Myths That Are Revived In The Midst of Colombian Protests

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh, activist and political analyst on the Colombian conflict, writes about the myths that are revived in the midst of the national strike: the nature of Colombian democracy; previous generations did not fight; the exclusive rurality of the conflict; the peace agreement contains proposals to resolve current demands. A focus of interest for readers of La Izquierda Diario.

Miércoles 2 de junio

Photo Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

In the midst of the protests, various myths have been revived and can be heard in the bourgeois press but also in various publications of the left, to say nothing of social media. If we are not capable of looking at the reality of the moment, we cannot deal with the problems we face. There are various myths: the nature of Colombian democracy; the previous generations did not struggle; the exclusive rural nature of the conflict; the peace accord contains proposals to resolve the current demands.

One of the first myths that one sees in the bourgeois press, but is also repeated by one or other absent minded social democrat is that Colombia is the longest most stable democracy in Latin America and has never lived under a military dictatorship. They ignore the military coup of Rojas Pinilla in 1953, but as the elite looked upon it favourably and still defend it, it doesn’t count as far as they are concerned. In any case, in the 1980s and 1990s the same state held out this argument in its defence against accusations of being one of the biggest human rights violators in the hemisphere. Paradoxically it sometimes used it as a justification for its crimes with that infamous expression from the then Captain Plaza Vegas when he retook the Palace of Justice, "Defending democracy, Sir".

Colombia has never been a democracy, or if we borrow Javier Giraldo’s phrase that he used as a title for one of his writings Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy [1]. It is a democracy that has systematically pursued the opposition killing thousands of opposition members, torturing them, displacing them and forcing thousands of militants to go into exile, where in distant lands they rubbed shoulders with the victims of the Southern Cone dictatorships, Guatemala, El Salvador, South Africa and Palestine, amongst others. One only has to look at who they mixed with, and continue to do so, to realise everything you need to know about the nature of Colombian democracy.

Burial of Fernando Lombana killed in Bogotá in 1995 by the police. Photo Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
Burial of Fernando Lombana killed in Bogotá in 1995 by the police. Photo Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

This brings us to the next myth, and this represents a danger to the movement: that this generation struggles because other generations did not fight. Before we take apart this myth, it is worth saying that if it were true, it would mean we were facing a transient problem and not a structural one, and everything could be resolved through a simple change of government. The funny thing about this myth is that such stupidity is repeated by people who have either thoroughly examined struggles from the recent and distant past and people who have also taken part in them.

This is not the first major struggle in this country, nor the first attempt at transforming the it. Colombia has gone through many such experiences of this nature. The state itself, through its National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH) tried to put a figure on the number of dead caused by the conflict and places it at 262,197 deaths between 1958 and 2018 [2]. The CNMH has been criticised for how it reached this figure and many believe the real figure to be higher. Neither is the figure complete as due to the chosen dates it excludes all the dead from the years of La Violencia (1948-1958) that some analysts calculate to be in the region of 250,000 dead and it does not include the deaths after 2018, and there has always been an under reporting of violence in Colombia, as there is a fear of doing so, cover ups by state agents, the very nature of paramilitarism whose aim is to blur the reality of the violence and why. However, the CNMH figure is useful in that it is what the state acknowledges, we are not dealing with a lower figure than the official one and the CNMH states that 215.005 were civilians and 178.005 were murdered through the modus operandi of selective assassinations, the majority of them social fighters. The river of blood in Colombia gives lie to the statement that other generations were bowed down.

Also, any revision of the trade union history of the country shows that there are numerous long and important struggles such as that of the oil workers that won the setting up of the national oil industry, ECOPETROL, the civic stoppage and strike of 1971 or the civic stoppage of 1977 [3].

