Colombia, not Venezuela, is the problem

The mass challenge to neoliberalism and imperialism in Latin America, continued throughout 2010. The following was written May 13, 2010, and submitted as a Brief to the Subcommittee on International Human Rights (SDIR), Committees Directorate, House of Commons (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • Thank you for the invitation to my organization (Coalition Venezuela We Are With You / Coalición Venezuela Estamos Contigo) and to myself to present a brief to your committee. I will not be able to be present in person. I have been in touch with others from the solidarity movement in Toronto who will be making presentations, and am confident that they will make a very thorough presentation of the key issues. What follows are some brief written remarks as a modest supplement to your deliberations.

I am trained as a political scientist (Ph.D. Queen’s University). For the last several years I have had a keen interest in events in Latin America and the Caribbean making it one of my research areas. For the last two years, I have been an assistant professor in the Department of International Development Studies at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario. So with that background, I have developed somewhat of an appreciation for the situation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, it does not take an extensive academic background to know that there are issues of human rights to be studied in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of my first year students in the large introductory development studies class at Trent University – who at the age of 18 do not, of course, have an extensive academic background – are quite aware of human rights issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. What is surprising to me, and would be surprising to them, is your choice of country. Surely the issue in 2010 in terms of human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean is not the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but rather its neighbour, Colombia.

I urge you to study the 2009 edition of the “Annual survey of violations of trade union rights.” What you will read in the section on Colombia should give you chills. In 2008 alone, 49 trade unionists were assassinated “of whom 16 were trade union leaders, 45 were men and four were women. Attacks, disappearances and death threats continued.”[1]

Imagine the outcry in Canada if even one trade union leader had been assassinated in 2008. It would dominate the pages of the press. Were there to be 16 union leaders assassinated and 33 others, that outcry would be massive indeed. The truly horrifying aspect of this, however, is that this is by no means a one-year phenomenon. In 2007, there were 39 such assassinations so that “Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists.”[2] In 2006 there were “78 trade unionists murdered during the year.”[3] This is in fact a very old story – a long-standing, and quite well-documented story about a terrible situation confronting one of the most basic of all human rights – the right of workers to freely associate and collectively organize.

There is another reason why, in 2010, it is surprising to focus a human rights lens on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela rather than on Colombia. The Government of Canada is embarking on bilateral trade negotiations with a number of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. There is no indication that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has been selected as one of these countries. However, as is also well known to my first year students at Trent University, Colombia is one such country. I read from a Government of Canada web site that on March 10, 2010, “the Government of Canada tabled legislation to implement the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Labour Cooperation and Environment Agreements.”[4] Surely the name itself – given the facts outlined above – should demand an urgent investigation into the human rights situation in Colombia. This is not just being called a trade agreement but a “Labour Cooperation” agreement. The Government of Canada is entering into a cooperative relationship with a country, on the issue of labour, when that country is widely seen as having the most anti-labour environment in the entire world.

In a certain sense, my brief to your committee should end here. My one point to you is that you have the wrong area of inquiry, that given Canada’s policy orientation towards Colombia, the focus in terms of human rights needs to be Colombia and not the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and that were you to spend any time engaging in such an inquiry, it would immediately call into question the ethical, moral, and political problems in intensifying collaboration with the Government of Colombia.

However, as a political scientist, it is incumbent on me to open up one more issue for you to consider. You will all be well aware that no political action takes place in a vacuum. Understanding the context is something that I urge all of my students to attempt, no matter what their choice of essay topic. A reasonable thesis for one such student essay might be to suggest that it is precisely the context outlined above – the push for a bilateral trade, labour and environmental agreement with a government widely known for its terrible human rights record – that might impel a Canadian government to focus on another country, any other country, in order to “change the channel.” If we announce to the people of Canada that in 2010 human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean is to be our subject, and that in this year, the key country to study is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, then it might have the political effect of focusing attention away from what is really going on – an intensification of Canadian involvement with a very suspect regime in Colombia.

