Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Democracy on the Hacienda: Dark Presidential Campaigns and the Criminalization of Social Protest: The Recent Cases of Mexico and Colombia by Laura del Castillo Matamoros

In a speech given during the Other Campaign on January 9 in Tonalá, Chiapas, Zapatista Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos spoke of the consequences of the “civilized, decent and peaceful path of elections” within the Mexico’s current social and political scenario.

Oh, please, Subcomandante! Don’t be so presumptuous. Here in Colombia, right now, we are also going down the “civilized, decent and peaceful path of elections” (please remember, kind readers, that this is the country with the oldest democracy in Latin America). You can believe it: the spirit of “democracy,” democracy for the most select members of Colombian society’s conservative political class, can be felt in the air.

The Impeccable Decency of Electoral Politics

Just like in Mexico — where presidential candidate Felipe Calderón, following the wise teachings of his master, Fox, is using every political trick in the book to assure his triumph and the National Action Party’s (PAN’s) continued rule, with the kind assistance of top U.S. political consultants Dick Morris and Rob Allyn (as Al Giordano reported recently) — the electoral contest in these lands has been so decent and honest that late last year President Alvaro Uribe assured that the article of the Colombian constitution prohibiting the reelection of presidents, mayors and governors be repealed by the honorable Congress of the Republic. This all happened thanks to one of the president’s typical outbursts of generosity, in which he doled out a number of important political posts to the relatives of the congressmen and women who helped him in his noble goal of staying in power for four more years, and, if possible, many more after that.

But how could we not have such decency in Mexico and Colombia, when over there they have Calderón’s “clean hands” while here we have President Uribe’s index finger extending upwards from a raised fist, as can be seen in the logo of his reelection campaign, better known as “Primero Colombia” (“Colombia First”)? Those are the same “clean hands” of Calderón’s with which he received the modest sum of 1.3 billion Mexican pesos ($116 million dollars) for his campaign and the PAN’s general cause siphoned out of the money destined for Fox’s social programs. Yes, we have seen such decency in the campaign for Colombia’s next president-for-life that, with that same index finger, Uribe gave a friendly nudge to former Administrative Department for Security (DAS) director Jorge Noguerra, sending him off as the new Colombian consul to Milan, in order that he not have to bear the terrible discomfort of being accused of links to paramilitaries and drug traffickers, or of giving them information on several human rights activists and trade unionists that were later killed.

Uribe surely used that same finger to sign off four years ago on the plan for his unconditional friends, the paramilitaries, to oblige officials at polling centers to fill out ballots for voters who never showed up, thus assuring his resounding triumph. This little electoral adjustment allegedly enjoyed the support of some honorable but misunderstood citizens, such as his recently ousted campaign managers in the Caquetá and Magdalena departments, who were forced to resign in the face of ugly accusations of links to local paramilitaries or of receiving money from drug traffickers to finance the 2002 campaign. Without a doubt, at no time in the past, either here or in Mexico, has the political class ever oozed such honesty from all its pores. It must be because here, as there, the corruption scandals are not scandals at all for the ruling class, but rather their “modus vivendi,” as columnist Antonio Caballero writes in his latest piece for Semana, Colombia’s most-read weekly newsmagazine:

Many people will go to vote to reelect Alvaro Uribe just as they voted for the “Uribistas” in Congress: under threat. Others will vote as they have always voted: because they are tied to traditional systems of clientelism. Others because they have been the direct beneficiaries of this four-year term and need Uribe to repeat it in order to consolidate their economic and political position: the paramilitaries who have not handed over their guns and have no intention of doing so, have not returned their stolen fortunes and don’t intend to do that either. They haven’t dismantled their drug plantations or trafficking networks, nor do they plan to dismantle them and leave them to the FARC guerrillas. All of that constitutes the hard core of the Uribistas, and in the week that remains until the elections that hard core will not change who it intends to vote for, not even if more scandals come out. Because those scandals refer precisely to that core. For the true Uribistas, these are not scandals; they are the modus vivendi and these people want to maintain that.

