The War on Colombia’s Poor

23 January 2012

The EU's proposed free trade agreement with Colombia will worsen the already serious human rights violations in the country, as its drive to access to cheap raw materials for European corporations means forcing local people off their land.

In 2009, a report by a coalition of 5 NGOs working in the country outlined the cause of Colombia’s social conflict as the “extremely unequal distribution of land and wealth and the violent repression of movements seeking to alter this imbalance.” The inequality can be traced back to the end of Spanish rule, when, author Garry Leech writes, power was transferred to “an oligarchy comprising Spanish-descended Colombians serving their own political and economic interests.”

The finalisation of the FTA between Colombia and the US in October last year marked the culmination of decades of US backed liberalisation programs that have served the interests of domestic elites and international corporations, whilst driving impoverishment, inequality, illicit drug production, displacement, marginalisation and conflict. A military arm has accompanied this economic agenda, designed to crush inevitable resistance to the “pro-rich development model.”

In June 2011, over 400 NGOs from the United States and Colombia sent a petition to the US congress calling on them not to sign the proposed free trade agreement between the two countries.

Protesting the FTA and trade union killingsThe joint statement noted, “Colombian small-scale farmers would be devastated by the implementation of the FTA,” which will “force Colombian agricultural products to compete without any protection against U.S. subsidized commodities.” The result will be substantial losses in income for nearly 400,000 agricultural workers, “pushing small farmers to cultivate coca,” which is “a far more lucrative crop” with a stable market, immune to the commodity price fluctuations that result from economic liberalisation. As a corollary, “armed groups are also likely to benefit from increased recruitment from an impoverished peasantry with few economic opportunities.”

The concerns are real and familiar. In 1954 the US Department of Agriculture implemented the Food for Peace program, an initiative in which taxpayers subsidised US agribusiness to send food to poor countries, opening foreign markets to US produce. In Colombia, this meant poor farmers were unable to compete with US corporations. In technical terms, “producer incentives” were affected, meaning agricultural workers were forced to find new means of survival or to leave their land and move to cities. The program was particularly damaging for Colombia’s burgeoning wheat production industry, which declined steadily in the subsequent decades. Half a century later, it is the US that is now Colombia’s largest supplier of wheat. Widely praised at the time, the Department of Agriculture would later describe the Food for Peace program as “one of the United States’ most successful market development tools.”

In the following decades, similar programs were enacted throughout Latin America. US ‘aid’ reorganized economies towards agricultural export, often whilst the domestic population starved. These initiatives were soon credited with creating “economic miracles”.

In Colombia, the “pro-rich” model has intensified over the past 20 years. Between 1990 and 2000, a decade of aggressive neoliberal reforms increased the ratio of income between the poorest and richest 10% from 40-1 to 80-1. During this period, the Colombian NGO INDEPAZ noted, "The paramilitaries through blood and fire took over the country's most valuable land to favor the interests of drug traffickers, local landowners and multinationals and private companies that develop large-scale projects for the exploitation of natural resources.” This “counter-agrarian reform,” which has a long and bloody history in the country, accelerated under the Uribe government and by 2009 the inequality of land distribution had reached its historic peak. One former paramilitary succinctly expressed the nexus of collusion between the paramilitaries, the corporations and the government: “We went in killing, others followed buying, and the third group legalized.” Whilst GDP grew and the “business climate” improved between 2002 and 2009, the number of internally displaced increased by 2.4 million and Colombia fell from 68th to to 77th on the UN’s Human Development Index. Or, in the terminology of the business press, the country experienced an “economic renaissance.”

In the 1960s, poor peasants throughout Latin America had begun to protest and rebel against the destructive economic policies of domestic elites. These demands for reforms that would empower the rural poor had to be crushed, and Washington subsequently shifted its training of Latin American military forces to focus on the suppression of internal discontent. In the language of the Cold War, President Kennedy’s US Foreign Assistance Program sought to arm and train Latin American militaries against “internal Communist aggression.” In reality, US counter insurgency programs in Colombia, and elsewhere in the region, were “directly responsible for the ideological legitimation of widespread state terror directed specifically at civil society in the name of anti-communism.” This “served to raise the associated costs of dissent” and “pacify or destroy restive sections of society while insulating national economic and political structures from popular reforms,” writes Colombia scholar Doug Stokes. Following the tenets of this counter-insurgency doctrine, labour leaders, farmer communities, priests and others not supportive of the policies pursued by the Colombian government continue to be targeted, with full US support.

The “cost of dissent” was raised significantly by US-favourite Uribe, who masterminded the “Democratic Security” policies, overseen by then Defence Minister and now President Juan Manuel Santos. The initiative was characterized by “the militarisation of society, the persecution and criminalisation of social organisations and the integration of paramilitaries into political, social and military spheres in the country.”[1] The DAS, Colombia’s intelligence agency directly responsible to the president, engaged in activities reminiscent of a police state, including phone tapping, intimidation and the passing of names of human rights defenders and critical journalists to paramilitary groups. In the last year of his two terms, the Uribe government was rewarded for its behaviour with the largest delivery of US military equipment to Colombia since 1996.

After the FTA was signed into force by congress, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported “Land activists, human rights NGOs, lawyers and victims’ representatives’ are routinely subjected to death threats, spurious proceedings, unfounded accusations, illegal surveillance and robberies at their workplaces.” An international delegation to Colombia in the same month found “fifty-four human rights defenders were killed between July 2010 and May 2011.”

Their crime is using democratic means to challenge what Alfredo Vásquez Carrizosa, former president of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights, called the “dual structure of a prosperous minority and an impoverished, excluded majority, with great differences in wealth, income, and access to political participation." It is preferable if opposition can be driven from the political to the military arena - possibly by economic conditions that leave few options but to grow coca or join the guerillas - meaning they can be attacked with chemical weapons or slaughtered with impunity.

Washington, in passing the FTA and continuing military aid and diplomatic support, has honoured a long history of supporting, funding and arming the repression of poor Colombians. This year, Brussels will have to decide if it wants to do the same.