Where is the real news about Colombia?

[The following article is based on a presentation at the Direct Action Centre in Sydney on May 15 before the screening of a film on the role of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in the country’s political life.]

I would like to focus on some statistics on key factors in Colombia. I invite you to link this data to what many politicians and academics refer to as human rights. I invite you to think critically about the many times various governments have acted in the name of “freedom” against “abuses of human rights” when in reality their actions and policies interfere with the people’s self-determination.

Colombia has a population of more than 45 million. Ten per cent of its inhabitants are internally displaced. Around 5 million people, every night, do not have a place to sleep. This is a human tragedy that no one is saying anything about. The majority of the people have left their land. It is estimated that 10 million hectares are currently owned by big landowners or big multinationals, who are co-sponsors of the paramilitaries. How much do we hear in the news about the real situation in Colombia?

Gross inequality

Colombia is the 11th most socially unequal country in the world and the most unequal in South America. Some 43% of the population live in poverty and 23% in extreme poverty. Among children, 45% are poor and 17% are in extreme poverty. On the other hand, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is disgusting. For example, one banker, Sarmiento Angulo, controls 42% of the national credit and just declared profits in the last two months of 2009 of US$1.25 billion.

Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a union activist. According to the Solidarity Center of the US AFL-CIO union federation, about 4000 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered in the past 20 years. The International Trade Union Confederation reports that in 2008 there was a disturbing 25% increase in cases of anti-union violence, due to increased right-wing paramilitary activity. These figures are more disturbing when you compare them to the number of workers who are affiliated to a trade union: only 3%, around 800,000 Colombian workers, are union members.

At the present time, there are 14 US military bases in Colombia. An additional seven are on the way, which will take the total to 21 US military bases. The US is turning Colombia into a giant fortress not only to suppress the Colombian people. The bases are also a threat to the popular movements that are gaining momentum in Latin America.

In May 1985, due to the accords between the government of Belisario Betancur and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgent forces, the Patriotic Union was formed as a broad movement in opposition to the liberal and conservative parties, which monopolised Colombian political life up to that point. One year later, the Patriotic Union participated in elections for the first time. It obtained the largest percentage of votes in the history of the left in Columbia and elected five senators and nine MPs to the national parliament, 14 deputies in different departments, 351 positions in councils and 23 mayors of municipalities.

Murderous strategy

This electoral success spurred the powerful and the rich, those with influence in the traditional parties and other fractions of the state and the military forces to come up with a murderous strategy to get rid of this new force. In the last 20 years they have killed more than 3000 opposition members and leaders. This illustrates how the political system continues to be monopolised and anti-democratic.

Furthermore, at the present time there are 7500 political prisoners. Only 500 are from the insurgent forces; the rest are from the social movements. According to recent figures, the army has assassinated at least 5000 children and young people. They are lured from their villages with the promise of work, but are then assassinated and made to appear as guerrilla fighters who have died in combat.

Let me conclude with a statement from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias: “They [the FARC insurgents] … are not terrorist groups. They are a real army that occupies a space in Colombia. We must give recognition to the FARC and the ELN [National Liberation Army]; they are insurgent forces that have a political project, that have a Bolivarian project that is respected here.”