Thank God We Are Civilized People…

The citizens of both Mexico and Colombia have nothing to feel but pride for that civilized tone which has characterized the electoral season. In Mexico, for example, this has been evident in those campaign ads for Calderón that make their way onto cable channels throughout Latin America, and that speak of the danger that López Obrador represents for the country. Or in the candidate’s statements on Subcomandante Marcos: “I think that behind the ski mask is that same face of intolerance and authoritarianism that characterizes the violent Left, and which López Obrador represents today.

These enlightened proclamations of contemporary Latin American political thought inevitably recall the latest well-known phrases from our own candidate-president. Despite being too busy to attend any of the debates with other candidates and denying interviews to many news media, Uribe was able to take a few minutes to make a grand show of his McCarthyist democratic spirit during a May 5 speech at the Nueva Grenada Military University of Bogotá, referring implicitly to his strongest electoral opponent, former Supreme Court president, senator, and now presidential candidate for the Alternative Democratic Pole (currently the most important leftwing party in the country) Carlos Gaviria, with this oh-so-civilized declaration: “Colombians will surely know how to chose between Democratic Security and handing their homeland over to disguised communists.”

And nothing has shown off the civilized talent of Uribe’s campaign than one of his television spots, in which a supposed former member of the Patriotic Union (UP in its Spanish initials, an unarmed leftist political party the majority of whose members were systematically assassinated and disappeared between the year of its founding in 1985 and its final extermination in the mid-90s) shows his complete satisfaction with the president’s first term in office: “Mr. President: I belonged to the UP. It seemed like a good movement to me, but it was twisted, killing by killing, hurting others; that is wrong. It’s good that you are fighting them, that is why today we support you with everything we have.” And so Uribe’s campaign team justifies what the left scandalously labels “the genocide of hope,” an ingenious attack on the opposition in the best style of Dick Morris.

The “Enemies” of Democracy

But it’s also true that in both Mexico and Colombia there is no lack of herds of irrational people who want to attack “the peaceful path of elections.” Fortunately, in both countries the forces of law and order are always willing to control these acts of vandalism against the “state of law.”

Just look at what has happened in Atenco, where the Federal Preventive Police had no choice but to beat, imprison and kill people, as well as rape several women, all in the democratic defense of private property and commercial progress. These communal, campesino lands were to be turned into an airport as a favor from President Fox to his big business friends. This project was halted by the members of the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Earth and their actions in 2002, the same movement that now came to support the flower growers’ protests in Texcoco on May 3 and has declared itself an organizational adherent to the Zapatista Other Campaign.

Naturally, candidate Calderón, the proud representative of the Mexican gente de bien — the good people, as we say in Colombia — approved of these police actions, saying things like “I would have done the same thing as Fox in Atenco,” or demanding “proof” of human rights violations (because those photos that show people piled on top of each other on police trucks or evidence of abuse that women were subject to must of course simply be forgeries produced by “Mexican communisim”).

But Colombia is not to be outdone, kind readers; here also the enemies of democracy and legitimate private property took over highways across the country last week. It seems that more than 300,000 indigenous, peasant farmers and Afro-Colombians (ignorant enemies of progress all, of course) went out into the streets, accompanied by other social movements, to demand a national referendum on Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and a life of dignity. They were inspired in part, they say, by the Zapatista Other Campaign (the thing is, these guerrilla types help each other out, as President Uribe could tell you).

All of this was part of an event called the “Traveling Social Summit” which began May 15. There were also protests against what they called “inadequate land distribution” and the fumigation of illegal crops. What a lack of vision! No wonder Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt, a self-declared devotee of the sacred order of Opus Dei, claimed that the protests were imposed by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. Of course, the Indians and peasants are ignorant and incapable of making their own decisions — right, Minister Sabas?

