate a populist neo-conservative regime.

1998 was the anno horribilis for the US. From the mid 1990s the Colombian state had sanctioned the rearming and semi-legalisation of the paramilitary death squads as a national force. Building on their successful collaboration with the army in an elimination campaign in Urabá, where their activities were directly funded and armed by Chiquita banana corporation, the paramilitary AUC began launching massacres against civilian populations countrywide. The plan was to empty the sea in which the guerrilla fish swam, so the assaults were on rural civilians rather than the guerrilla forces. Despite the terrible human costs, by 1998 it was clear that the fighting capacity of the FARC guerrillas especially had not been dented by the paramilitaries.

Colombia was seen as being on the brink of becoming a ‘failed state’. To restore the moral and capacity of the military Clinton worked actively with then president Pastrana in a twofold operation: negotiations with the FARC to play for time, and in the meantime the launching of ‘Plan Colombia’ which provided the army with 90 helicopters and established three new battalions. To pay for this and the complementary Andean Regional Initiative, for the last decade the US has been pumping in nearly a billion dollars annually, making Colombia the third biggest recipient of military aid after Israel and Egypt.

Plan Colombia is well publicised, what is less known is that towards the end of 1998 and then in 1999 the Colombian economy went fully into crisis, the worst in the country’s history. Over 5 million people were thrown into poverty, reformers began to worry about a possible social explosion. Expectancies had been raised by the 1991 Constitution, which promised a ‘state of social right’, accepting the need for social inclusion. Contradicting this promise was the 1990 apertura , a package of economic policies which brought in the neoliberal model, freeing all obstacles to multinational corporations. Controls over imports, capital flows and labour protections were all lifted, and there was an investment boom through the course of the 1990s, especially in the oil sector where the two main fields were run by BP from Britain, and the US corporation Occidental. The country’s mineral resources were privatised, and governments sought to privatise telecommunications, water and electricity too, but here they were met with prolonged social resistance, enough to pose them a real problem.

The Colombian ruling class hesitated, should it press ahead with the neoliberal programme dismantling what few social protections remained, or should it relax the pressure for fear of the consequences? With 70% of the population now in the cities, the prospect of urban uprisings was of particular concern.

The attitude of the US came into play. In June 2001 the Rand Corporation think tank published a report The Colombian Labyrinth commissioned by the US armed forces. This shows that three months even before 9/11 US policy makers were already actively considering an all-out offensive. Rand argued that Plan Colombia’s declared emphasis on counter-narcotics missed the point, although the FARC derived income from drugs, its extensive territorial control presented a more significant challenge. The report cited the wars in Central America and Peru as appropriate models, and advised setting up vigilante forces, making human rights violations were inevitable. The report warned that the consequence of all-out counter-insurgency meant risking political isolation.

As it turned out the US ‘war on terror’ after 9/11 shifted the international context decisively, Washington began urging the Colombian government “to wage all-out war against the guerrillas” as the condition for more aid. The ‘Bush Doctrine’ of preemptive strike was re-applied to become the governing principal of Colombian political life, making neutrality unacceptable. Anyone not supporting the government was suspect of being an insurgent. Whereas under Clinton the counter-insurgency dynamic of US intervention merged confusingly with the anti-drugs rhetoric, post 9/11 this was no longer necessary. A coherent ideological envelope had been found, what was needed was implementation.

Uribe Implements Neo-Conservative Regime

Uribe is backed by the US, the multinationals and Colombia’s own economic conglomerates. Drawing support from sections of the middle class wanting a leader to end the war, he was elected president in May 2002 in a ‘landslide victory’ with over half the votes (although barely 21% of the adult population).

Uribe has implemented a pre-planned strategy on both the economic and military fronts. The doctrine of ‘democratic security’ has an underlying economic imperative – to defeat the guerrillas to make the country safe for foreign investment. Uribe had moreover to defeat the working class and rural groups to ensure the profitability of these investments.

The ‘communitarian state’ distinguishes itself from classical liberalism’s concern with individual rights. It calls for social solidarity with a strong state in the war against terrorism. Security concerns take precedence over social development. The communitarian state is not simply laissez-faire, it embodies a neo-conservative social view, it is a replacement for the state of social right.

Despite over 60 of his supporters in Congress and many of his direct appointees under investigation for links with the paramilitaries, and evidence that the constitutional change allowing his re-election was facilitated by a bribe, Uribe retains the full support of official Colombia. His ascendancy has been consolidated by the infamous Operation Checkmate in which the armed forces tricked the FARC into releasing Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages on 2 July 2008 was immediately declared a great success that has not lost its shine, despite the mounting evidence of a fraudulent simulation of an International Red Cross humanitarian mission. Presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria defends the fraud, “deceit is a virtue” – suggesting it is not at all ‘despite’ but because of his proximity to the paramilitaries, corruption and the criminal dirty war that Uribe is in power.

