Peace on Earth. And in Colombia? by Meredith Aby Keirstead

The following is the writer’s interview with James Jordan about the situation on the ground in Colombia.  Jordan leads human rights delegations to Colombia regularly and organizes the Alliance for Global Justice’s labor solidarity campaigns.  

This is an intro updating info and preceding Meredith’s intro and interview.

As Latin American countries struggle to maintain their independence against another wave of U.S. intervention, national strikes were called in Colombia on November 21, November 27, and December 4. The protests were initially called by a coalition of labor unions objecting to President Ivan Duque’s neo-liberal economic “reforms” reducing workers’ pay and protection and cutting pension benefits.

Tax breaks for corporations; corruption; privatization of the pension systems; inadequate education, healthcare, and transportation; an increase of 35 percent in the cost of electricity – all reflective of austerity – were among the specifics reported to have impassioned protesters. Indigenous people, farmers, students, environmentalists, free speech and civil rights advocates, and a variety of other Colombians joined the protests, and the numbers swelled to hundreds of thousands in a mass movement. Because of the protests, Duque was forced into dialogue with Mesa del Paro, a coalition of civil society, but without satisfactory results for the people. On December 12, the Latin American media source Telesur reports that strikes have been continuing for three weeks as the Colombian Federation of Education Workers denounced an “economic growth” bill that would give tax exemptions to big corporations at the expense of Colombia’s poorest sectors.

Among very important root causes for the protests are violations of human rights and justice, and the lack of support for the peace process, as explained here in Meredith Aby-Keirstead’s interview with James Jordan.

Interview with James Jordan, National Co-Coordinator
for Alliance for Justice

By Meredith Aby-Keirstead Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) Newsletter  Volume 37  Number 6  Winter 2019-2020

The U.S. has a long history of intervention in Latin America, and in Colombia in particular, through Plan Colombia, the U.S.- funded right-wing paramilitary death squads that targeted union and human rights leaders who challenged the policies of multinational corporations. For years, Colombia was the third highest recipient of U.S. aid (after Israel and Egypt), much of it for military- and “security-” related purposes. According to the Congressional Research Service, from the time it was initiated in 2000, Plan Colombia and “its follow-on strategies” exceeded $10 billion in funding through 2016. (In 2019, hundreds of millions from combined State and Defense Departments were appropriated in aid for Colombia, with similar expectations in 2020.)*

As U.S. intervention in Colombia’s civil war decreased, there was a corresponding increase in peace negotiations and in 2016 the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) formally ended the conflict.  While many hoped this would bring peace, there hasn’t been an improvement in human rights. Many peace accord promises remain unfilled in 2019, and in September some members of the FARC publicly declared their exit from the peace accords.

The following is the writer’s interview with James Jordan about the situation on the ground in Colombia.  Jordan leads human rights delegations to Colombia regularly and organizes the Alliance for Global Justice’s labor solidarity campaigns.  

MA: Can you give our readers a status report on where the peace accords are in Colombia?

JJ: The peace accords are in serious trouble, but they’re not dead yet. Today (October 15, 2019), a human rights defender, social movement leader, union organizer, or former insurgent is killed every 30 hours on average. The killers operate with impunity. Forced displacement continues to skyrocket, and the power of paramilitary death squads is rising sharply. The Colombian government is emboldened by fascist or fascist-leaning administrations in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. They resist the demands of the Colombian people and of international pressure.

While the former FARC insurgents have met 100 percent of their obligations, the Colombian government has only met around 25 percent. The administration of President Iván Duque Márquez has tried to undermine key aspects of the peace accords and has encouraged violence and repression against former insurgents and indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and farming communities. The election of President Duque was preceded by well-organized threats and violence against left and center left campaigns of political candidates and their supporters, as well as against widespread voter fraud. We actually took a delegation to observe one of the rounds of the elections, and every one of our teams witnessed some form of irregularities or fraud. Of course, the safe and open electoral participation of opposition political parties is as important a part of the peace process as any.

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Even so, it is still true that a clear majority of former insurgents are in favor of the peace accords and thousands of them have been or are in process of being reincorporated into civilian life. Colombian popular movements continue to support the peace. And both the Colombian Congress and its courts have repeatedly blocked some of the most critical assaults by the Duque administration.

The peace accords in 2016 brought an end to the 52-plus-year civil war between the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC) and the Colombian government, and saw the establishment of the legal, nonviolent new FARC – the Alternative Revolutionary Force of the Common. However, this did not spell an end to civil war. Around 1,000 of the old FARC soldiers never agreed to the peace accords, and never disarmed. Because of the ongoing political violence and the failure of the state to meet its commitments, their numbers have grown to 3,000 over the last three years. Recently three important former FARC commanders and peace negotiators announced they were withdrawing from the accords and reforming a new FARC Nuevo Poder, or New Power.

The New Power commanders have said they plan to cooperate with the ELN (National Liberation Army), which has around 5,000 members. The ELN had also been in negotiations with the government, but the Duque administration sabotaged those. Thus, even with the peace accords hanging on, today there is a presence of around 8,000 armed insurgents, and if anything, that number is growing.

All in all, the peace accords are still the law of the land, but they’re barely hanging on. The civil war in Colombia has hardly ended, and what peace there is cannot truly be called a just peace. Some former insurgents have given up on that altogether, and the reasons are obvious and grave. But most insurgents and popular movements continue to defend the accords and fight for their implementation.