Among all those people in the streets, the most fearsome are the indigenous Nasa of the Cauca department. And so it was not in vain that the governor of the Cauca, who for some time has had to confront such aggressions, backed up Minister Sabas’ accusations and added that “political activity is not done — I say this as a simple citizen — based on destruction and the violating of the rights that we all have as citizens of Cauca.”

Those were the same rights that he defended vehemently as a congressman in 1994, when he proposed eliminating the country’s indigenous resguardos (specially protected communal land reserves). Those same rights — the rights of his friends the landowners — that he promised to defend last year, when Nasa and other Cauca indigenous groups occupied several rural estates in the area, claiming that the lands belonged to them. In those days, in a display of his attitude of tolerance and openness to dialog, he said: “Whatever the cost, I am going to defend private property. I don’t care about the political price, not even if it costs me the governorship.” And one year later, the governor came through. In fact, on April 27, in another show of his diplomatic abilities, he went to the municipality of Morales with his own revolver in hand, to remove several indigenous people protesting in front of the town hall himself. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do a thing, because those savage and dangerous people of the Indigenous Guard surrounded him and even forced him to holster his pistol. Armed to the teeth, they were… with decorated sticks (the bastones de mando signifying leadership in indigenous communities).

Fortunately, we here in Colombia have our own Federal Preventive Police, better known as the Mobil Anti-Disturbance Squad (ESMAD in its Spanish initials). More than 1,000 ESMAD officers were sent to the areas where these protests were happening, to ensure that no one put the “peaceful path of elections” in jeopardy. It is worth noting this police force’s impeccable record, which includes the murder of a 16-year-old anarchist during last year’s May Day march in Bogotá, of a university student during a protest early this year, and other similar incidents.

Just as in Atenco, to confront such savagery the ESMAD police had no choice but to resort to the use of force. It was with that legitimate force that they fired gas from helicopters into the La María de Piendamó resguardo in Cauca, killing an old woman and a 3-year-old girl, and with which they fired into a crowd with machine guns, leaving one indigenous man dead and 78 wounded. Thanks to that same legitimate force, several demonstrators have been disappeared and their whereabouts remain unknown. In defense of the “peaceful path of the elections,” police were forced to burn the houses of the indigenous and well as the resguardo’s health clinic, as well as stop medical teams from coming in, because, just like in Atenco, all the indigenous there represented a risk.

Meanwhile, President Uribe also had to make his “firm hand” felt in El Charco, Nariño department and other parts of the country where the peasant farmers were also blocking roads, supposedly because the fumigations of illicit crops are affecting basic food crops and contaminating the rivers. So it seems that these folks, in addition to being guerrillas, are narco-traffickers as well. But, they had better get used to it, because the U.S. government, fully confident that Uribe will indeed be Colombia’s president for life, has just shelled out 601 million dollars, plus a $39 million bonus that the president will be able to spend at his own discretion, to continue fumigating more and more forests and farmland where indigenous and campesinos eek out their livings. There are those who say that all this fumigation accomplishes is to push coca and opium cultivation into more and more parts of the country, and this may be true. But as long as it makes the peasants abandon their land, leaving it in the hands of distinguished landowners or big corporations, it remains essential to the future of this country.

As if that weren’t enough, kind readers, our own riot police, just like in Mexico, have been forced to jail and beat journalists from the (obviously subversive) alternative and community media. These have included Marcelo Forero from the newspaper El Turbión, and Jesús López and Carmen Eugenia of the communications office for the La Maria resguardo, who were producing radio reports on the supposed human rights violations being committed against the protesters. And people still got upset that police, after seeing that such nonsense was being broadcast (and repeated by the regional government ombudsmen, who were present at the La María and were also attacked by the police, just in case they were “disguised communists” too), set fire to the transmission equipment with which the hoped to damage, in front of the international community, the peaceful image of the country’s current election period.

Visit to read the full article as published by Narco News Bulletin.

Laura del Castillo Matamoros

Tuesday, May 30, 2006