Segovia 1995. Photo Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
Segovia 1995. Photo Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

The same thing happens with the prison figures. There are no precise figures on the number of political prisoners throughout the conflict. But it is telling that the first Amnesty International report on Colombia dealt with the prison issue. They came to investigate what had happened under the government of Turbay Ayala and his Military Court Martials against the opposition. And Duque is aware of the past and how other generations fought and in an interview he explained that his hero is Turbay Ayala, as the journalist saw a bust of him and asked Duque about it.

When I questioned him about the matter, I realised that Duque did not know much about Turbay other than the left opposition to him and what for them was vile was fascinating to him. He, the current president, explained to me that he admired the steadfastness with which Julio César had faced down the insurgency, whilst his critics had vilified him for it. His fascination with Turbay was intense but superficial and was exclusively centred on the use of force [4].

Those who praise the youth by falsely stating that other generations did not struggle, do little to help the youths fight people like Duque or the Generals who do have historic reference points. In all revolts, rebellions and revolutions in the world the majority of the participants are young, sometimes led by older people that survived previous revolts and grew old in the struggle. Such is the case of Lenin who took power at 47 years of age, having been defeated at the age of 35, Trotsky (38), Mao (56), Ho Chi Minh who died at the age of 79 without seeing the triumph of his revolution, the exceptions to this general rule being the youthful Castro and Che Guevara (although for the period they would not have been considered youths). Or there are those who were executed, such as José Antonio Galán (41). In each revolution the youth make up the vast majority of the participants, although not always of the leadership, but this revolt is just beginning to form its own leadership of youths as the bureaucrats, NGOs and older politicians want them to go back to their houses.

Linked to this issue is that the conflict has always being rural and what we see in the strike is the conflict and the state’s reaction coming into the cities. It is not true and all those who say so, know this to be the case, many of them have written about the conflict in urban areas, such as the paramilitary take over of Barrancabermeja, the more than 400 murders at the hands of the Navy’s 07 Intelligence Network in that city, the violent takeover and permanence of paramilitary groups in Buenaventura to name just two medium sized cities. In the latter case the paramilitary leader H.H. explained that the confrontation in that city was neither mild nor a minor matter

If the state, the security forces, the navy, the army had full control of Buenaventura as they claim, then how could we operate freely in Buenaventura and there are hundreds of thousands of dead from the confrontation that we had in Buenaventura with the 30th Front of the FARC as we controlled the drug trafficking routes and they paid taxes to us [5].

He also talks of hundreds of disappeared. This conflict has always been both rural and urban, each part experiencing it in a different manner depending on the historic moment and the need. Today the bourgeoisie needs to ruthlessly repress the current revolt, that is mainly, though not exclusively urban.

May 1st 2008. Photo Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
May 1st 2008. Photo Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

Lastly, there are those who say the situation can be explained through the non implementation of the Havana Accord. None of this is true. Firstly, the accord says nothing about the problems that led to the social explosion, the health, education and pension system and the tax burden on the poor. I challenge those who say this to publicly point to just one example of where the accord proposes a reform on just one of those points, just one example on one point. I am not making it as easy as it seems as there are not even vague references to those points in that accord. But once again they treat the social explosion and the reasons behind it as a transient, when they are not.

We are where we are after decades of violence by the state, decades if not two centuries of rapine, greed and policies that only favour the rich. All of this was exacerbated by the now infamous aperture of President Gaviria (1990-1994), then by Law 100 and an endless list of pension and labour reforms etc. The current situation of poverty and crisis is the result of neoliberal policies, not by one government, but rather by all of them, from at least the time of Gaviria. It is the result of the theft of land, the displacement of millions of peasants (issues only dealt with partially in the Havana Accord and with proposals that fall short in every sense).

The myths that are revived in the strike are myths that at particular times the state itself has used to distract, skew debate or deny reality. The left does a poor favour reviving them in the midst of the protests. There is a long and rich tradition of both urban and rural struggles in Colombia, we should learn from them and the traitors, the broken and reformists that want to look at everything as a transient or partial problem have always been with us and always will be, and amongst them there are youths and older people.

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