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Issue Date:  March 3, 2006

Colombia's baffling reality

Of García Márquez, the Medellín conference, cocaine cartels and civil war


After the War of a Thousand Days in 1899, the only difference between the two major political parties in Colombia was that liberals went to 5 o’clock Mass to avoid being seen and conservatives went to 8 o’clock Mass so that people would believe them to be believers. At least that was what Gabriel García Márquez’s grandparents told him.

Besides underscoring the hypocrisy of politicians, this piece of Márquesian irony also points out the important role that religion has played in the history of Colombia and still plays today. With 95 percent of the population baptized Catholic, Colombia is one of the most Catholic countries in Latin America. It is also the most violent country in the Americas.

-- Reuters/Bernardo De Niz

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez in 2004

Half a century after La Violencia (The Violence), Colombia’s second civil war in 1947 and the background to García Márquez’s famous short story “No One Writes to the Colonel,” yet another brutal civil war rages in much of the country, this time with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Thrown into this violent mix are a large and extremely brutal paramilitary force and the drug thugs, two often indistinguishable groups. The paramilitaries continue to terrorize and murder poor people in the rural areas, the drug thugs continue to assassinate prosecutors and judges as well as people suspected of being guerrillas, and in April 2005, the guerrillas launched a new offensive, the boldest initiative since law and order President Álvaro Uribe was elected more than three years ago, vowing to crush the insurgency.

Perhaps only a writer as gifted as García Márquez can capture Colombia’s long, byzantine history and the role that history played in the development of the religious movement that would have a profound influence on the entire world, liberation theology.

Landholders dissent

Pope Paul VI opened the Latin American bishops’ conference in Medellín in 1968. At that conference, the Latin American bishops endorsed the pope’s call for the church to take a leading role in socioeconomic reform. However, the Colombian bishops, among the more conservative of Latin American bishops and profoundly influenced by the latifundistas -- landholders of large estates who believe that the serfs should never have been freed -- found the overall call to action too radical and published a dissenting treatise. They were troubled by social movements all over the world, many of them violent, and certainly did not want to seem to be endorsing violent means in the most violent of Latin American countries.

Two years before the Medellín conference, a Colombian priest, Fr. Camilo Torres, upset by the church’s support for the rich and the status quo, had joined a rebel group, the National Liberation Army, and was killed in combat with the Colombian military. Fr. Torres had been a university friend of García Márquez, who recounts in his autobiography that when someone teased a young Torres about being a guerrilla he replied, “Yes, but one of God’s guerrillas.” The popular Chilean singer Victor Jara immortalized Fr. Torres in a song called “Camilo Torres.”

While much of the Colombian clergy worked for social justice after the Medellín conference, in the episcopate only Bishop Gerardo Valencia Cano supported this radical idea. Activist priests formed the Golconda Group, which issued a manifesto and a platform for social reform. This was the beginning of the liberation theology movement.

All of that is ancient history now. Indeed, only a dozen years after the first Medellín conference, the town was no longer synonymous with the bishops’ conference but with the Medellín cocaine cartel, which became the first well-known drug cartel. Considered too crude, it was soon supplanted by other, more media-conscious cartels such as the Cali cartel.

Gabriel García Márquez, the Medellín conference and the Medellín cartel may be vaguely familiar, but much of Colombia’s history, at least to North Americans, is not so well known. Yet Colombia’s history has been greatly influenced and even manipulated by the United States.

Part of the Spanish colony

Colombia was part of the Spanish colony of New Granada, which included present-day Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. In 1819, Simón Bolívar, the George Washington of New Granada, finally succeeded in liberating what is now Venezuela, Panama and Colombia from Spain to form the Republic of Gran Colombia. When Bolívar moved south and liberated Ecuador in 1822, it joined Gran Colombia. While Bolívar busied himself liberating Peru and Bolivia, conflicts arose between liberals and federalists (conservatives) in Gran Colombia, just as had occurred in the newly liberated 13 colonies to the north, and by 1830, Venezuela and Ecuador had seceded from Gran Colombia. García Márquez’s great novel The General in His Labyrinth chronicles the last days of Bolívar and the breakup of Gran Colombia.

-- CNS/Reuters

Colombian family members leave their home after being displaced by fighting between paramilitaries and leftist rebel groups in Putumayo province in May 2001.

