Below we present two reports by Dan Kovalik, a citizen’s journalist with the courage and commitment to cover Colombia, one of the most victimized nations in Latin America, and one of the most dangerous assignments for a working journalist. Today, as has been the case for decades, Colombia is still a badly-disguised client state of the United States dominated by a murderous landowning oligarchy. Since the corporate media—to their eternal damnation—won’t come close to reporting truthfully on Colombia, it is people like Kovalik who has to do the job. —PG
Capitalism, Genocide & Colombia
I just returned from Catatumbo, Colombia where thousands of peasants are waging a life-and-death struggle against the U.S.-backed Colombian military and its paramilitary allies. For over 60 days, the peasants have been demonstrating against the deplorable living conditions and economic circumstances in which they live, and in support of their proposal for a Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone of 10 million hectares.
Such a zone, which is provided for under the law, would allow the peasants to engage in subsistence farming free of the threat of encroachment by extractive companies desiring to mine or drill on their land. This demand, along with the concomitant demand of the peasants for all mining and oil exploration and extraction in their region to be suspended, is critical to the peasants who are being driven to the verge of extinction.[pullquote] The grotesquely overpaid media celebrities do not deign to cover such important stories, especially when they reveal the true criminal nature of US foreign policy. [/pullquote]
According to the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers’ Collective (CALCP), 11,000 peasants have been killed in this region by state and para-state forces, most of them during the 2002-2010 term of President of Alvaro Uribe, and over 100,000 peasants, out of a total of around 300,000, have been forcibly displaced. At least 32 mass graves containing the bodies of murdered peasant activists have been found in this region in recent years.
And, this mass murder and displacement is being carried out to make way for more oil drilling, African palm cultivation (for biodiesel) and for coal mining by North American companies.
I say that this mayhem is being carried out, in part, in order to make way for more oil drilling because, in fact, much oil drilling has been taking place there for the past 70 years. And, the peasants of this region have nothing to show for this many years of drilling. As we were told a few times during out trip, after 70 years of oil exploration, the rural parts of this region do not even have a paved road. (Our delegation – led by Justice for Colombia and including participants from the USW and Unite the Union UK – found this out the hard way during our 3.5 hour drive over a dirt road from Cucuta to a village outside Tibu near the Venezuelan border).
In addition, there is no sewage system, no running water and no health services. Indeed, peasants injured in their confrontations with the military and police during the two months of demonstrations – with the peasants defending themselves with sticks against the guns, tanks and other U.S.-supplied hardware of the military and police – have been forced to flee into Venezuela for refuge and medical services.
In short, the oil and other extractive companies, beginning with Texaco in the 1930’s, have taken and taken, and left the people with nothing. Now, the companies want even more, and it is the very existence and presence of the peasants which stands in their way. And so, quite logically, the companies, with the help of the U.S.-backed military and paramilitaries, are aiming to literally wipe the peasants off the map. In other words, these forces are engaged in a calculated act of genocide. Indeed, when a number of us remarked upon how almost everyone we saw and met with in our visit to Catatumbo were no more than teenagers, we were told that this was the result of the fact that their parents had either been murdered or displaced. Left behind are villages populated almost entirely by children.
Young Peasants of Catatumbo In Rebellion
The calculated mass killing and displacement that is taking place in Catatumbo is a good example of the phenomenon discussed in the new book, Capitalism: A Structural Genocide by Garry Leech. In that book, Leech argues, and quite forcefully, that capitalism, left to its own devices, will inevitably destroy (1) those who stand in the way of the exploitation of natural resources; and (2) those individuals, such as peasants and subsistent farmers, who are engaged in pursuits which neither contribute towards economic “growth” nor produce surplus value or profit. Of course, the peasants of Catatumbo fall into both of these categories simultaneously, and are therefore a double threat.