20 July is Colombia’s independence day. This year massive crowds gathered calling for Libertad! Libertad! The idea is to link freeing the hostages with freedom from Spanish rule, recasting the army as the nation’s heroes. We saw this for ourselves in a remote village, where soldiers were paraded on a platform for the applause of the gathered school children. It was on this trip that we encountered the other, unofficial Colombia that continues to resist.

Territorial Control

Over the last three years, under the auspices of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT), social movements have convened a series of public hearings concerning multinationals, environmental destruction and human rights. The process has been organised by sector covering food and agriculture, public utilities, mining, biodiversity, oil and gas and indigenous peoples. The programme is a serious attempt to investigate, document and socialise knowledge of what is really happening, to challenge the impunity of the multinational corporations backed by the state.

A common theme is the violent dispossession of rural communities. There are over 4 million internally displaced people, and a strong correlation between the patterns of paramilitary violence and zones of interest for resource extraction. This violence is a lever for ‘primitive’ capital accumulation.

Our most recent delegation witnessed the PPT public hearing on multinationals and the genocide of indigenous peoples. Some 500 people gathered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, home of the kankuamos, to share experiences. Over 200 kankuamos have been assassinated, mostly by paramilitaries. Two thousand people have been assassinated in Nariño in the last year. It became dreadfully clear that no less than 18 of the 93 indigenous groups face extinction.

We visited La Guajira region, site of El Cerrejon, the biggest open cast coalmine in Latin America. El Cerrejon is owned by a consortium of the UK/South African Anglo-American corporation, the UK/Australian group BHP-Billiton and the Swiss corporation Xstrata. We visited Tamaquito, a settlement of Wayuu indigenous surrounded by the mine, near to the African descendant Tabaco that was bulldozed in 2001; and Chancleta a village overseen by the mine’s waste dump. Cerrejon corporation pumps out propaganda declaring its environmental stewardship and social responsibility, yet these communities are destitute. The economic imperative towards externalising the full costs is key to the mine’s stupendous profitability. Costs of production are less than $25 a tonne of coal, against a sale price of around $100 a tonne. The coal is for export, using a dedicated 150km railway and port. Plans to increase production from 31 to over 40 million tonnes this year mean an expansion that will eat up more communities. El Cerrejon is an extreme case of the enclave, a special zone of natural resource exploitation that is dominated by corporate interests rather than social needs.

There are conflicts over territory in all corners of this diverse country. Arauca in the plains to the east of the Andes has a history of strong social organisation, agricultural cooperatives and alternative education projects – it used to be known as Colombia’s Cuba. In the 1980s US corporation Occidental moved in to extract the oil. Arauca was put under martial law by Uribe in 2002, and today it is an armed encampment, including US marines. Under the nose of the army, paramilitaries operations have increased. The town of Saravena has for 6 years lived under military siege. This August the paramilitaries resurfaced, painting graffiti in the town, and assassinated seven residents in one week. The demands of the social movement in Saravena include the right not to be removed: “For the Defence of Life, Human Rights and Staying in this Territory”.

Valle and Cauca in the south west is another region of intense social conflict. We interviewed corteros, the sugar cane cutters, part of the invisible African descendants struggling for social recognition. They are fighting the prospect of mechanisation that will leave them jobless. The Ardila Lulle economic group and other capitalists are driving to turn vast tracts of land over to cropping for agrifuels.

War has been declared on the indigenous groups in this region. We interviewed indigenous leader José Goyes, who showed us a bullet wound from the assassination attempt he escaped in June. The Nasa and other groups in Cauca are determined to reclaim Madre Tierra, the Mother Earth robbed from them. Tricked and disappointed by successive governments failing to implement commitments, the indigenous peoples have turned to the direct action tactic of land occupations. Armed police have attacked them, and now they have been declared targets for assassination by the paramilitaries.

We interviewed union organised workers from Michelin and Unilever who are appealing for international solidarity. There is not space here to describe the urban class conflict, it is important to note that far from being progressive, the takeover of local businesses by multinational corporations has led to sackings, wage cuts, and the removal of employment rights: in short, intensified exploitation.


Official Colombia is dependent on its alliance with imperialism to maintain its rule. Real Colombia is dominated by imperialism. The imperialist offensive which now grips the internal class conflict is meeting social resistance, but in fragmented and extremely difficult conditions.

José Obdulio argues that Colombia is in a post-conflict situation. This is not true, the persecution of social resistance continues with official sanction and through the systematic use of unofficial, deniable methods.

We appeal to readers to join us in building an anti-imperialist solidarity movement in Britain. We have a common cause. The outcome of this struggle is important not only for one country, and for the environment, but for the prospects of socialism in Latin America.

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