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The Forces Changing Colombia

by Colombia Action Network (CAN) Monday, Jun. 11, 2001 at 3:35 AM

The founding Conference for the Colombian Action Network took place in Chicago last April, establishing a new alliance of organizations working to change US policy toward Colombia. Foremost, they will strive to provide an answer to an urgent plea given by their keynote speaker Jose Fernando Ramirez, who is asking for help in the form of accompaniment.

by Kim Alphandary

Jose Fernando Ramirez is a member of the Patriotic Union (UP)*, a member of the Federation of Oil Workers (USO), the Central Organization of Colombian Workers (CUT) and very active in many of the struggles around the country. In this story I will attempt to present the many ideas that Fernando shared during the conference. His story is one of deep dedication, of a struggle for social change with a vision for peace and justice for Colombia.

In his opening statements Fernando communicated the passion of the new social movement that is sweeping Latin America, the Bolivarian Movement, named after the South American independence hero, Simon Bolivar.

"As a Colombian, a Latin American, and as a Bolivarian, I feel that it is necessary to say that the spirit of Simon Bolivar is not only with us in this room today, but in the fields and in the countryside of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Latin America. Simon Bolivar's horse is running on, carrying with it the spirit of peace."

Simon Bolivar was one of South America's greatest generals. Commanding all the armies against the Spaniards, he won independence for 'Greater Colombia', a union of today's Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama. He became Greater Colombia's first president in 1819 and is referred to as The Liberator, 'the George Washington of South America'.

The Bolivarian dream of maintaining a United Greater Colombia has existed for some 200 years, passing through times of revival and times of obscurity. This dream represents the collective history and ideology of many South American Nations.

The largest and most powerful resurgence has taken place recently in Venezuela, now officially renamed the 'Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela'. President Hugo Chavez Frias founded the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement in 1982 and ten years later led two unsuccessful coups. Running on the Bolivarian Platform, Chavez went on to win the November 1998 Presidential Elections by the largest majority in four decades. He has been outspoken about the need to redirect benefits earned from the vast oil fields away from the multinationals towards the 80% of Venezuelans who live in poverty. He has recently revitalized OPEC and cooperation between member nations, successfully raising the cost of oil dramatically.

At a recent conference of Andean Pact nations, Chavez pushed for the development of a united Latin America. Fernando supports Chavez's call for Latin Americans to work together to protect their fragile economies and to limit the harmful impact of multinationals in the region.

"Venezuelan President Chavez has made a very important proposal: to unite Greater Colombia and create a Bolivarian Union. A powerful Union that will enable us to negotiate with international powers on a level playing field", explains Fernando, "allowing us to confront the violent military assault that has been declared upon the people of Latin America."

"We are going to create a country where social justice exists, with a political economy that takes the interests of the Colombian people into account. A political economy where the peasants of Colombia will never again be forced to cultivate illicit crops."

The escalation of US intervention into Colombia marks a new phase in the crisis in Latin America. Colombia's mammoth anti-drug campaign, backed by more than billion in US military aid, is killing fields of coca as well as the legal crops of farmers. Since December, three fumigation flights have occurred almost daily over farming communities in the Putumayo region destroying hundreds of acres of coca.

"The military plans developed by Plan Colombia are a counter-insurgency strategy. The fact that coca cultivation has not diminished but increased illustrates this. All this fumigating has been for nothing. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent, money that could have been invested in agrarian development, social projects, hospitals and schools, but instead it has served to broaden the war."

Coca farmers and other civilians have fled the advance of army troops backed by attack helicopters, herbicide-spewing planes, and a new death squad incursion, placing the lives of thousands at risk.

"Some peasants have fled, but most have decided to stay, to defend their lives and fight for their land," Fernando explains. "This is what you call the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is a popular army. In the 1960's the FARC consisted of eighty families, and now they have become a very powerful army. They have a presence throughout Colombia. They have their own economy and are treated like a State. They are respected and loved! Many sectors of society sympathize with their struggle."

The struggle to build a genuine independent alternative that can promote national sovereignty, social justice, and establish a Latin American federation, is more urgent than ever; Bolivar's dream is awakening. The FARC has traditionally aligned themselves with Soviet philosophies. But on April 30, 2000 they held an inauguration, officially adopting the Bolivarian Movement, choosing to join a new political party that can potentially unite very diverse factors of the Colombian society.

The depth and influence of the Bolivarian Moment in Colombia is unknown because the party must function on a completely clandestine level. In the 1980's the FARC signed a peace agreement, laid down their arms and created the UP, which was then totally destroyed because death squads systematically assassinated over 2,000 of their members.

"Venezuela has proposed that plans be laid to hold a meeting where Colombians can consider joining a Bolivarian Union. The Insurgency, the FARC, the ELN and many urban movements would bring proposals with the purpose of outlining the basic principles that unite the various factions."

The Bolivarian Movement presents an ideology that is neither left nor right but rooted in the concept of national sovereignty: arisen largely in reaction to US economic and military domination of the region. This model of democracy is based on tolerance and respect for the opinions of others, one that guarantees social justice, ethical management of the public domain, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and a government where all of civil society participates. For the exploited masses this represents an end to hunger and political exclusion.

Northern Colombia is another part of the country acutely affected by the escalation of violence. Union leaders and labor activists, in particular, have been targets of violence. The oil industry is apparently the force behind the violence in this region.

"The petroleum industry is controlled by multinationals, as is the violence," Fernando explains. "The Colombian representative for the Multinational Petroleum Industries, Alejandro Martinez, officially announced to the Colombian government that multi-nationals were ready to bankroll two counter-insurgency battalions in Colombia, 10,000 men in each battalion."

Fernando asks rhetorically, "Why is the oil infrastructure a target of the counter insurgency?" He continues, "It is a military objective because Ecopetroleum and British Petroleum finance the war."

In the midst of the most serious human rights crisis in the Western Hemisphere, Union workers in the oil industry have continually sought to develop avenues for establishing peace in the region.

"We as oil workers sponsored an 'Assembly for Peace' event in 1996, where we presented a proposal to the government and insurgency movements, that the oil infrastructure be removed from the war. A proposal that would protect our natural resources and the environment," Fernando says. "A video was taken during this meeting by British Petroleum and handed over to the Colombian Army. And then, one by one, every leader that attended that meeting was assassinated."

Barrancabermeja, the petrol capital, is now known as Colombia's Sarajevo. Last year the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an 8,000 strong right-wing paramilitary army has surrounded the city and threatens to completely take it over.

"Between January and April of this year, Barrancabermeja experienced more than 170 murders, committed with the complete complicity of the Colombian government. This is a place where Colombian military personnel climb out of their tanks, forgetting to take off the insignia of the AUC. The population sees this, and for this reason the Colombian Police and Military have no credibility, no respect. These are the conditions of impunity that they operate in, and in which we live."

The CUT is the largest federation of Unions in Colombia with more than 800,000 affiliate organizations. Since 1986 CUT members have suffered some 3,000 assassinations, with the most recent member being killed was 15 days ago. As a member of this Union, Fernando believes that the only reason he and others are still alive is because of the accompaniment offered by Peace Brigades International, JustaPaz and others.

"This is why we are asking you for immediate assistance in bringing a larger international presence to Colombia. We don't belong to an armed organization. We are honest workers, committed to building the country of our dreams. And we hope that in the not too distant future we will be able to say that Colombia has found a solution to the armed and social conflict that we have been surviving in."

"This is only the first step in a thousand-mile journey, where we will continue to struggle for peace in Colombia."

* All acronyms are giving in Spanish.

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