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A People Caught in the Middle

Carolina IACOVINO, 2 September 2002
PHOTO: Benoît Aquin

Throughout the 1990s, Colombia endured escalating guerrilla warfare and a worsening economic crisis. Today, with no end in sight to these problems, the Colombian government has lost all of legitimacy in the eyes of its people. Shortly after his being sworn into office on August 7, 2002, President Alvaro Uribe Velez proclaimed the "Conmocion Interior" which restricted basic civil rights, and Colombians are once again protagonists in a war that doesn’t concern them.

Throughout the 1990s, Colombia endured escalating guerrilla warfare and a worsening economic crisis. Today, with no end in sight to these problems, the Colombian government has lost all of legitimacy in the eyes of its people. Shortly after his being sworn into office on August 7, 2002, President Alvaro Uribe Velez proclaimed the "Conmocion Interior" which restricted basic civil rights, and Colombians are once again protagonists in a war that doesn’t concern them.

For most Latin American countries the 80s were a "lost decade". Almost all of Latin America underwent severe economic hardship, the exception being the handful of countries with a strong State. This group included Colombia where protectionist measures left ample space for the government and little space for competition.

By the 90’s, Colombia began following in the footsteps of most South American countries by adopting neoliberal measures (opening the economy to international markets, privatising public services, etc.). When examining the effects of these policies, Manuel Rozental, a Colombian political refugee and an activist with the Toronto based Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign, points out that "since the implementation of neoliberal policies and structural adjustment programmes... the unemployment rate has increased from 9% to 21% in 2001, leaving 3.5 million Colombians unemployed." Since the implementation of these policies, millions of Colombians have been displaced from their land, and many more have no access to health care or education.

When describing Colombia’s situation, Rozental goes on to say "The Colombian model involves combining the implementation of structural adjustments imperatives of global corporate and financial institutions (The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, and others), through policy reforms that open the country up to investors while simultaneously taking away resources and exploiting land and people at minimal or no cost to them. There is also the criminalization of social protest and the systematic persecution and assassination of grassroots leaders with the aim of dismantling movements and organisations that seek to defend the rights of Colombians."

Meanwhile, the number of civilian victims keeps growing in confrontations between the State (through paramilitary organisations) and the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Entire villages are being terrorized in this war, and basic human rights are frequently denied. Nevertheless, starting in 1997-1998, fed-up Colombians starting taking to the streets with one resounding message - enough!

Responding to the people, ex-president Pastrana tried to solve the conflict. While he did bring the FARC to the negotiation table, a solution was not found and the FARC ceased all negotiations with the government. When an American sponsored solution called Plan Colombia, which included an infusion of $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to the right wing paramilitaries, was created, Pastrana lost all legitimacy as president. The people’s opinion was reflected in the 2000 Gubernatorial elections, when not one candidate from his party was elected.

Uribe’s "Mano Dura"

Newly minted president Alvaro Uribe Velez is, according to Rozental "a man who represents-in its purest form, the combined interests of corporations, elites, the US government and military actors." Uribe’s political agenda includes rebuilding the legitimacy of the State.

The first and most drastic change Uribe made just a few days after he took power was to declare a state of "Conmocion Interior". The newspaper El Tiempo wrote that it imposes extraordinary measures. Rocket attacks on congress while Uribe was taking power, triggered his quick reaction and sent a message of violence, revenge and authority that was lacking in the previous administration.

In the text of Conmocion Interior Uribe declares that immediate measures "to prevent other terrorists acts", must take place. Among such measures, the text stipulates an increase in police and military presence, followed by a significant increase in their budget. The legal system will see new mechanisms established, to facilitate the capture and imprisonment of criminals. The Conmocion Interior restricts the free circulation of people and vehicles in zones determined by authorities.

From a "Mano Dura" to the Battlefield

Some observers argue that Uribe saw the attacks on August 7 as a challenge. If the guerrillas’ intention was to take advantage of a weak state, they succeeded. Only now they will have a strong state to contend with. In sending this message, he is setting the stage for all of Colombia to be turned into a battlefield, with the people, once again, being caught in the middle. On one side are guerrillas who use the lives of innocent people to make a political statement, and on the other side, a government who has the firm intention of solving the conflict, even if civilians get in the way and civil rights are restricted indefinitely.

Uribe believes in fighting fire with fire, but critics argue that he is only making things worse. It will not be a surprise when new attacks occur, and in spite of this, Uribe’s position is supported throughout Colombia. Even the opposition supports Uribe’s plan. Already the Liberal Party as well as the Conservative Party has shown their support. The government therefore has a green light to do everything in its power to stop the guerrilla’s attacks. Civil Rights groups worry that as is often the case in these situations, the temporary measures will be brought before the legislature and passed into law, ensuring their permanent application.

The United States, in accordance with their "war against terrorism", supports Uribe’s plan. The similarities between the two countries’ discourses are indicative. The term terrorism is used abundantly, and although still undefined, in Colombia terrorist has replaced guerrilla in the vernacular. Both countries also perceive the restriction of civil rights as necessary to ensure safety against terrorism.

The United States is right about one thing - this conflict is international. And therefore, it deserves international attention, especially when one considers the fact that no institution is capable of guaranteeing the safety of the Colombian people. The conflict is far from being solved and things will get worse before they’ll get better. Non-governmental organisations, and people throughout the world, need to get involved and support ordinary Colombians who are running out of options and have nowhere else to turn.