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Colombian Social Leaders, COVID-19 and U.S. Empire By Patricia Rodríguez

Social leader Julián Gil taken from his jail cell in Bogota. Photo provided through the courtesy of Comite de Solidaridad Internacionalista.

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The killing of Colombian community leaders, human rights, and environmental defenders and during the past few years, now intensified under COVID-19, seem to replicate and presage the targeted attacks we are seeing and will continue to see in so called ‘democratic’ countries living under authoritarian rules. Community leaders, the majority of whom are indigenous, black, and campesinx rural small farmers who are voicing and defending their right to a life of safety and dignity, a life free of war and extreme militarization, and to be able to live and think as they wish, in their own protected territories and lands, are being systematically killed or judicialized.

Since the historic peace accords in 2016, well over 400 human rights defenders have been killed; in this year alone, over 120 Colombian social leaders have been assassinated, and many others threatened and displaced from their homes, and hundreds have been arrested under bogus charges, as in the case of Julián Gil, Technical Secretary of Congreso de los Pueblos (People’s Congress). He has been imprisoned for over two years. The People’s Congress is a grassroots organization that aims to construct and enact popular mandates for national policy changes toward the achievement of a life of dignity and autonomy for different rural and urban sectors. The COVID pandemic seems to have closed many of the spaces of participation opened up in the 2010s, with armed groups now returning with fierce attacks on leaders while under quarantine, and with the implementation of social control tactics that add to the worries created by the failures of recent peace processes.

The Peace Process and its fallouts

Peace with social justice is part of what these community leaders fight for, and things seemed hopeful with the 2012-2016 negotiations and then signing of the peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a powerful rebel group fighting in a civil war since the mid-1960s. Since 2016, the peace accords, which included the implementation of several initiatives, including the disarming and return to civilian life of members of FARC, land and monetary restitution to victims of the long-standing conflict, rural structural changes that called for the strengthening of territorial and sovereignty rights for indigenous, afro-Colombians and campesinx, and public policies for the gradual substitution of illicit crops and alternative rural development strategies, have been stripped down to what amounts to an extremely tenuous cease-fire.

The implementation of the peace accords, supported and financed in part by United States governmental institutions like U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), seems filled with contradictions, and hides much of the continuedly-dominant securitizing approach that is happening on the ground, in the ‘territories’. Whereas the peace accords promised funds to communities for shifting their production to agricultural crops and for the implementation of the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial- PDETs), they are instead being increasingly pushed out of their lands due to violent attacks and fumigation by the Colombian armed forces.

On May 28th, the U.S. government announced the deployment of 45-50 SOUTHCOM’s SFAB (Security Force Assistance Brigades) troops to ‘assist [its] U.S. partners…based on operational and institutional needs’ related to security and defense in so called Zonas Futuro, or special zones that the government has deemed abandoned and prone to the presence of armed-group, and drug production and therefore for enabling easy drug shipment-routes. The counternarcotic and intelligence-gathering operations officers that will arrive soon at the five Zonas Futuro have received education at the Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning, Ga., the infamous location of the SOA/WHINSEC (School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute of Security and Cooperation). The SOA/WHINSEC has provided training for numerous Latin American military and police officers who have committed massacres against their own people in Guatemala, El Salvador, and other places.

The move by SOUTHCOM is perceived by Adam Isacson, Director of the Defense Oversight program of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), as having much to do also with naval blockades against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, accused by the U.S. government of narcotrafficking in March. Within Colombia, the intent is to ‘speed up implementation [of development plans], with a big military presence at the outset, which implies offensive operations against the armed groups currently located there…[and] these are likely to come with intensified forced coca eradication”.

These policy contradictions (on one hand, gradual eradication, on the other hand, ‘pardon, but we are going to fumigate’) by the governments of Colombia and the U.S. camouflage an interest in territorial governance. Heavy mining of gold and other minerals, a handful of energy megaprojects, and the takeover of lands to produce monoculture-style crops for export is extensive, including in the five Zonas Futuro. These business endeavors are heavily financed by international banks and consortiums, including BlackRock, HSBC, Lloyds, and others. In this economic and militarization context, and the deepening of the drug war approach, social leaders are made into targets of armed actors of all kinds. They aren’t the only ones: journalists and human rights defenders have also been spied onand targeted by military operations.

