“Mr. President [Santos]: I would like to have you tell me to my face that I am a guerrilla. None of us are. We are workers, peasants who try to live as we can. It’s not easy to live here. Our crops produce only losses. We have to sell very cheap and can’t buy things. . . . I would like to show you how we live, how the schools are, with children eating on the ground. . . . All they care about here is oil. . . .” — “Open Letter to the President” signed by Margarita on strike in Catatumbo, Colombia
Peasants in Catatumbo, in Norte de Santander department, launched demonstrations and highway blockades on June 11, which have continued. Some 15,000 peasants have taken part. They were responding to a Colombian government decision to destroy coca plants they grow for the sake of economic survival. Massed soldiers and anti-riot police carried out violent repression. The government claims the peasants are associated with leftist insurgents, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Talks between government representatives and the peasant organization Ascamcat began on June 19 in Tibu municipality. They quickly ended when Ascamcat leaders and 200 Ascamcat observers walked out because Army and police generals were present. For three days, 7,000 demonstrators enduring tear gas and rubber bullets tried to block troops, police, and military supplies from leaving the airport in Ocaña. Then on June 22 anti-riot police there shot and killed two peasants and wounded dozens. They killed two more on June 25.
Attempts to negotiate beginning on June 27 have moved no farther than arguments over moderators and what to do about the Ascamcat observers. Continuing military operations in Catatumbo may be the first in Colombia to be carried out under the auspices of controversial legislation about to become law. It centers on military jurisdiction and covers crimes committed by soldiers engaged in “armed conflict.” There is concern about impunity: military courts gain jurisdiction, displacing civilian courts, and “international humanitarian law” would apply, no longer human rights law.
The vital interests of both sides relate primarily to land use. Agrarian issues were the first and presumably the most important of six agenda items at peace talks underway in Cuba between the FARC and government. What happens in Catatumbo may serve as a stress test of sorts for any peace settlement.
Protesters are saying: approve a Peasant Reserve Zone (ZRC) for Catatumbo, let young coca plants grow, substitute legal crops gradually and collaboratively, provide subsidies for impoverished peasant families during a transition period, ban mining and industrial agriculture in any ZRC, and fund projects “prioritized by the Plan of Sustainable Development of the ZRC.” And honor human rights.
Support for ZRCs has grown since they were authorized under Colombian law in 1994. Incora, the state agency responsible for ZRCs, sees them as “an instrument of development for stabilizing the peasant economy, avoiding the expansion of the agricultural frontier, neutralizing the concentration of property, and enjoying benefits set up for peasant reserves within a framework of environmental sustainability.”
A ZRC in Norte de Santander would incorporate 925,000 acres. There are only six ZRCs in Colombia now. FARC negotiators in Cuba propose that 59 be created. Says government critic Alfredo Molana: “The peasant reserve zones are the only way to stop land concentration in areas designated as rural.”
The influence of Catatumbo’s geography, history, and economy is crucial to what is happening now. Norte de Santander is the third-ranking coca-producing department in Colombia. On the domestic market, farmers’ agricultural products are unable to compete with subsidized food products from the United States. State services like health care, nutritional support, schools, and provision for the elderly are rare. Multinational corporations have extracted oil in the region for almost a century. Foreign and domestic partnerships have expanded African palm plantations in order to produce and export palm oil used as biofuel. Coal reserves in the region are larger than deposits mined at Cerrejón, the world’s largest open pit coal mine, in La Guajira department. Gold and uranium are mined and natural gas is produced.
For paramilitaries and guerrillas, Catatumbo’s location next to Venezuela allows for coca marketing and cross-border sanctuaries. Colombian paramilitaries have carried out destabilization operations in Venezuela. Leftist insurgents operate throughout the region. Paramilitaries moved into Catatumbo in 1999 more to deal in coca and wage terror than to fight FARC insurgents.
Paramilitaries killed thousands of rural inhabitants. Murder and mayhem induced 100,000 peasants to abandon an estimated 2.5 million acres of land and move to cities. Aimed ostensibly at demobilizing paramilitaries, Colombia’s Justice and Peace Law took effect in 2005, and the paramilitaries’ presence diminished. However, so-called “criminal bands” took their place.
According to an observer, “Catatumbo is a zone of great wealth with biodiversity and big deposits of petroleum and coal. The Colombian state and the national, multinational, and transnational corporations used the paramilitary strategy to implement dynamics of violence and terror . . . all for removing peasants and indigenous people from their lands, which they appropriate.”
Irish writer Gearóid Ó Loingsigh notes that, “Economic plans for the region are the reasons behind the paramilitaries’ arrival. . . . National and international capital whether from multinational corporations or from capital disguised as international aid, as much from USAID as from the EU, is not going to stop. . . . But for peasants and communities, there’s no way out except for those national and international policies to end. . . . Without an alternative to the paramilitary model, corporations and the regional, national, and international economic interests will return to drown social organizations in a bloodbath, like they did during these years.”
What happened during June 2013 is a case in point. There was repression, a commentator reports, associated with “forcibly eradicating coca cultivation in order to impoverish peasants and displace them. They move as refugees to the cities or provide cheap labor for the multinational palm oil industry.”
Catatumbo’s tradition of resistance is long: eighty years ago peasants and oil workers united in a “Strike over Rice,” and El Tarra’s Coomultar cooperative, founded in 1978, undertook debt relief, economic development, and local government reorganization. In the 1980s peasants backed an oil workers’ strike, the leftist Patriotic Union coalition elected mayors, and the Popular Civic Movement of Ocaña fought for social services and organized a strike for peasant rights. A decade later peasants marched as part of national mobilizations. In Catatumbo, “a new concept of local power began to emerge through citizen participation in decisions shaping the destinies of communities.”
Military repression targets such activism. According to Paula Martinez Cortes, the paramilitary onslaught in Catatumbo led to “destruction of and control over peasant, labor, and insurgent forms of social organization, which readied the territory for new projects of mining exploration and exploitation and mega projects to produce biodiesel.”
Colombia’s government, in the hands of a wealthy elite, serves U.S. interests, even as it subjugates poor, unarmed peasants. The U.S. government enjoys a system of proxy occupiers. There’s no need for U.S. war fighters. Funding for Colombia’s police and military must be provided, along with advisors and technical and intelligence support. But the inconvenience is minimal, and the U.S. public is generally unaware. The example of Colombia as a functioning U.S. agent in Latin America could well serve as a model for the U.S. government and its accomplices in training elsewhere in the world.
Peasants in Catatumbo are victims not just because they have to sell their labor cheap but because the rich and powerful see them as disposable. Victimized peasants, like everyone else, have the right to survival and lives of dignity. But their exercise of their right has long been obstructed by imperialist domination. The Catatumbo peasants have received declarations of solidarity from throughout Latin America, and even Europe. Acts of solidarity that have greatest potential impact, however, would have to come from those able to directly challenge the most responsible party.
W. T. Whitney Jr., a retired pediatrician, is a Cuba solidarity activist and member of Veterans for Peace. He writes on Latin American issues.