Cauca: Their Fate Lies in Our Hands

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Justin Podur

ZNet, July 12, 2002

At the time of this writing, the municipalities of Toribio and Jambalo in Northern Cauca are being bombarded by both FARC and the Colombian government.  Northern Cauca is home to one of the most remarkable experiments in resistance to neoliberalism and in the actual construction of alternatives in the hemisphere, not to mention a courageous and unarmed struggle for peace.

The current battle begain when the FARC entered the area with the intention of executing the indigenous mayors of these municipalities for ‘corruption’.  The mayors were elected in a direct-democratic, consultative process developed by the people of Cauca (see “Snapshot of Colombia”  for more detail on this process) and the accusation of corruption leveled at them is not warranted.  The indigenous organizations of Cauca have asked for international action to protect them from this threat and for all armed actors to leave their territory so they can continue their construction of autonomy.

Noam Chomsky visited Cauca several months ago.  He gave his assessment of the situation there in an email interview today.

1) You visited the indigenous of Cauca recently, and now they are being hit quite hard from all quarters– the FARC, the paramilitaries, and aerial fumigation from the US. Why is that? Do their achievements qualify as the kind of ‘threat of a good example’ that has to be destroyed?

That’s a fair conclusion, I think.

I spent a few days in Cauca, but met mostly people from the southern part, campesinos and indigenous mostly, with personal testimonies that are really painful to listen to. Also met activists from many different groups, very impressive people, and was able to spend a few hours talking to the governor, Floro Tunubala, a thoughtful, articulate, proud indigenous man, maybe the first indigenous elected official at that rank in the hemisphere. His election was a shock to the elites that have run the place forever. It’s reminiscent of Haiti 10 years ago. His election was a reflection of the success of local organizing among the popular sectors, the “Bloque Social” — the Social Bloc. In answer to your question, I’ll just quote what he said in a published interview. He warned a year ago of the growing presence of paramilitaries in the north, another step in extending their control over large parts of Colombia. He attributed their invasion of northern Cauca to the successes of the Social Bloc, which has “won economic and territorial rights, and social rights in the areas of education and health.” That “attracted the attention of the paramilitaries,” who do not tolerate such deviation from the traditional structures of power they protect. I think that’s the basic answer to the question you raise.

But it’s more complex. In recent years, he said, the guerrillas have “sought to manipulate the social movements,” and it is clear from personal testimonies that they — particularly FARC — are feared by campesinos, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous people, and that FARC has lost its former social program as the conflict has become increasingly militarized. The Social Bloc is seeking to separate the region from the conflict, to free themselves from the military-paramilitary and from the guerrillas, and to pursue a path towards independent social and economic development under their own control. None of the militarized forces accept that. There are similar efforts in many parts of Colombia, including quite sizeable networks of communities, in one case an area about the size of El Salvador. Perhaps the oldest is San Jose de Apartado, which declared itself a zone of peace over 30 years ago, and has suffered bitterly from the refusal of the armed groups to accept that. They had been under siege by paramilitaries for weeks when I was there, food and other supplies were running short, and the situation may be desperate unless they receive some outside support beyond the human rights and solidarity groups that are attempting to do something and arouse international attention.

Those I met described the US chemical warfare campaign (“fumigation”) as a particularly vicious atrocity. Peasant testimonies were graphic and heart-rending, and even a casual visit suffices to see some of the effects directly. Most of the those met were coffee farmers. They had managed to overcome the sharp decline in coffee prices (which devastates the farmers; the multinational distributors are doing fine) by developing a niche market for export, mostly to Europe: very high quality organically-grown coffee. That’s destroyed by the fumigation, forever. Not only are all the coffee bushes killed, but the land is poisoned, and will not be certified again, even if they can somehow survive the years it takes to re-establish what has been destroyed, along with all other crops: yucca, asparagus, much else. Their farms and lives are ruined, their animals killed, their children often sick and dying. They are left destitute, with little hope. At least in the areas from which I heard personal testimonies, the crop destruction had little if anything to do with guerrilla presence or drug production — grotesque as even those projects are. There hadn’t even been an attempt to investigate on the ground the areas subjected to ruinous crop destruction. These programs appear to be another stage in the historical process of driving poor peasants from the land, opening up rich resources to exploitation by foreign capital, and probably laying the basis for agroexport controlled by multinationals using laboratory-produced seed, once the biodiversity is destroyed, along with the rich but fragile tradition of peasant agriculture. Along with the governors of the neighboring provinces, Tunubala has called for an end to fumigation, with manual eradication along with programs of social and economic development. But that doesn’t fit the aims of the Colombian elite and Washington’s “Plan Colombia,” so it receives virtually no support.