In 1899, a civil war called the War of a Thousand Days broke out. Peace was signed in 1902. In 1903 Colombia rejected a treaty that would have allowed the United States to build a canal through what is now Panama. Taking advantage of a weakened and war-weary country, the United States encouraged and armed a separatist movement and was the first to recognize the newly independent country of Panama.

During the National Party period after the War of a Thousand Days, Colombia opened its doors to investments by foreign countries. At first Great Britain was its principal investor, then the United States. Coffee was the major export, but the U.S. banana company United Fruit soon took over vast tracts of land, and in 1928 a strike against United Fruit was crushed by the military. History books do not mention the mysterious train loaded with the bodies of dead strikers headed toward the ocean that Gabriel García Márquez describes in his short stories and his autobiography, but there is little doubt that El Pulpo (The Octopus), as United Fruit was called, squeezed the life out of many strikers. Another octopus has currently wrapped its tentacles around the Amazon basin, where large deposits of oil, gold and silver abound.

With the onset of the world depression in the 1930s, liberals finally reigned in Colombia and instituted reforms that paled in comparison to the New Deal instituted by the liberal president in the United States but outraged Colombian conservatives. One of the chief reforms in Colombia was that education was removed from the control of the church.

Conservatives took back the presidency in 1946 due to divisiveness among the liberals, but liberals won control of the congress in 1947. The conservatives, determined to hold onto their newly won power and as a reaction to the liberals’ land reforms, began a scorched earth military campaign in the countryside against liberals. The liberal leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, called for a demonstration in Bogotá. This was the first protest march García Márquez attended. People dressed in mourning marched slowly and in absolute silence. The demonstration was so powerful and Gaitán so popular that it seemed certain that he would be the next president. In April of that year, he was assassinated. Riots broke out. García Márquez lived three blocks from the cafe where Gaitán was assassinated. He immediately went there and witnessed the beginning of the riots, which he describes in his autobiography. A young Fidel Castro was in Bogotá at the time attending a pan-American students’ conference. He had an appointment scheduled with Gaitán on the afternoon of the assassination, an appointment that was never kept.

This was the beginning of La Violencia. This second civil war lasted 11 years and claimed 200,000 lives and culminated in a military dictatorship. Constitutional democracy was restored in 1957 with the National Front, a magical-realist agreement that called for power-sharing between liberals and conservatives who rotated in and out of the presidency until 1974.

Drugs and civil war

Colombia’s latest tragedy is a rewrite of Colombia’s longest running drama. Similar tragedies had extensive runs in El Salvador and Guatemala. The plot is the battle for social/economic justice, the battle for land and resources. The same characters appear. Only a few names have changed.

Because the National Front did not resolve the land problems or many other problems, the FARC and ELN guerrillas formed in 1964. The FARC, in the south, was founded by peasants and communists, while the smaller ELN, in the northeast, was founded by university students, oil workers and Catholic priests. While the FARC did not assist the coca production in areas they controlled, they did not stop it. Colombia was addicted to cash crop economics, coffee and bananas, and coca was simply another cash crop. The FARC imposed a gramaje, or tax, on the coca. Both the FARC and the ELN engaged in kidnappings of wealthy people to raise money.

In the 1980s, President Belisario Betancur engaged in peace talks with the FARC that were aimed at converting the guerrillas into a legal political party, the Patriotic Union (UP). The UP won seats in Parliament in 1986. However, another guerrilla group, the M-19, seized the Palace of Justice and assassinated supreme court judges. Beginning in 1987, banana companies prodded the army into an offensive against the FARC because of its reputed support of union demands for higher wages. And the paramilitaries began murdering UP members.

For the next decade the situation worsened. The guerrillas and the Colombian army committed human rights abuses. In 1998, a conservative candidate, Andrés Pastrana, proposed peace talks with the guerrillas. The FARC supported his candidacy and he was elected president. Pastrana withdrew military forces from the FARC stronghold, creating a zona de despeje (demilitarized zone) the size of Switzerland.

The first modern paramilitaries were founded and funded by the latifundistas and the narcolatifundistas. They were a small group, more of a death squad than a fighting force. Their targets were UP members and activists.

-- CNS/Reuters

Colombian paramilitary commander "Double Zero," also know as Rodrigo Franco, hides out in the Antioquia province of Colombia in October 2003.