Citing Indian physicist and philosopher Vandana Shiva, Leech explains that, under capitalism, “nothing has value until it enters the market. Shiva points out that under capitalism ‘if you consume what you produce, you do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my own food, and do not sell it, then this does not contribute to GDP, and so does not contribute towards growth.’” Rather, for such subsistence farmers, “’nature exists as a commons.’” The commons, moreover, and those who work on it, are simply not permitted under capitalism.
Young peasants of Catatumbo in rebellion.
As Leech and Shiva explain, those working the commons must either “be incorporated – often through coercion – into the ever-widening spheres of production and circulation,” or they must be simply be destroyed. This process, as Leech explains, is what Karl Marx termed, “primitive accumulation,” and it is quite a nasty process, wherever it is carried out.
Leech explains that, as capitalism was beginning to get into full swing in Britain in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the British Parliament passed a series of Enclosure Acts which privatized commonly held lands and “prevented much of the generations-old practice of grazing their animals and cultivating their crops on commonly held lands, thereby forcing them to move to the cities in search of jobs.”
More recently, as Leech astutely points out, Mexico outlawed communal land titles for indigenous peoples in order to make way for NAFTA. As Leech explains, and as many of us have argued for years, a major raison d’être of NAFTA was in fact the primitive accumulation of the commons of millions of small farmers in Mexico. This primitive accumulation was carried out by NAFTA’s provisions which allowed heavily-subsidized, and therefore cheap, agricultural products from North America to flood the Mexican markets tariff-free. Meanwhile, the IMF rules governing Mexico forbid that country from subsidizing its own agricultural producers.
As Leech explains, the results for 2 million small farmers in Mexico, who could not compete with the subsidized food from the North, was devastating, with these small farmers losing their livelihood and their land and fleeing into the cities, or illegally into the U.S. Finding themselves displaced from their land, many were left with no jobs at all, found themselves exploited in low paying jobs with poor safety and health practices, or turned to the drug trade for employment. The result for Mexico as a whole has been the destruction of the social fabric of the nation and increased violence, with cities like Juarez suffering violence levels comparable to nations at war.
While Leech does not focus on Colombia in his book, he does mention that Colombia itself “has become Latin America’s poster child over the past decade and its economic growth has been driven by the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, particularly oil, coal and gold, by foreign companies.” Colombia now has the largest internally displaced population in the world at over 5 million. As Leech explains, “[m]any have been forced from their lands by direct physical violence related to the country’s armed conflict – often by the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary groups serving the interests of multinational corporations. However, many others have become economic refugees due to the structural violence inherent in neoliberal policies that has dispossessed them of their lands in order to facilitate capital accumulation for foreign companies.”
Peasants Greet Us Along The Highway
The peasants of Catatumbo have long been the victims of such direct as well as structural violence, but now they are fighting back to defend their land. For 53 days, these peasants, armed only with sticks, blocked the main highway linking the cities of Cucuta and Tibu. Shortly after our visit, the government agreed to negotiate with them directly, and the peasants ended this blockade for now. However, they will begin it anew if talks fail.
While the Colombian Minister of Defense warned us not to travel this highway because of these protests, the peasants freely allowed us to pass. Of course, as all of us understood, what the Colombian government was truly afraid of was that we would witness that it is in fact the peasants who are on the side of right; that it is they who are defending the land, the water and the rainforests for all of us. And, this is why their struggle, and the struggles of others like them, must succeed. In truth, our very lives and future depend on them.
Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer and teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Also by Dan Kovalik——
The U.S. Empire and Modern Day Christian Martyrs
In their landmark book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman devote a chapter to the media’s unbalanced coverage of the murder of one priest in Poland in 1984 as compared to the coverage of the 72 religious killed throughout Latin America between 1964 and 1978, the killing of 23 religious in Guatemala between 1980 and 1985, the murder of Archbishop Romero of San Salvador in 1980 and the rape and murder of the four U.S. church women in El Salvador in 1980. In short, the murder of the one Polish priest — the perpetrators of which were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison — received significantly more coverage than all of the latter killings, which almost invariably remain unsolved and unpunished, combined.