There’s background that should be kept in mind. In 2001, Cauca had the worst record for human rights violations in Colombia, which is quite an achievement. Next was Choco, mostly Afro-Colombian, the scene of a terrible massacre when a FARC bomb hit a church where people were taking refuge from fighting that broke out after paramilitaries invaded the area. These are the latest stages in an ugly history. From far back, the violence in Cauca, as elsewhere, is part of the expulsion of peasants from the best lands, escalating under the neoliberal programs but with deep historical roots, leading to a social order with extreme concentration of wealth, linked to foreign capital, and awful misery in a country with rich and varied resources. That’s been true of Cauca for a long time. The Social Bloc has been reversing the process, and that is not welcome to concentrated power, domestic or international.

2) How credible is the Colombian government’s claim that they are trapped between a guerrilla insurgency and a paramilitary army, neither of which they can control, both of which they need military help from the US to bring to heel?

Both international and Colombian human rights organizations now attribute the large majority of atrocities to paramilitaries, who are so closely, and so visibly, allied to the military that Human Rights Watch calls them the “Sixth Division,” alongside the five official divisions. There’s overwhelming evidence of intimate connections and cooperation, both from ample personal testimony and published reports of the major human rights organizations, which are detailed and informative. The proportion of atrocities attributed to the military/paras has been steady over the years: about 75%-80%, with the military component declining as atrocities are “farmed out” to the paras in ways that are familiar elsewhere. That’s useful for “plausible deniability” — plausible enough for State Department pretenses when they go through the annual charade of certifying “improvements” in the military’s human rights record, most recently a disgraceful performance by Colin Powell a few months ago after he had been presented with extensive documentation from the main human rights organizations showing in careful detail that accreditation would be a farce. The transfer of atrocities to paramilitaries is a form of privatization that fits well into the “neoliberal model,” of which Colombia is a stellar example generally. US participation in state terror is proceeding along a similar track. Increasingly, it is privatized. The tasks are handed over to companies like MPRI and Dyncorps that hire US military personnel and operate on government contracts, but aren’t subject to the congressional surveillance that somewhat constrains direct participation in state terror.


3) Can concerned North Americans actually help protect the work of people in Cauca? How?

It’s no exaggeration to say that their fate lies in our hands. The Social Bloc in Cauca is one of quite a few popular formations throughout the country. They cannot alone withstand the overwhelming resources of violence in the hands of the Colombian elite linked to US power. As for the guerrillas, power centers may not defeat them in conventional military terms, but have already succeeded to a large extent in one primary goal: driving the guerrillas to become a military force without meaningful social programs, hence just another source of terror for the population that seeks to find a way to escape the criminal socioeconomic system and pervasive violence that is closely connected to it. That’s again a classic device of state-directed international terrorism.

The courage and dedication of the Social Bloc, and the activists who work with them, are extraordinary and inspiring. But the heavy hand of oppression has to be removed right here. It is also right here that they should be receiving direct support for the very impressive and promising work that they are doing. To some extent that is happening, with sister city projects and other forms of solidarity. How these processes develop will determine the fate of millions of Colombians. We’re not observing from Mars, and even a tiny fraction of what they do every day, under incomparably harsher conditions, can make an enormous difference.