Colombia's Uribe on the warpath

Diana de L'alsakuy reports on the political situation in Colombia after the government's assassination of a rebel leader.

WITH REGIONAL tensions escalating after the Colombian military's assassination of a rebel leader on Ecuador's territory, protesters plan to honor victims of Colombian state and paramilitary violence in demonstrations on March 6 in Bogotá, as well as New York and other cities.

The protests will demand an end to disappearances, common graves, forced displacements, kidnapping and massacres--violence that is perpetrated overwhelmingly by the right-wing paramilitaries and their backers in the government.

As the actions approached, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez broke relations with Colombia and ordered troops, tanks and warplanes to the Venezuelan-Colombian border.

This was in response to the Colombian military raid on Ecuador's territory, which killed Raúl Reyes, the second-ranking leader in the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Reyes had been instrumental in securing the recent release of hostages held by the FARC, following negotiations brokered by Chávez.

The attack on Reyes, which reportedly left 17 people dead, prompted Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to break diplomatic relations with Colombia and travel to Caracas to consult with Chávez over how to respond to the attack.

The military raid is the latest effort in a political and military offensive against the FARC by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. It was Uribe, under pressure to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the FARC, who last year invited Sen. Piedad Córdoba, an outspoken critic of Uribe and supporter of Chávez, to mediate between the government and the rebels.

Before the date for the exchange arrived, however, Uribe cancelled the negotiations. But Chávez and Córdoba continued talks, and since have secured the unilateral release of seven long-term hostages.

Meanwhile, pro-government politicians followed Uribe's anti-FARC offensive with a "worldwide march" by Colombians on February 4 that condemned the rebel group and called for an end to kidnapping.

Colombia's non-FARC left has responded by calling for the March 6 protest against the government and the right in Bogotá and in cities internationally. This is courageous, given the threats and intimidation by right-wing paramilitaries, both in Bogotá and in Colombian communities abroad.

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URIBE HAS good reason to try to blame the FARC for all of Colombia's troubles. The Defense Department declassified a document in 2004 that linked Uribe to drug trafficking, and a Colombian paramilitary leader last year disclosed his close ties to the Uribe administration. It was in the wake of these and other related scandals that Uribe felt pressured to authorize the prisoner exchange.

Both the recent hostage release and Uribe's failed 2007 prisoner exchange that ended in the murder of 11 members of congress were followed by anti-FARC protests. Although both marches were portrayed as the initiative of ordinary citizens and Facebook publicity, they were, in fact, part of what one analyst called an "orchestrated campaign" in support of government policy and against dissent.

Both were promoted and funded by the paramilitaries, the state and big business, and received free advertisement in the media. Bosses pressured workers to attend, and schools and public services were shut down for the day.

This year, however, the international attention and criticism of Uribe gave confidence to the left, including the progressive Polo Democrático Alternativo party, to present its side of the story.

This marks an important change in Colombian politics. In 2002, Uribe came to office with 80 percent approval for his hard-line stance against both the FARC and corruption within the government. He got sympathy because his own father was killed by the FARC (although the senior Uribe was assassinated due to his connections with narco-trafficking).

Since then, Uribe has continued to have overwhelming backing of the media. His approval rating is currently at 83 percent, according to polls. Yet during his presidency, the Colombian army committed more than 950 execution-style murderers, often camouflaging their victims as guerrillas. These atrocities continue in spite of Uribe's 2006 claim that he fully disarmed the paramilitaries.

All this is paid for by the U.S. Since 1969, under the pretext of providing assistance for "anti-guerrilla operations," the U.S. has provided billions in aid to Colombia. Last year, the U.S. gave Colombia $586 million, 80 percent of which went to the military, which has known ties to paramilitary groups, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Colombia Support Network says that between 1982 and 2005, paramilitaries carried out more than 3,500 massacres, killing about 600 people each year; stole more than 12 million acres of land; and gained confirmed control of 35 percent of congressional posts--partially by assassinating political opponents.

The death squads are also responsible for many of the 2,574 murders of union organizers, the highest of any country in the world. This last crime has lead the AFL-CIO to pressure Congress in the U.S. not to sign a proposed free trade deal with Colombia.

The FARC, founded in 1964 by the Colombian Communist Party, controls 30 percent of the country and has committed its share of crimes. It deals with drug traffickers, has itself displaced over 600,000 people (compared to the paramilitaries' 3.8 million), and is largely viewed in Colombia as having de-prioritized its original political aims.

However, rarely included in accounts of the FARC's corruption is the fact that its political party, the Union Patriótica, was entirely wiped out in the 1980s, when 5,000 members were killed. Despite this, the majority of national and international press accounts place the blame for the armed conflict squarely on the guerrillas--and dangerously paint all left-wing activity as FARC-related. As Uribe's approval ratings show, the majority of Colombians generally accept this line.

Colombia has long been strategically and economically important to the U.S., and it became more so in the context of Washington's "war on terror" rhetoric and efforts by Chávez to consolidate a Latin American economic and political bloc capable of challenging U.S. dominance in the region.

Finally, Colombia is set to sign a bilateral free trade agreement with the U.S., which will further jeopardize the livelihoods of Colombian small farmers and workers. But resistance to the trade deal has been muted in Colombia due to the violence used against political opposition.

The killing of Raul Reyes will embolden the government to attack not only the FARC guerrillas, but also the slim progressive opposition that exists in Colombia. An organized left is desperately needed in a country with over 50 percent unemployment, where neoliberal policies of privatization and price deregulation have destroyed the lives of all but the very rich.

No matter what, the March 6 protest by opponents of state and paramilitary violence is unprecedented, extremely brave and a very positive step forward for those who want social change in Colombia.