Columbia got some attention last week in the U.S. thanks to some sound bites from our presidential candidates. But, there is a lot more going on there than meets our myopic media's eyes.
Right now, over a million Indigenous Colombians embark on a second week of community actions aimed at securing some of their ancestral lands. Last week's protests denounced government repression resulting in two more deaths and dozens of wounded by riot police. Uribe cautioned protestors to ask for forgiveness from the Police and to clear the blockade of highways. The president also made a call for the government to buy some land to set aside for the Indigenous community. Currently, the government holds 27% of Colombia's undeveloped territories in the name of the indigenous community.
In particular, there is one area in the northeast, claimed by the Uwa people, that is earmarked to be drilled by the Ecopetrol. The Uwa are mobilizing to have a voice in the affair.
Luis Ebelis Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia or ONIC in Spanish, expressed that Uribe is trying to sweep the violent crisis under the rug. Over the last week, government and paramilitary forces have been repressing indigenous mobilizations. The killing and disappearances of thousands of indigenous people and labor leaders by paramilitaries is considered at crisis levels by those affected by the state-sanctioned violence. President Uribe, however, refuses to meet with representatives from the indigenous group, claiming they have ties to FARC guerrillas.
Ebelis Andrade suggested that President Uribe should explain to the international community why thousands of killings go uninvestigated instead of pointing at struggling Indians as terrorists. He also stated that between the killings and the economic marginalization, the indigenous community is threatened with extinction. ONIC has officially called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to facilitate a dialogue with the Colombian Government.
The recent road blocks follow a 24 day strike by some 12,500 sugar cane cutters. They were calling for direct employment by sugar companies who have been using subcontractors to circumvent any applicable legal labor requirements. At issue are contract procedures and the systematic punishment and killings of labor leaders. This kind of repression of labor has also been documented to occur with other industries including to the very visible Chiquita Banana, Nestle and Coca Cola brands.
However, it is not just Colombia's poor and indigenous community that has its gripes with the government. An example of higher level problems is the battle the executive is having with the striking judiciary.
Uribe appealed to article 213 of the Colombian constitution, declaring a state of commotion, after hundreds of thousands of legal processes were halted throughout the country. Employees in the judicial system are asking for salary increases. However, there have also been some recent legal breakthroughs in regard to uncovering direct ties between the government and paramilitary death squads and narco-dollars.
In November of 2006, César Gaviria, president of the opposing liberal party threw his support behind the efforts of the Supreme Court to uncover links between government officials and paramilitary forces. Two days later Uribe reacted by demanding that criminal responsibilities be allocated on an individual basis. By April of 2008 it was found that 51 Congressmen were suspect for having paramilitary ties and 29 were already in jail awaiting trial. Uribe's cousin, Senator Mario Uribe, was also arrested under suspicion of ties with right wing paramilitary groups.
Besides, the problems with judicial employees and indigenous groups, trade unions are reporting a dramatic increase in the murder of union members. As recently as this last August labor activist Luis Mayusa Prada was shot 17 times. Prada joins in death two other members of his family killed for involvement in union activities. At least 27 union leaders have been killed this year and more than 3,000 since they started counting a couple of decades ago.
All these complaints and all these killings have one thing in common: trade, be it legalized or not. Foreign companies represent a majority of the nation's earnings, the profits of which disproportionately go overseas. Uribe and most congressmen support the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S., whereas most people on the streets and in the jungles vehemently oppose it. Indigenous and Labor groups resent the privatization of key national industries and services, from hospitals to water.
The fact that multinational corporations and government officials are imbedded with paramilitary violence and the FTA does not go unnoticed. The recent high profile dismantlement of paramilitary leadership and their comfortable extradition to the United States doesn't fool any of those that see the same thugs running around killing and threatening people. Now they say they are from the guerrillas or go under new names like the High Mountain Battalions or local security forces. These have not only killed unionists but also indigenous leaders such as Raul Mendoza and hundreds of random peasants.
The U.S. role in Colombia's turmoil is also suspect for indigenous and labor movements. With the increase in military aid to combat terrorism and the guerrilla drug trade, comes an ever increasing foreign presence. Not only has the national economy been usurped for multinational interests, but the territory itself is poised to become a regional base against growing South American alternatives to the Washington Consensus. Colombia already staged a U.S. approved invasion of the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan territories under the pretext of combating FARC guerrillas.
Once the lease is up for the U.S. base in Manta, Ecuador, the Palanquero base north of Bogotá looks to be the next best choice for controlling missions in that key region of oil, drugs and rebellious guerrillas. These bases, plus the mobilization of the Fourth Fleet makes South Americans uneasy as they seek more autonomy and popular reforms.
All but two South American countries voted in presidents willing to trade their traditional ties to U.S. interests for more regional cohesion and control. Colombia, which enjoys the second place slot on the list of U.S. military aid, looks to be on the verge of capitulating to democratic demands for social justice and fair trade. It stands to be seen if the Uribe Government and the ruling party can hold on much longer under the weight of the para-political scandals and the increased mobilization of indigenous and labor govements. We'll have to wait until 2010 to see; barring, of course, any sort of emergencies reverting Colombia to marshal law.