Thursday, March 06, 2008

Colombian crisis deepens

After Colombia's killing of Raúl Reyes and sixteen others in a night raid on his Farc encampment on the Ecuadorian side of the border tensions with its neighbours have been escalating dramatically. Reyes was a prominent figure in the Farc guerrilla movement / insurgents / terrorists (depending on who you care to ask) and was the chief negotiator over the recent spate of hostage releases.

Farc was set up as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party in 1966 in response to massive government sponsored repression in the 50's and 60's. They finally separated from Farc in 1993 over long disputes over involvement in the narcotics industry.

Farc claim to have 18,000 guerrilla fighters, although this figure is impossible to verify, and the ideological stance of the organisation is pretty easy to discern from this interview in August 2007 with Reyes, which seems both clear and evasive simultaneously.

Farc have been criticised for, among other things, their use of landmines, involvement in the international drugs trade, hostage taking (like Ingrid Betancourt, the Green Presidential candidate in 2002 who the Farc say is unlikely to be released in the wake of the attacks), the killing and displacement of civilians (both accidentally and deliberately), and the recruitment of child soldiers. I think it's worth stating from the outset that all of these things go undenied by Farc who justify some of the less satisfactory elements of their approach by pointing out that they are at war against a regime backed and armed by the world's strongest and most technologically advanced superpower.

Colombia's actions, which are backed by all three of the main Presidential hopefuls in the US incidentally, have managed to unite every country in Latin America in condemnation at their violation of the national sovereignity of Ecuador. The Ecuadorian, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan governments have severed diplomatic ties with Colombian government with Ortega describing the attacks as "political terrorism". Even the Organisation of American States (OAS), generally seen as in the pocket of the US, has stated that Colombia's actions violated the "principles of international law".

In response to Colombia's pleas that it was acting in self defence against a force using Ecuadorian territory as a base from which to launch attacks on Colombian forces (which is, of course, perfectly true) President Correa declared that "Colombia is a sovereign nation, and so are we, and international law demands that they inform us, and that it be the public forces of Ecuador which carry out the capture, as has occurred on multiple occasions in the past, always with absolute respect for human rights," and he reiterated that Ecuador does not support the FARC and disapproves of the insurgent's "actions and methods".

According to the Colombian government they discovered documents (on a laptop) that proved a link between Farc and the Ecuadorian government. This is almost certainly bullshit because no such documents would be allowed to exist, the Farc are not amateurs. Added to this Farc have been responsible for the deaths of Ecuadorian policemen and it's far more likely that the Ecuadorians did not know of their presence or were simply unable to deal with them. After all if the Colombian army can't deal with the Farc why should anyone else be expected to be able to do so?

This laptop, which is supposed to have survived the aerial bombardment and hail of machine gun bullets on the camp, seems to be part of a tried and tested method called, in the technical lingo, "lying" in order to justify what you have done and plan to do next.

They also allege that the laptop shows Farc hoped to obtain radioactive material and make a "dirty bomb". The authorities also say the laptop incriminates President Chavez and they hope to take him to the International Criminal Court. This sort of "evidence" would be laughable but for the seriousness of the situation.

Chavez had been having modest, and high profile, success in gaining the release of hostages seized by Farc and the Colombian government in recent weeks has been coming under more and more pressure over the failure of its military strategy to deliver the results that discussion seems able to. The Colombian government has drawn the rather counter intuitive conclusion that this means they should escalate military operations - that will have the immediate effect of making hostage releases less likely (and therefore less good press coverage for sworn enemy of the US, Chavez). Could it be that the Colombian government would prefer Farc to keep their hostages?

While Chavez is having success where the tainted Colombian government cannot the threats of confrontation between the nations is not as helpful. Ceratinly immediate indications are that the majority of the Colombian people back Uribe on the issue. In any case war would be a disaster for both Ecuador and Venezuela. Colombia has more than 250,000 soldiers, trained and equipped by the US, while Venezuela and Ecuador have about 172,000 active troops between them and are equiped with only the previous generation of military equipment.

If any military confrontation were to occur the US would give 100% backing to Colombia and use the incident to destroy by force the gains made in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America. But whilst war may be unlikely the rhetoric is high.

Ecuador is apparently ready to risk the "Otherwise we will have to defend ourselves by our own means," Correa told reporters. "I insist on this: Ecuador is ready to go to the ultimate consequences." Chavez is in full bluster mode and insists he is willing to defend Venezuela's borders against any similar action. However, Colombia is very unlikely to take action against Farc border camps in Venezuela because, as I hope this map shows reasonably clearly, Venezuela does not border Farc controlled areas.

Brazil's President Lula seems to be playing a positive role - downplaying the chances of war whilst unequivocally condemning the attacks. It is to be hoped that sense prevails. Whilst Chavez is right to describe Colombia as the Israel of Latin America saying "Colombia is a terrorist state that is subject to the great terrorist, the government of the United States and their apparatus," the posturing is a double edged sword. Latin american governments are united in their opposition of Colombia's actions but not their support for any decision Chavez may care to make.

A war in Latin America would cause untold misery for the population and Presidents Correa and Chavez should not be assumed to be simply sabre rattling. However, Colombia also needs to understand that the Clinton negotiated Plan Colombia is a dead end. It does not matter how much repression and violence they meet out to their opponents they cannot eradicate their enemies as they create as many as they destroy with their current policy of repression.

As Richard Gott points out"After a ceasefire in 1984, the Farc was encouraged to establish a legal political party, the Patriotic Union, and to put forward candidates in the elections in 1985. The Patriotic Union was reasonably successful, securing six senators, 23 deputies, and several hundred local councillors. But the outcome was disastrous. After emerging into the open and putting their heads above the parapet, many of the UP supporters were singled out and killed.

"More than 4,000 left-wing activists and organisers were assassinated in the year after the elections. The guerrillas retired to their safe territories in the rural areas, and vowed not to make the same mistake again."

The Colombian government has pursued policies designed to make democratic change impossible and, as such, Farc have to be seen as their creation as they were prevented from taking a more peaceful route. Whatever the sins of the insurgents, and there are many, it is the corrupt government that needs to be dealt with - not from the jungles, or with foreign troops - but a movement for democracy based in the cities and rural areas.

Updates:

1 comment:

Pippa said...

Great post Jim, thanks!