While the U.S. funnels money to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to fight his country’s “War on Drugs,” Colombian paramilitaries closely associated with Uribe’s government are often forcing local farmers to plant coca — only to later invade their farms and villages to stop cocaine production.
The Afro-Colombian peace activist Bernado Vivas made this and other claims recently at two Twin Cities speeches in early November, one at Macalester College and the other at the Resource Center of the Americas.
Originally scheduled to accompany Vivas was the Afro-Colombian activist Orlando Valencia. However, last Oct. 15, Valencia was kidnapped by paramilitaries after being denied a visa to visit the U.S. He has not been heard from since.
At his Twin Cities speeches, Vivas spoke sadly yet with stubborn optimism about Colombia’s situation. He described the disastrous effects of the civil war in his country, and of the U.S.’s “Plan Colombia,” as well as the role that multinational corporations play in terrorizing Colombian society.
“Killed Like Rats”
Afro-Colombians, or Colombians of African descent, make up as much as a quarter of Colombia’s population and have one of the most active indigenous rights movements in the country. Afro-Colombians live mainly in the northwest, on land that is greatly desired by multinational corporations for agro-industrial development.
The precise number of Afro-Colombians is unknown as the national government plays down their numbers in an effort to further marginalize and disempower them, Vivas said.
“We are persecuted, killed like rats because we get in the way of investment,” he said.
Afro-Colombian and other indigenous groups have occupied buildings and farm estates throughout Colombia, as a part of protests to demand the return of their land. The connection between the Afro-Colombian community and the land is strong. “We love the land, respect it, and conserve it,” Vivas said.
But the Afro-Columbia movement goes beyond a struggle for land, he added, as a struggle for general peace and justice. The Afro-Colombian movement opposes the civil war; the policies of President Uribe’s government; the imposition of development projects; the U.S.’s “Plan Colombia” and “War on Drugs,” and the neoliberal agenda, Vivas said.
Twenty-three Afro-Colombian communities in the northwestern Choco region had a total of 123,000 hectares of land (about 393,940 acres) seized by the government in 1997, displacing 7800 people, to make room for the plantation of African palm, the source of highly exported palm oil.
The land is taken through corruption and false documents, Vivas said. They have tried to recover it through the judicial system, but leaders are terrorized so they will not continue to make their claims. A year after Vivas’ community’s land was partially returned, they were surrounded by armed forces who claimed guerrilla settlements were located in the area.
The Afro-Colombian movement is just one of many struggles across Latin America that are threatening to undermine U.S. domination of the continent that arguably began in 1846, at the start of the Mexican-American War.
Manifest Destiny was the U.S. foreign policy of the day. Today’s “neoliberal” philosophy has many echoes of Manifest Destiny, but the consequences of neoliberalism are potentially far more damaging.
Colombia is a case in point. Even mainstream U.S. media sources now describe Colombia as ravaged not only by civil war between state-associated paramilitaries and Marxist guerrilla forces, but by a “War on Drugs” waged by the U.S. under the guise of Plan Colombia.
In addition, Vivas described an ecocide in Colombia that is being caused by U.S.-trained soldiers who use planes, bought with U.S. money, to spray pesticides over areas where coca is believed to be grown. The real result of these operations, Vivas said, is not the elimination of cocaine, but the injury and death of thousands of innocent Colombian farmers and villagers.
Vivas highlighted his argument with moving photos of some of those who have been murdered during these campaigns. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the “War on Drugs” by referring to well-known ties between President Uribe and drug traffickers. The paramilitaries, he said, who are supposedly fighting this “War on Drugs”, actually receive money from the drug trade.
He pointed out the illegitimacy of this war, as indigenous Colombians have been growing coca for thousands of years. Chewing coca leaf is a traditional custom that serves as a source of nourishment and energy. Additionally, coca is not the only ingredient of cocaine. Yet, Vivas joked darkly, there have been no bombing of companies like Monsanto, which produce the other ingredients. Not that they should be bombed, he quickly added.
The “War on Drugs” is less a moral crusade against the criminal drug trade, and more a means of getting what is wanted by multinational corporations trying to get their way in agro-industrial projects in Colombia, Vivas argued.
Throughout the country, suspicion of coca cultivation is used as an excuse for seizing land which is then used for “development projects.”
USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, helps fund these projects, Vivas said.
“The problem in Colombia is not guerrillas or drug traffickers, it’s the imposition of development,” he said. “Guerrillas kill and displace, yes. We don’t share their view, but we are most concerned with state power that is there only to back up capitalist power.”
A Pretty Word
Because of his efforts to have his community’s land returned after government seizure, his demands for peace, and his refusal to align with the paramilitaries or guerrillas, Vivas has been the target of violence from state and rebel forces.
The Zapatistas in Mexico, the Landless Peasant’s Movement in Brazil, the Workers’ Takover and Unemployed Workers’ Movements in Argentina, and indigenous movements in Ecuador and Bolivia – all are among many similar movements sweeping the region in revolt against the domination of local societies and economies under the neoliberal rationale.
“It’s a pretty word, democracy,” Vivas said. “In Colombia it means safety for foreign investment.”
This is the perception in much of Latin America, and the desire for true, direct democracy, which incorporates traditionally marginalized groups, is at the heart of these movements.
The many indigenous movements are now communicating and often working with each in a way that is sure to redefine the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America; between their societies and their governments; and perhaps even the very notions of statehood and capitalism.
Vivas asked U.S. citizens to stand with the Afro-Colombians and other such movements across the region by educating themselves and others, and using their political influence to shape national policy.
“Call your Congressmen and Senators and follow up on the aid you’re giving,” he said. “Because [that aid] is increasing the number of displaced peoples and orphans.”
With reporting help from Mary Turck, Communications Director of the Resource Center of the Americas.