Colombia: “We Need a Popular Movement, to Win the Elections”

BOGOTA, Dec 8 (IPS) – Wherever there are minorities or marginalised groups in Colombia, or the rights of women are violated, you will find Senator Piedad Córdoba.

The senator, who forms part of the progressive wing of Colombia’s opposition Liberal Party, believes that in order to make progress towards peace in her civil war-torn country, "we must commit ourselves to a popular movement, with a view towards winning the elections."

In 1999 she was kidnapped by Carlos Castaño, the then head of the far-right paramilitary groups that are inextricably tied up with the drug trade. After she was released two weeks later with a message that the paramilitaries wanted to be included in peace talks, she fled into exile in Canada.

But she returned a year later, leaving her four children in Canada for their safety. She herself has escaped two attempts on her life

Córdoba has urged the international community to isolate the right-wing government of Álvaro Uribe, who she accuses of being a paramilitary.

She convinced Venezuela’s left-wing President Hugo Chávez to get involved in efforts towards a humanitarian accord in which the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would swap hostages they are holding for imprisoned insurgents.

With the support of several governments, Córdoba and Chávez got the FARC to unilaterally release six hostages in January and February 2008 in operations that were later copied by the Colombian army to rescue the group’s highest-profile hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, and 14 others held by the guerrillas, in July.

In her country, Córdoba has been accused of betraying the fatherland and working on behalf of the FARC. Stoic in the face of the attacks and threats, and despite the fact that any contact with the leftist rebels is liable to criminal prosecution, she has sustained a public exchange of letters with the FARC since September.

On Nov. 27, she asked the FARC, in a letter backed by 25,000 signatures, if they would be willing to abandon the practice of kidnapping. She is now awaiting the response.

Following is an interview she gave to IPS.

IPS: Is it possible to resume discussions on a prisoner-hostage swap or peace talks with the guerrillas, while Uribe is still in office?

PIEDAD CÓRDOBA: It is difficult to move forward towards a humanitarian accord or a negotiated political solution to the conflict. These are issues that have no echo and stand no chance in this government, because of its hawkish, militaristic and authoritarian stance.

Neither peace talks nor a prisoner-hostage exchange are possible, because they go against the interests and privileges of major vested interests that the government represents. Moreover, they would require a departure from the policy of the United States government.

Despite the difficulties, we continue working to build and strengthen the movement of Colombians who want peace, with a view to seeking a prisoner-hostage exchange and, especially, to achieving a negotiated solution to the conflict.

IPS: But doesn’t the election of Barack Obama in the United States change the outlook for Colombia?

PC: Expectations and hopes have to remain within the limits of what is reasonable. I think that in the case of Colombia, areas that could be affected to some extent are the war’s impact on the country, violations of the (Universal) Declaration of Human Rights, and especially issues like the free trade agreement with the United States, which I don’t think will be approved by Obama’s government, because of his commitments to U.S. trade unionists.

What we are interested in is insisting that the Obama administration help work towards a negotiated solution to the conflict, in terms of what (the U.S.-financed counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategies) Plan Colombia and Plan Patriot mean, and with regard to U.S. recognition of and concern about human rights violations in this country. And third, we would like to see aid and cooperation to start working towards a political solution.

IPS: But won’t Obama’s triumph have more positive effects in Colombia than in other Latin American countries?

PC: Yes, but fundamentally because of U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of our country, and the way they interpret and stoke the conflict.

IPS: Would an end to Plan Colombia be possible?

PC: It might be continued, but I don’t think it will be expanded. Not because the United States considers that the war effort must be brought to a halt, but because its economic problems are going to limit the funds. For us, that is important, because it would help us convince the guerrillas to agree to negotiate a political solution.

IPS: What is the key to overcoming the violence in Colombia, what is the main factor?

PC: Colombia has to start off by acknowledging that there is an armed conflict (which the Uribe administration has refused to do, merely referring to the leftist insurgents as "terrorists"), that mainly has to do with the guerrillas and the government.

The paramilitary commandos are the creation of a very broad section of Colombian society, and have been supported by this government which, furthermore, has been elected as a result of the paramilitaries.

IPS: It is said that the paramilitaries control 10 provincial governments.

PC: Exactly. So that has to be acknowledged. But it also has to be recognised that the conflict was not caused by a group of men who went into the jungle and started shooting. It has to do with exclusion, inequality and the lack of opportunities in the country. It has to do with a system that makes even debate and dialogue impossible, and with the country’s authoritarian structures.

But one way to move forward is for social movements to come together, for us to commit ourselves to a popular movement with the aim of winning the elections. We must move ahead to action; we cannot merely continue to hold demonstrations, make declarations, hold public debates that do not lead to concrete results in terms of political power. What we need to do is win a majority in Congress in 2010, and win the presidency.

IPS: Is that the goal of the Liberal Party?

PC: Not just the Liberal Party, but also all of the social movements and a part of the left that is not in the parties.

IPS: Aren’t social movements more active and mobilised today?

PC: Yes, especially the ones involving indigenous people, blacks and women. Peasant farmers are also beginning to mobilise and organise again, having suffered the conflict in rural areas, which has hit them very hard. The impact of the free trade agreement (not yet ratified by the U.S. Congress), of the threats to their livelihood and of the opening up of the economy, had undermined their unity.

I see the trade union movement as more in the background, not only because of the murders of their leaders, but also because they have lost capacity to mobilise workers and to accomplish gains on the labour front.

IPS: To what do you attribute the scandal of the pyramid schemes, which have now turned millions of beneficiaries against the Uribe administration? (The schemes began to collapse in November, triggering widespread rioting, and prompting the government to take the unpopular decision to shut down other investment plans).

PC: The situation has not been handled responsibly, and a debate is needed on the shared responsibility of the United States and the drug trade. This has to do with money laundering and the overall decline of ethics in Colombian society.

Drug trafficking has permeated public and private life in Colombia, fuelling a ‘mafioso’ culture, which is reflected in the greed for easy money. The government itself establishes strategies based on rewards that can supposedly put an end to crime and the guerrillas. That has become a way of life for many people, it comes from army officers and police chiefs themselves, the people who organise themselves to get their hands on the reward money.

There are also those who have benefited enormously from the power of the financial system. The government carries out reforms that make it possible for that sector to consolidate neo-liberal power, and it is increasingly difficult to gain access to low-cost loans to generate development, or to a mortgage to buy a house. And the lack of job stability, which makes it impossible for people to project any sort of plans for the future, is disturbing.

IPS: So the pyramid schemes are merely money laundering rackets for drug traffickers?

PC: I think there is money laundering going on, but there are also people who don’t know that the narcos are behind this, who are just trying to earn money to help finance their necessities. The state has played the fool, because it has many people involved in the business.

IPS: What can you tell us about the victims of forced displacement? It is estimated that there are four million internally displaced persons and five million Colombians living abroad — altogether, more than 20 percent of the population.

PC: Or more. It is a very complex situation that is not only a consequence of the war, but also of the way the paramilitaries operate and of the projects (like mining initiatives or palm oil plantations) pursued in rural areas, which have driven people out so their land can be seized.

The land problem is a touchy one, because besides being a strategic question, there is now a drive to produce biofuels, and rural populations have become increasingly uprooted.

At the same time, many people are leaving the country to flee the war, and to escape persecution and poverty.

IPS: Is there any solution for Colombia’s numerous problems?

PC: The government and its policies have to be changed, because this administration is not changing a thing. (END/2008)