There might, however, be one benefit from such an exercise. An intensive focus on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is long overdue. The situation in that country, as in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, is exceedingly difficult. President Hugo Chávez Frias inherited an economy and society, severely damaged by long years of interference by International Financial Institutions (IFIs), institiutions in which Canada plays a leading role. Undoing the damage caused, in part, by the irresponsible Structural Adjustment Programmes of the IMF and the World Bank has been an enormous challenge, not just for President Chávez, but for political leaders all through Latin America and the Caribbean. The societal disruption caused by years of structural adjustment throughout Latin America, has contributed to an environment where human rights abuses do intensify. There is no more fertile ground for human rights abuses than the chaos created by economic decline and societal instability.

What needs to be soberly confronted by policy makers in Canada, is that the antidote to this economic decline and societal instability is – not to give legitimacy to regressive regimes such as the one in Colombia – but to do as has been done in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in the little country of Bolivia, and elsewhere – and resist the policy prescriptions of the IFIs, and to insist that the way forward in Latin America and the Caribbean is for sovereign development, controlled by the peoples of the region, not by distant institutions based in the Global North.

Your investigation of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela will surely lead you to encounter the interesting alternatives being developed to the Global North IFIs – including but not restricted to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The establishment of these organizations has accelerated the assertion of sovereignty in the region as a whole – an assertion of sovereignty which is the precondition for any and all improvement in the conditions of the people of the region, including an improvement in human rights.

Sincerely
Dr. Paul Kellogg
Dept. of International Development Studies
Trent University
Peterborough, ON K9J 7B8

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), “2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[2] ITUC, “2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[3] ITUC, “2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights: Colombia” – Accessed May 13, 2010.
[4] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, “Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement” – Accessed May 13, 2010.

Colombia crisis strengthens Venezuela, isolates U.S.

APRIL 7, 2008 – War preparations that might have involved three or more Latin American nations, came quickly to a halt March 7 at the Rio Group Summit in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. A Venezuelan-brokered deal ended a crisis that began with a Colombian military incursion into Ecuador. The great fear in Venezuela was that such a war would have ended up pitting Venezuela against U.S.-backed Colombia, the proxy war against the U.S. that has been feared for years. Instead, the resolution of the deal has weakened the hand of the U.S., and strengthened the prestige of Venezuela throughout the region.

The crisis began March 1, when Colombia’s air force attacked a training camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a camp based over the border in neighbouring Ecuador. According to the Colombian military, the raid killed 17 FARC guerrillas, including Raúl Reyes, a senior FARC leader. Colombian defence ministry spokespeople called it “the most important strike yet” against the FARC.[1]

There are not many countries in the world that can bomb a neighbour, kill and maim dozens, and then boast about it. The fact that Colombian government spokespersons could so boast, gives an insight into the role Colombia plays on the northern edge of the South American continent. Colombia is a military client state of the world’s biggest imperialist power. The U.S. currently gives Colombia more than $600-million a year in military aid,[2] a rate of arms shipments that has been ongoing for years. From 1999 to 2004, U.S. military aid to Colombia totalled $3.6-billion, an average of just under $600-million a year, and the most of any country in Latin America – in the world trailing only Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.[3] With good reason, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez referred to Colombia as the “Israel of Latin America.”[4]

And just like in Israel, this aid does not come without strings. In exchange for these billions (more than $3-billion a year in Israel’s case), both Israel and Colombia are expected to act as “proxies” for the U.S. So in 2006, when the U.S. was testing the waters for an expanded war beyond the borders of Iraq, it was its client state, Israel, which (unsuccessfully) opened a second front in Lebanon.

Colombia plays the same role in Latin America. It is no secret that the U.S. would like to see the back of Chávez, but it is also no secret that, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is in no position to carry out his overthrow directly. But, as happened in the 1980s against Nicaragua, a proxy war waged by U.S. allies has always remained a possibility. The most likely proxy has always been Colombia.