Meanwhile, there has been almost no media coverage of the killings of the “two bishops, 79 priests, eight men and women religious, as well as three seminarians” killed in Colombia alone between 1984 and 2011 — this, according to the Episcopal Conference of Colombia. The Episcopal Conference of Colombia publicly announced this grim tally in the fall of 2011 upon the murder of the sixth priest killed in 2011 alone. One of the priests killed in 2011 was Father Reynel Restrepo Idarraga, the pastor of the town of Marmato, who was murdered by presumed paramilitaries in retaliation for his vocal defense of Marmato against the attempt of the Canadian mining company, Gran Colombia Gold, which to this day is still attempting to seize the land of the entire town and convert it into a gold mine. The Colombian bishops attributed the rash of killings in 2011 to “the courageous commitment of our priests to the prophetic denunciation of injustice and the cause of the poorest in the country.”
The number of priests killed in Colombia since 1984 just climbed to 80 with the murder of Father Luis Alfredo Suarez Salazar on Feb. 2, 2013 by two unknown assailants in the northern Colombian city of Ocana.
Then, on February 13, 2013, there was an assassination attempt against another Catholic priest. The target of the attack was Father Alberto Franco, a member of the Inter-Church Commission of Justice & Peace (CIJP), an organization created in 1988 pursuant to the resolution of the Conference of Religious Superiors of Colombia which aspired “[t]o promote and encourage the Christian prophetic signs which are present in religious communities, through the creation of a Commission of Justice and Peace which will channel and disseminate information and protests throughout the country.” As Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., a founding member of the CIJP, relates in The Genocidal Democracy, while the Colombian Catholic Conference of Bishops “did not approve of this initiative and placed obstacles in its path,” 25 Catholic provincials nonetheless went ahead with the formation of the CIJP.
As Father Giraldo explains, the first and continuing project of the CIJP has been “to gather and disseminate information about the victims of human rights violations, the right to life, in particular.” Not surprisingly, this project has made the CIJP a constant target of threats and violence, particularly from the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies. Father Alberto Franco himself has been the target of threats and surveillance for some time now, culminating in the attempt upon his life on Februrary 13, in which assailants fired three shots into the windshield of Father Franco’s car. Luckily, Father Franco had not yet entered the car and therefore escaped unharmed. Meanwhile, Father Franco, along with 17 other members of the CIJP, remain, by the Colombian government’s own measures, under “extraordinary risk” of attack.
We consider these threats to be a direct result of CIJP’s work on land restitution and their efforts to expose state, military, and business responsibility in illegal land grabs, threats, and the violation of human rights before national and international courts. The most recent threats occurred days after Father Franco informed the press that officials of ex-President Alvaro Uribe’s government were involved in the displacement and illegal occupation of the collective territories of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó. That same week, there was a hearing on the case of Marino López and others in Cacarica before the Inter-American Human Rights Court.
We have observed that the Afro-descendant, indigenous, and campesino communities that CIJP accompanies are also attacked for defending their land rights. In December 2012, we received first-hand information of the presence of many uniformed and armed paramilitaries in Curvaradó, in addition to the threat of an imminent massacre. On various occasions, we have expressed our concern regarding the attacks and threats against María Ligia Chavera and Enrique Petro, two emblematic leaders in the land restitution process in Curvaradó.
Of course, as I have written about at great length before, the “land grabs” which the CIJP are denouncing are only accelerating due to the free trade agreements between Colombia and the U.S. and Canada which are promoting the increased exploitation of land by multi-national mining and agricultural companies — companies which regularly use the Colombian military and paramilitaries to clear the land they covet of the residents who live there.
However, in the midst of the economic causes of the repression against individuals such as Father Franco, one also cannot forget the very real spiritual and religious convictions which motivate Father Franco and others like him to risk their lives to defend the poor, and one cannot ignore the commitment of those attacking such individuals to eradicate such convictions. Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., has indeed recently published a book (in Spanish only) which details the spiritual aspect of this struggle.
