Interview: Grace Livingstone on Colombia

The war on terror is a recent global phenomenon, yet in Colombia the idea is at least 40 years old. Colombia's internal conflict has attracted US interest since the early 1960s and, now, Colombia is the third largest recipient of military aid after Israel and Egypt. Mariela Kohon interviews Grace Livingstone, author of Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War on Colombia's version of state terrorism

December 1, 2003
8 min read

Mariela Kohon: In your recently published book Inside Colombia, you state that Plan Colombia has been turned from a peace plan into a “battle plan” and that “the military element is by far the most important”. What is Plan Colombia and what do you mean by this statement?

Grace Livingstone: There were two versions of Plan Colombia. The first version was written in Spanish by Colombians in May 1999. It was not particularly radical, but it was a peace and development plan which aimed to dissuade peasants from growing coca crops or joining armed groups by investing in alternative rural development and education. It did not mention drugs trafficking, military action or spraying crops with pesticides.

US officials re-wrote the draft entirely in October 1999. Their involvement was so extensive that the final version of Plan Colombia was published in English – not Spanish. Strengthening the authority of the state (by re-equipping and expanding the armed forces) became the main objective. An intensive militarised crop spraying campaign was also introduced. The US basically transformed Plan Colombia to meet their own perceived security needs – that is, the need to combat the Colombian guerrillas. It was used as a vehicle to step up counter-insurgency aid and US military involvement in Colombia at a time when combating drugs was the only acceptable pretext for intervention.

Some have argued that Colombia’s recently elected president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, with the backing of the US, is imposing “state terrorism”. What are your thoughts on this?

Colombia’s human rights record was so appalling in the 1990s that the US Congress banned all military aid to Colombia, except counter-narcotics aid. Of course, the counter-drugs aid found its way to counter-insurgency units and to the paramilitaries, but at least US politicians showed some awareness of the human rights problem. The ban also stemmed from a desire not to repeat the horrors of US foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s. Under the auspices of fighting communism, an illegal and cruel war was launched in Nicaragua, thousands were “disappeared” in El Salvador and 200,000 people were murdered in Guatemala.

The scary thing is we appear to have returned to those days; the language of the “war on terror” is eerily similar to Reagan’s anti-communist rhetoric. After 11 September, Congress agreed to lift the ban on aid to Colombia and approve aid to combat “terrorist activities and other threats to national security” – basically giving the Colombian army a carte blanche to wage war on its opponents.

As most Red Pepper readers will know, the Colombian military collaborates with illegal paramilitaries, who carry out massacres, selective assassinations, torture and kidnapping. They target any critics of the government: trade unionists, left-wingers, human rights workers, peasant activists. Two of Uribe’s policies are likely to exacerbate paramilitarism: the creation of a network of paid informants to the military and the recruitment of part-time “peasant soldiers” who guard the streets by day and go home at night. Uribe also declared an effective state of emergency as soon as he came to office and has put large parts of the country under direct military control.

But it’s important to note that Uribe is popular in Colombia. Many people are simply exhausted with violence and want someone to put an end to it once and for all, whatever the methods. The guerrillas must accept some of the responsibility for this since their tactic of kidnapping civilians for money has contributed to the war weariness and desire for a firm hand.

Given the increasing number of progressive governments coming to power in Latin America, how important is Colombia’s role in the region and how do you see events unfolding?

At the moment I am in Venezuela, which has a left-wing president, Hugo Chavez. A government official here told me that he thinks the US are trying to create an Israel in Latin America, a state that is propped up with US military aid and loyal to US interests. And in 1999, the US lost its military base in Panama, from which it had directed all its interventions in the Americas since WWII. Since then it has been looking for other bases in Latin America from which to operate.

In your book you document the relationship between multinationals and contracted armed security accused of threatening and assassinating workers, farmers and trade unionists. Colombia Solidarity Campaign UK, along with many organisations internationally, have launched an international boycott of Coca-Cola, as a result of the company’s direct link to repression of workers in Colombia. Could you tell more about the link between multinationals and human rights violations in Colombia?

If you look at a map of Colombia, the areas of oil and coal extraction, heavy industry and business centres coincide with the areas of most intense paramilitary activity. This is mainly because Colombian businesses and Colombian landowners have resorted to funding paramilitaries to defend their interests. The paramilitaries are waging war on “subversives”, which in their definition includes peasant activists, environmental campaigners and trade unionists.

There is virtually no space for democratic dissent in Colombia. So we find that trade unionists working for a multinational – say Drummond, a US mining company – have been shot dead. But to prove that a multinational company had a direct link to the killings is another matter. Each case has to be looked at individually. Of course, whether companies should operate in a country where trade unionists are killed with impunity is open to question.

In the case of British Petroleum (BP), in the early 1990s a number of peasant activists who had campaigned against oil spills complained of harassment by the army and paramilitaries (such as death notices being pinned on the walls, and photographs being taken when coming out of meetings). Two activists were killed by death squads. The Colombian state prosecutor investigated the accusations and said although it was clear that the military had collaborated with paramilitaries around the Casanare oil fields, it could find no evidence that BP was responsible. But the prosecutor’s investigation was not, shall we say, particularly probing. [The omissions in his report are outlined in Inside Colombia].

The prosecutor also looked into claims that the private security company hired by BP, Defence Systems Colombia, had trained paramilitaries in “lethal counter-insurgency” tactics. With the evidence available, it could not prove or disprove the allegations and left the case in abeyance.

The Coca-Cola case is very important because the Colombian food workers’ trade union (Sinaltrainal) is trying to establish in court a direct link between a multinational company and the paramilitaries. Nine trade unionists working in Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia have been killed by paramilitaries. In a court action lodged in Miami, Florida, the union claims the paramilitaries were acting on behalf of the company. In March, the court ruled that the case could proceed. Now, Panamco Colombia (Coca-Cola’s bottlers in Colombia) is suing the union for slander. More details are available on the union’s website (www.sinaltrainal.org).

Finally, with an ever-increasing amount of Colombians having to abandon the country because of the civil war in Colombia, what can people in Britain and elsewhere do to show solidarity with the people in Colombia?

The most important things to do are to let threatened people in Colombia know that they have not been forgotten, to cut through the media silence and report what is really going on, and to lobby the British government and companies which have involvement in Colombia.

Other useful websites

The UK-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign (www.colombiasolidarity.org.uk) campaigns for a socially just and sustainable peace in Colombia and opposes foreign military intervention. See its website for the latest reports from Colombia.

War on Want is calling on activists to lobby Britain’s minister for Latin America, Bill Rammell, to freeze military assistance to Colombia until the killing of trade unionists stops and the links between the Colombian security forces and the paramilitary death squads are severed. You can send an electronic postcard or take further action via the organisation’s website, www.waronwant.org/colombia.Grace Livingstone’s Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War is published by the Latin America Bureau (£12.99). To order, ring 0845 458 9910 or visit www.lab.org.uk. Red Pepper will review Inside Colombia in its January 2004 issue.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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