When the FARC guerrillas kidnapped and killed the father of Fidel and Carlos Castaño, who was reputed to be a drug lord, the sons swore revenge. Fidel formed a paramilitary force of some 300 men, which would evolve under his brother into the AUC (United Self Defense Units of Colombia). The paramilitaries, known as paras, have grown to approximately 9,000, although Carlos boasts that their numbers are closer to 16,000. The paras have committed shockingly brutal massacres and are responsible for 85 percent of the murders in Colombia. Their terror campaign, ostensibly to drain the sea from the fish, is the principal reason that 3 million Colombians have been internally displaced. Not coincidentally, para commanders have taken over the land of hundreds of thousands of people to join the ranks of the latifundistas. Like the guerrillas, the paras earn money from the drug trade. Unlike the guerrillas, they are directly involved in drug production. Where the guerrillas tax drugs in the areas they control, the paras control 40 percent of the cocaine export. Because of the paras’ longstanding and embarrassing connection to drugs, the Bush administration and current President Uribe insisted that the paras disband and de-arm by 2005, a fait not yet accompli.

The Colombian military, whose mission since the overthrow of Bolívar has been to work for the latifundistas, has long been a serious human rights abuser. Although the government and military deny it, they are clearly in contact and work with the paramilitaries. In the village of Mapiripan, paras massacred 200 people, often torturing the victims before mutilating them. This rampage lasted from July 15 to July 20, 1997. Local officials repeatedly contacted nearby military units, pleading for help, but they did not come to the rescue until after the paras had left the village. This is just one instance among many.

The Colombian military engages in the practice of “legalization.” Paras trade the corpses of their innocent victims to the military for weapons. The soldiers then dress the corpses in guerrilla uniforms and claim that they are guerrillas killed in combat. This padding of the guerrilla body count makes for good marks on officers’ records.

U.S. and multinationals

There are new octopi in Colombia, but octopi nonetheless. Abundant deposits of oil and gold in the Amazon are being exploited by foreign companies. International trade and free trade debt policies work to keep rural Colombia in bondage to cash crops. Small farmers cannot compete with cheap U.S. food imports and turn to growing coca.

Whether or not you buy the theory that the CIA aided and abetted the drug cartels as part of the Iran contra affair, the fact is that the United States is the largest consumer of the cartels’ product, cocaine, which is also Colombia’s second-largest export. The drug cartels have earned enormous amounts of U.S. dollars, which they have invested in legitimate enterprises, from soccer teams to banks. The drug lords have become the new latifundistas or, as some have called them, the narcobourgeoisie.

The United States has long subsidized the Colombian military under the pretext of fighting the drug war. President Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia made Colombia the third-largest recipient of military aid, after Israel and Egypt. Part of Plan Colombia was to increase aerial spraying of herbicides to destroy the coca fields (big dollars to chemical and aviation companies), despite a U.S. Government Accountability Office report that stated that coca production had increased by 50 percent after two years of extensive aerial spraying. As did an outburst of FARC violence, Plan Colombia undermined President Andrés Pastrana’s peace initiatives by strengthening the extreme right and providing more weapons.

In 2002, President Bush’s Andean Regional Initiative earmarked twice as many dollars for Colombia as for rebuilding Afghanistan. For the first time, money would be given directly to the Colombian military without the smokescreen of claiming it was for the war on drugs. The war is now a battle against terrorists threatening the security of the United States. An additional $98 million was sent to fund the newly created Critical Infrastructure Brigade; its mission is to protect Occidental Petroleum’s oil pipeline, projected to pump 35 million barrels a year. The United States is sending troops to train the Colombian military and the Critical Infrastructure Brigade. President Álvaro Uribe met with President Bush Feb. 16 to discuss plans for a free trade zone between the United States and Colombia.

The real tragedy is that the country that hosted the Medellín Conference and the beginning of the liberation theology movement, the country that produced Gabriel García Márquez, a Nobel Prize winner in literature and perhaps the greatest writer in Latin America, a country rich in oil, gold and platinum, a fertile country that no longer feeds itself, has become the most violent country and the largest cocaine producer in the hemisphere.

Critics expound on García Márquez’s magical-realist style, but does it spring from a magical imagination or from the history of Colombia, which is so magically unreal?

Mike Smith is director of the asylum program at the East Bay Sanctuary in Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006

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