That book, The Deaths That Illuminate Life, sets forth the stories of 35 Colombians — including bishops, priests, nuns, religious laity and even a child — who Father Giraldo considers to be modern Christian martyrs. In Father Giraldo’s words, they were “witnesses of Christian values objectively: men and women who heroically endured torture and death to the save the lives of others, or for refusing to become collaborators with criminal agencies, or because they joined groups and organizations where they sought to realize in some way their militant option for justice and solidarity.”
Comparing these modern martyrs to the early martyrs of the first three centuries of the Church, Father Giraldo does not mince words about their common executioners — the prevailing empires at the time (the Roman and U.S. empires, respectively).
Thus, Father Giraldo explains that, just as in the time of the Roman Empire Christians would naturally find themselves to be “subversives” in that they were compelled to deny the Emperor as their “Lord,” so too must modern Christians in Latin America find themselves at odds with their neo-colonial oppressors. As he writes,
To confess Christ, in this context, has meaning and truth only in the margins of a historic commitment to the liberation of the oppressed which explains an inescapable confrontation with the oppressors, “some of whom are those who say they are Christians,” that is why there are today Christians tortured and killed in the name of “the democratic freedoms”, in the name of the “market economy”, in the name of “Christian western civilization”, in the name of “national security”, on behalf of the “defense of the society against atheistic ideologies”, etc. The Christian label provides no clue in revealing the roots of the conflict, which cause death; these causes can only be discerned through an in-depth review of the practice of the faith, confronted with its challenging context, and taking into account that the Christian character of this praxis, tends to be refused, systematically, by all those that are in some degree of collusion with the interests of the oppressors.Today there is no longer the idol of the Roman Emperor, in whose altars was shed the Blood of the first Christians, but there is the secular idol of the market economy, upon whose altars is sacrificed the life and dignity of millions of human beings…
To this day, I cannot get over the irony, and indeed the shock, at the realization that it is in fact the U.S. — the professed protector of democracy and indeed Christian values in the world — which is the entity so bent on destroying the roots of true Christianity in Latin America, for it is a philosophy that so profoundly calls into question the U.S.’s true values which revolve around the worship of wealth and power. And so, it is the U.S. which, since 1962, has cultivated the very death squads which haunt the Church of the poor in Latin America, and specifically in Colombia.
And indeed, the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), which continues to train thousands of repressive Latin American military forces, has, as Noam Chomsky explains, gone so far as to brag about its role in destroying Liberation Theology (the Christian philosophy which advocates “the preferential treatment for the poor”) in Latin America. As Chomsky has explained, “[o]ne of its advertising points is that the U.S. Army [School of the Americas] helped defeat liberation theology, which was a dominant force, and it was an enemy for the same reason that secular nationalism in the Arab world was an enemy – it was working for the poor.” Thankfully, the SOA has not been as thoroughly successful as it has advertised in this regard, and that brave souls like Father Giraldo and Father Franco continue to risk martyrdom in order to defend the poor and dispossessed in Latin America.
In truth, I stopped being a practicing Catholic some time ago, but I continue to hold dear the philosophy of the “preferential treatment of the poor,” and I honor those in Latin America who continue to exhibit the courage — courage I have yet to find in myself — to risk their lives every day in carrying out this key tenet of Liberation Theology. I have concluded that, to be a person of decency by any measure, one must join with these Davids of the Third World who are fighting for independence and economic justice against the Goliath in which we happen to live.Follow Dan Kovalik on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@danielmkovalik
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Kovalik is a human and labor rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh. He has been a peace activist throughout his life and has been deeply involved in the movement for peace and social justice in Colombia and Central America. He is an attorney for Colombian Plaintiffs in cases alleging corporate complicity in egregious human rights violations. Kovalik, a 1993 graduate of Columbia Law School, was a co-recipient of the 2003 Project Censored Award for a story he co-wrote on the murder of trade unionists in Colombia.