Territories of Peace in Dispute

Civil society has been adamant about creating peace with social justice, and through strong mobilizations and national strikes, campesinx, Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups have gotten the government to sign numerous accords. This also includes an agenda for peace also with the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional- ELN) where many social movements were also being included. In the end, those negotiations were stalled under the current presidency of Ivan Duque, and the government does not comply with many of its own agreements and breeds mistrust.

Much of the mistrust stems from a history of failures of governments in their promises to improve infrastructure and structural inequities in rural Colombia. The issues today have still much to do with exploitation of labor for a capitalist economy predicated on exporting food and raw materials to the rich nations, but they also involve the heavy extraction of minerals and According to a campesinx leader from the Department of Cauca, the threats and killings of so many social leaders (34 killings just this year in Cauca) has to do with territorial dominance:

“These are areas we have called territories of peace, where together we construct our own guarantees, our own sovereignties. The objective of the armed actors is to decimate the ancestral culture, and tear down these and all forms of free-thinking. The impact of militarization and targeted assassinations in times when people stay home due to COVID-19, is that it is tearing apart the social base, furthering the destruction of democracy, and threatening the loss of Cauca as a territory of peace” (M.S., campesinx leader speaking at a webinar on June 11, 2020).

Community-based organizations such as the Movimiento de Mujeres por la Vida (MoMuVic), in Cajibío, Cauca have been conceiving of these territories of peace for quite a while. The MoMuVic is an organization that emerged from the organizing of mothers who had lost their children to massacres by paramilitary forces that occurred at the height of the civil conflict in the early 2000s in the region. They organized initially around human rights, but always with an intent to stay in their lands and territories, and to fight for rights to land, autonomy, health, housing, and food sovereignty. Today the movement is composed of more than 100 women from several veredas (small towns) who have been cooperatively producing organic compost, corn, beans and other vegetables and herbs.

“We now see the need to intensify the production of food in the veredas, even as a way to establish more of a firm standing in our territory. The technical assistance and machinery that was promised as part of the PDET negotiations has not arrived. We have lots of lots of concern for economic survival and food availability; there are limits because we have been finding that the soil in our lands is growingly acidic, due to the big plantations of eucalyptus and pine trees for export that surround us.” (Y.G. April 3, 2020 interview).

Under COVID quarantine restrictions, people in the fincas (small farms) fend for food that they don’t grow in local ‘familial’ markets, usually owned by people they know well. A big challenge these communities have faced is that there have been road blockages, many organized by groups such as the ELN, or FARC dissidents that have returned to armed rebellion. They control the ins and outs, who can pass on to the market and who cannot. In some other remote places like in Putumayo, these groups have been sending around fliers with specific fines to those who violate rules, and blocking the free circulation of people without their permission. The women also have been struggling with the rise of domestic abuse during quarantine, and warn that in times of social control, sexual violence in general ramps up. The women constantly check on one another’s well-being, and raise alarm with local officials and their own community campesinx, indigenous and cimarron/black guards about the need to hold violent state and non-state actors, and domestic partners accountable.

Anti-capitalist solidarity projects

Digging more deeply for an understanding of the work of collectives like this one do BEYOND the local level, one can begin to note that the challenge to the system is strong. MoMuVic is one organization (among many) that has been involved in regional and national level organizing with numerous efforts to bring about an anti-neocolonial economic and political project for the nation. They strive to negotiate a different economic model than the deeply neoliberal model that currently stands, and which is decimating vast amounts of their environment, their territories, and their social and cultural fabric. They insist on alternative production, distribution and consumption models built on food sovereignty principles, on solidarity and local economies (economía propia).

This means liberation from models of capitalist development that cause destruction, and a rethinking of ways in which they can build on the knowledge of social movements throughout Latin America. The constructing of new economies is not easy, as Colombian officials continue to sign agreements that deepen the food dumping of foreign crops, as in the case of the nearly 65,000 tons of potatoes arriving soon from the European Union. Capturing markets abroad via the signing of free trade agreements is a key feature of the neoliberal economic model, so the disbanding of this national priority is part of the call for deep systemic restructuring from below, by community organizations.

The strengthening of protections and guarantees for social leaders is paramount, and U.S.-ians should insist on this, as a check on their own government’s repressive reactions. Solidarity is perhaps even more important. As political prisoner Julián Gil has expressed in this recent letter from jail, about the collective educational, legal, and logistical support he has received from people in groups such as the Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners: “These experiences have given [me] the necessary strength to be able to face the recent intensification of the contradictions.”

Published originally in MARLAS (Mid-Atlantic Review of Latin American Studies, June 2020 special dossier on COVID impact;

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