11 February 2009

Uribe Can't Halt Colombia's Peaceniks

"The snake lives," Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is reported to have said after meeting Alan Jara, a former state governor recently released by the FARC guerrillas. The Colombian media took their President's statement to mean the Leftist guerrillas but it could perhaps also have been Uribe's way of referring to himself.

For there is no doubt that the sly and ruthless overlord of Bogota is not at all happy that he cannot entirely control or manipulate events. Uribe pulled out all stops to ensure that the kidnap victims were not released. His military violated its promise of keeping away from the release sites and put the lives of the FARC prisoners at risk. He tried to bar Piedad Cordoba, Colombian Senator and peace-maker, and the Colombians for Peace group from being part of the process but had to relent once the Red Cross intervened on her behalf. He then tried to prevent journalists from covering the event and, when it failed, accused some of them of being in the pay of the guerrillas.

Jara and Sigifredo López, former lawmaker and the last to be freed, were evidence of why Uribe had such misgivings. They criticised him for doing nothing for them, Jara saying Uribe and FARC needed each other. He praised Senator Cordoba, whom Uribe seriously detests, and López compared her to the heroine in José Saramago's novel, Blindness, who retains her moral sense when others have lost theirs.

Their voices were heard through the self-censorship of the Colombian media. Both former prisoners put in articulate media performance and both are mainstream politicians, not fringe radicals. Jara was in the same party as Uribe. Even worse, Jara and López have promised to work for a humanitarian accord, the preferred slogan of the Colombian democratic opinion. Suddenly the peaceniks are bringing in the dividends, the civil war has become less appealing even to those Colombians sold on it and Uribe looks like an irascible bystander.

All this comes at a bad moment for Uribe as he bullies Congress to amend the Constitution that will make him eligible to run for a third term in office. It is now known that votes in the Congress allowing him to run for a second term were bought and many of his closest allies and others who voted for him are in prison for paramilitary links.

The tide began turning against the caudillo almost exactly a year ago after the trade unions and social organisations staged surprisingly large marches against paramilitary violence. Public sector workers went on a wave of strikes though 43 trade unionists paid with their lives in 2008. Indigenous Colombians, who are losing their land to large corporations and their lives to army and paramilitary violence, embarked on a ‘Minga', a peaceful uprising culminating in a march by thousands covering several hundred kilometres to Bogota.

Simultaneously, cane cutters working in near-slavery conditions went on strike, winning important concessions and lots of new members. Then the students began agitating against the government. After a series of hard knocks and the death of its fonder-leader, Manuel Marulanda, FARC seems to have stablised its forces.

With Obama rather than McCain replacing George Bush, Uribe has lost some of the supreme impunity. The economic downturn is hitting Colombia hard. Unemployment has crossed 10% and Bogota's dream of becoming the Saudi Arabia of ethanol production looks a non-starter. The military has been enmeshed in a series of unravelling scandals over "false positives", that is enticing poor young men with job offers, killing them in cold blood and then passing them off as dead guerrillas to claim financial rewards offered by the government.

The paramilitaries, supposedly "demobilised" after an agreement with the government, noticeably began reorganising in 2008. It is estimated by some that no more than a fifth of the 20,000-odd paramilitaries had actually demobilised and many of them returned to their old profession in the name of newer groups, now managing illicit businesses and extortion and kidnapping rackets.

Plan Colombia, the war on drugs with Washington's blessing, expertise and financing, has not had much to show for the billions spent over the years. Drug production and trade are high and the USA might not be as willing to splash out its dollars on this programme. Colombia's self-assigned role as the "Israel of Latin America", threatening its neighbours and attacking their territories, has had a short shelf life. Bogota has been contained by Ecuador taking a hard line and Hugo Chavez engaging rather than provoking Colombia. In these hard times, Bogota needs Venezuelan trade.

None of this means that the Colombian ruling elite has lost its famed and historic blood lust. Nor does it mean that Uribe will not bare his fangs or draw blood or that the USA will abandon him. However, fear is starting to dissolve; Uribe's armour no longer seems impenetrable and the Colombian people are shedding their passive acceptance of the doctrine of permanent war. For the first time in years, the voice of the democratic Left is out in the open; Uribe can no longer make himself look indispensable and Colombia has a choice.

Related Article: The Threat of Peace in Colombia

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