As long as the Colombian government doesn’t properly address the causes behind the country’s huge internal displacement problem, big cities like Bogota and Medellin should refuse to take care of the victims, says former mayor of the peace community of Apartado and candidate for the Colombian Senate, Gloria Cuartas.
What may seem like a rather bold statement to some, is plain logic for Polo Democatico hopeful Cuartas, who is probably best known as the former mayor of the peace community in the problematic north-west of Colombia, and is among president Alvaro Uribe’s most fierce and outspoken critics.
“Crying about the fate of our displaced farmers and administering public funding to the needs of refugees doesn’t make any sense when there is no open debate on the causes of this human tragedy,” says Cuartas. “The problem is deliberately taken out of the political context. We have supermarkets, foreign aid organizations and media like RCN and Caracol organizing benefits for refugees, but they don’t bother to ask who’s owning their lands now.”
The Justice and Peace process, designed to demobilize paramilitary organization AUC, was also intended to alleviate the pain of refugees and other victims, but Cuartas believes that it completely fails to do so. “The law doesn’t leave room to memorize, it doesn’t guarantee land rights and it has brought to justice only a few of the more than 30,000 cases.” In the current setting, the truth of the perpetrator is more important than the truth of the victim, says the 49-year-old politician. “The truth of the victim has its limits; we often get to know who killed somebody, but we will never know who paid for the assassination.”
According to the leftist senate hopeful, Colombia is not ready for a Justice and Peace law, because there is sufficient evidence that paramilitary structures have been left intact. “Furthermore, the government should recognize there is a conflict, not just soldiers fighting terrorists. Before people start accusing me of siding with the guerrilla, I do believe we have to finish with the FARC,” says Cuartas, who has been linked to the guerrilla more than once by political opponents in the past. “But not by bombarding them. Instead, they should wither in a political negotiation out of the Colombian conflict.”
The prospects of re-opening negotiations with the guerrilla are limited under present conditions, admits Cuartas. “After all, the failure of the peace process was a carefully thought out decision. Of course the FARC is to blame as well, but this war completely fits the U.S.-backed strategy to re-found the country on a neo-liberal basis. While the general public may be unaware of it, Colombia is experiencing an enormous economical rearrangement based on concentration of land and natural resources in the name of development.”
In this “systematic effort,” as the politician and social worker calls it, the government wouldn’t care too much about defeating the FARC or not. “There is a big inequality between the fighting actors anyway, with the relatively low tech guerrilla on one side and the Colombian army supported by US and Israeli technology on the other.” What really matters is what happens when the guerrilla has left a certain region, Cuartas says. “With people displaced because of crop fumigation and turmoil, multinational mining companies move in to exploit coal, gold and emeralds, or agro-industrial corporations take over the land to plant oil palm, like in Uraba.”
Cuartas says she witnessed this strategy first-hand as mayor of Apartado in the north of Antioquia, the department which Alvaro Uribe governed until he became president in 2002. “As governor, Uribe already learned how successful the rifle could be in spreading his neo-liberal economic model. He offered Colombians hope by eliminating, but not solving the conflict. In Apartado alone, it resulted in 1,200 deaths at the hands of the army and paramilitaries. And yes, I do blame Uribe for those atrocities, he is an asesino, a murderer!”
The village of San Jose de Apartado became widely known in the late 1990’s as a peace community trying to liberate itself of any military, paramilitary or guerrilla influence. Recently, and notably because of confessions of ex-FARC-commander “Zamir,” the community has been discredited for alleged links with the guerrilla. An opinion article in the Wall Street Journal and a similar article in a Dutch magazine even led the Netherlands’ Foreign Ministry to question its neutrality, even though international human rights groups kept supporting Apartado.
Gloria Cuartas is still furious about the publications, stating that the articles endangered the lives of those living in and sympathizing with the peace community. “Zamir is a very unreliable source; as a FARC-commander, he has killed twenty members of the peace community and later reached an agreement with the army’s 17th Brigade. This man is simply defending the army, saying that they have never done anything wrong in the community. As the Dutch Embassy apparently has not investigated the other side of the story, I hold them partly accountable for the persecution and moral destruction of the community.”
The reason for the attacks on Apartado’s credibility are very clear to Cuartas. “The community is hindering development of one of the region’s biggest finding places of coal, and we’re not moving away.” Furthermore, she argues, the idea of a peace community without any ties to the guerrilla is considered by the government as a direct threat to its legitimacy. “Which again is a completely logical response of a government seeking to eradicate any leftist opposition, eliminating labor leaders and silencing social movements.”
The international community should be more critical towards Mr. Uribe’s policies, but instead it is his willing accomplice, maintains Cuartas. By granting dissidents asylum, for instance. “Asylum is a gift to authoritarian governments, neutralizing critical voices while strengthening their capacity to negotiate economic treaties. It’s like saying: ‘You will let us invest in Colombia, to explore for coal, oil and minerals, and we will nurture the men and women who might be a danger because they think differently’.”