So hard in the wake of Colombia’s bombing raid in Ecuador, the war drums were beating throughout North America. Canada’s Globe and Mail did not warn against the attack on Ecuador’s sovereignty. Instead, it talked about “Chavez’s role in terrorism” saying that laptops recovered in the raid showed that Chavez had been a “state sponsor of terrorism.”[5] Chávez denied funding the FARC telling the newspaper El Universal “I would never do it.”[6] The issue of the funding of the FARC is a little wide of the mark in any case. We already know that the U.S. backs Colombia to the hilt, and the terror of the Colombian government’s use of this money is widely documented. As of one year ago, at the time of a state visit by Bush to Colombia, eight congressmen, “all tied to the president” had been “jailed for working with right-wing death squads.”[7]

But the crisis evolved in a direction that caught Bush and his supporters completely by surprise. Ecuador of course cut diplomatic ties with Colombia, but so did Venezuela, joined on March 6 by Daniel Ortega’s newly-elected government in Nicaragua. Ecuador expelled Colombian diplomats, as did Venezuela. Ecuador of course sent troops to the region attacked by Colombia, but again, they did not stand alone – March 2, Venezuela ordered 10 battalions “usually amounting to at least 6,000 troops”[8] to the border with Colombia.

The “Israel of Latin America” suddenly found itself completely isolated, surrounded by neighbours who are increasingly confident to act in defiance of the United States, and unwilling to sit by while a U.S. client-state blatantly violates the sovereignty of a neighbour with a murderous bombing raid.

So it was that, just one week later, a chastised Colombian president Uribe had to agree to a resolution backed by the 20 member Río Group, which “included a rejection of the violation of Ecuadorian territorial sovereignty and an endorsement of the resolution of the Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced Colombia’s attack.”[9] If this represented a profound humiliation for Uribe, it was even more humiliating for the United States. March 18, the OAS approved the Rio Group resolution by a vote that would have been unanimous except for the United States, which expressed “reservations.”[10] U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said, “we believe they [the Colombians] were acting in a justifiable way.”[11]

Of course Negroponte thought they were justified. As U.S. ambassador to Honduras, he was closely associated with the barbaric violation of Nicaraguan sovereignty in the 1980s, the proxy war carried out by the right-wing “contras”. But twenty years later, the U.S. stands completely alone.

We know from the long and bloody history of imperialist intervention into Latin America, that there are two big dangers facing any government attempting to break imperialism’s grip – coup d’état and invasion. In 2002, one million of the poorest in Caracas took to the streets and prevented a right-wing, U.S. supported coup against Chávez. Now in 2008, a proxy war with Colombia has been averted by solidarity between Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, backed ultimately by every country in the Americas except the United States.

The reach of the U.S. in Latin America has weakened, and the new movements towards sovereignty and independence, without question led by Venezuela, are gaining strength.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article was published as Colombia crisis strengthens Venezuela, isolates U.S.Axis of Logic, 8 April.

References

[1] Cited in Simon Romero, “Colombian Forces Kill Senior Guerrilla Commander, Official Says,” The New York Times, March 2, 2008, www.nytimes.com
[2] According to Romero, “Colombian Forces Kill Senior Guerrilla Commander”
[3] The Center for Public Integrity, “U.S. Military Aid Before and After 9/11,” www.publicintegrity.org
[4] Associated Press, “Chavez: Colombia has become the Israel of Latin America,” Haaretz.com, Marcy 7, 2008, www.haaretz.com
[5] Editorial, “Chavez’s role in terrorism,” The Globe and Mail, March 7, 2008
[6] Cited in Alexei Barrioneuvo, “U.S. Studies Rebel’s Data for Chávez Link,” The New York Times, April 7, 2008, www.nytimes.com
[7] Juan Forero, “Colombia’s Uribe Faces Crisis on Death Squads,” All Things Considered, NPR (National Public Radio), March 16, 2007, www.npr.com
[8] “Venezuela troops ‘move to border,’” BBC News, March 5, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk
[9] James Suggett, “Venezuela and Ecuador Resolve Differences with Colombia at Regional Summit,” March 8, 2008, Venezuelanalysis.com – The Rio Group “was created in 1986 to be a political forum for Latin American heads of state.”
[10] Kiaraz Janicke, “OAS Rejects Colombia’s Military Incursion into Ecuador,” March 18, 2008, Venezualanalysis.com
[11] DPA, “OAS rejects Colombian military incursion in Ecuador,” Thaindian News, March 18, 2008, www.thaindian.com