MA: What recent human rights abuses are you most concerned about?

JJ: The human rights situation in Colombia is heartbreaking. I have traveled various times to communities that are the hardest hit by political violence from the military and paramilitaries. Everyone has lost friends and family members, and we have known some of the fallen.

One of our closest associates just survived an assassination attempt right in Bogotá ¾ the second he’s survived since 2016. Almost daily people I know well contact me, people who are truly in fear for their lives and those of their families.  They are desperate for somewhere to go, somewhere they can be safe. Or sometimes they just want their families to be able to relocate, while they stay behind to continue the struggle at home.

I put people in touch with immigration lawyers and activists here in the U.S. and in Canada, too. But, as we know all too well, anti-immigrant racism is entrenched and expanding, both officially and unofficially. I discuss with them other options, and share what contacts we have in other countries. But for the most part, these comrades and their families are caught in the crossfire with nowhere to run.

And I won’t even begin to tell you about some of the worst abuses¾children shot dead in their parents’ arms, a former insurgent being beaten and castrated at a military checkpoint before he was finally murdered, aerial bombings of civilians who later are falsely claimed to be “enemy combatants,” communities fired on while they are in the very act of eradicating illicit crops and demanding inclusion in rural development programs. These are daily occurrences.

So, I’d say that one of the top concerns has to be the ongoing political violence against the left and rural, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities. Forty percent of the victims are Afro or indigenous. But I want to add that the anti-immigrant, anti-asylum policies of the Trump administration also form a kind of human rights abuse against Colombian social movement leaders who could be killed at any moment, who are being killed right now.

The other big human rights abuse I wish people knew more about is what’s going on in La Guajira. Every year 600 to 700 Wayúu indigenous children die of hunger and thirst. They live in an area of severe drought, and that situation is made so much worse by mining companies that rob their streams and rivers and contaminate what water is left. It has destroyed the ability of Wayúu people to feed themselves. This is going on right on the Colombian side of the border with Venezuela, in one of the most militarized parts of Colombia I have seen. But we don’t know about it because it implicates transnational capitalism, and it reveals the huge expenditures on military hardware that threaten both the Colombian and Venezuelan people. Those expenditures could be going to feed, house, and educate Wayúu communities.

MA: What has the Trump administration done to promote or destroy peace in Colombia?

JJ: The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president marked a bad turn for Colombia. Previous administrations were also not good. But whereas when Colombia under former President Álvaro Uribe was considering invading Venezuela, the George W. Bush administration refused to back the idea as unreasonable, the Obama administration began a new phase of military partnership with Colombia and passed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. However, the Obama White House didn’t interfere directly against the peace agreement.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has openly talked about Colombia as a staging ground for possible military intervention in Venezuela and has led attacks on the peace agreement. The White House has pushed aggressively for Colombia to abandon commitments to land reform, return of the displaced, and rural development and crop substitution in exchange for voluntary eradication of crops with illicit uses. [President Trump] has insisted, instead, on violent, forced eradication without development, and on a return to the aerial spraying of rural communities with glyphosate (popularly known as Roundup, created by Monsanto). The Trump administration has also returned to the practice of requesting the extradition of former insurgents, a practice that undermines the autonomy and sovereignty of the Special Peace Jurisdiction Courts. With the election of Ivan Duque, an Uribe disciple, in June 2018, Trump found a willing and subservient pawn.

MA: What can we do here to support peace in Colombia?

JJ: There are a number of different organizations that defend peace in Colombia. Despite political differences and differences in analysis, I think we all understand that right now the peace accords are in danger, and the primary culprits are U.S. policies and the far right wing that is in power in both Colombia and the U.S. I encourage people to look around and plug in wherever they can.

Mural on the wall of the American-Colombia building in Bogotá depicting U. S. neo-liberal intervention in Colombia with the U.S., portrayed by Trump pulling the strings.

ACTION:

Support Labor: The Fensuagro agricultural workers’ union (Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria) is the most repressed and targeted union in Colombia and maybe even the world. In the first half of 2019 alone, 10 of their organizers were killed, and they represent the sector most affected by displacement. For many years, they had received no support from U.S. labor, but over the past several years, labor unions have co-sponsored two Fensuagro tours in the U.S. and have passed resolutions of solidarity with the union. Right now they really need our support, and are planning for their national congress in April 2020.

FFI: Anyone who wants to support and/or attend the congress, contact: JAMES@AFGJ.ORG.

Participate in the Coalition for Peace in Colombia

Organizations and activists from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. joined together for peace in Colombia. FFI: coalitionforpeaceincolombia.org for activities and campaigns including the People’s Travel Advisory on Colombia.

Interested in stopping U.S. intervention throughout Latin America?

The WAMM Solidarity Committee of the Americas is launching a new issue committee and sponsoring Saturday morning coffee hours for education and action. For information, see the Women Against Military Madness Facebook, the WAMM calendar at womenagainstmilitarymadness.org, or call the WAMM office at 612-827-5364.

* Congressional Research Report. “Colombia: Background and U.S. Relations. Updated November 29, 2019.” Summary, page 2; “Funding for Plan Colombia and Peace Colombia,” pp. 31-36. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43813.pdf

Meredith Aby-Keirstead is a longtime Latin America solidarity activist and is a member of the Anti-War Committee and Women Against Military Madness.  She led human rights delegations to Colombia in 2004 and 2006.  She has led organizing nationally in solidarity with the Colombian unions and is also a member of Education Minnesota.

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