The following is a guest-post from John Garrison Marks. John is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Rice University, studying race and freedom in the urban black Atlantic World. He is currently living in Bogotá, Colombia, conducting dissertation research. You can access more of his writing at his blog, and you can also find him on Twitter.
Over the past three weeks, the signs of the protest have been unmistakable in Colombia. What began as a strike among agricultural workers (campesinos) has expanded in recent weeks to include a number of other sectors, particularly teachers, health workers, miners, and students, in what is now being termed the Paro Nacional or Paro Popular. I’ve been living in Bogotá since June, so I’ve seen some of these demonstrations first hand.
The Paro Agrario Nacional began on August 19th, as farm workers in various industries expressed complaints about the government’s economic policies. Among other grievances, Colombia’s farmers allege that the government’s importation of cheap foodstuffs—milk, rice, onions, potatoes—is driving them into bankruptcy, among other complaints. To express their displeasure, the campesinos went on strike, staging protests on major highways throughout the country, often blocking the roads. In some areas of Colombia, like Boyacá, these demonstrations were accompanied by violence, as the protestors punctured tires and smashed windows of vehicles trying to pass the roadblocks. I was in the town of Villa de Leyva when the demonstrations began, and ended up stuck there for an extra night as busses were unable or unwilling to make the trip from Bogotá. It was estimated that as many as one million people took part in broad anti-government protests on the 19th.
The following week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos exacerbated the situation in his response to the protests, by claiming that “The national agrarian strike does not exist,” denying that the claims of the striking sectors were legitimate. This response seemingly set off a new wave of anti-government protests in Bogotá, as the strikes and demonstrations continued in other parts of the country.
On August 29th, a few days after President Santos’s statement, major protests took place throughout the city, with as many as 30,000 people—many of them students—taking part to show their support for the campesinos and to express a host of other grievances against the government. Marches took place throughout Bogotá, with a major crowd ultimately descending on the Plaza Bolívar, the city’s main square. Some of these marches went right past my window on La Septima, one of the city’s main thoroughfares (though they also prevented me from going to the archive near most of the government buildings.) As you can see below, the protesters were followed closely by no small number of riot police.
That night, according to some reports, the protests turned violent as protestors allegedly hurled rocks at riot police. Two people were killed by gunfire. The following day, against the backdrop of a host of new graffiti (“A cerrar las vías para abrir el debate” being my personal favorite), President Santos ordered troops to patrol the city’s streets. Even in my neighborhood, far from the site of the alleged violence though home to a number of banks and media outlets, upwards of fifteen well-armed soldiers stood guard on my corner alone. Walking past twenty soldiers with machine guns to get to the National Archives was also quite an experience.
Since the major demonstrations of the 29th, the government has entered into discussions with many of the striking sectors, though no broad agreements have yet been reached. President Santos’s entire cabinet also resigned, allowing him to appoint a new “peace and unity” cabinet. Even while the Santos government negotiates with the campesinos, new strikes are yet emerging throughout Colombia. On September 10th, Colombia’s teachers went on strike over an alleged $40 billion in unpaid wages.
It is an extremely challenging time for the Santos government, as a whole host of sectors feel increasingly empowered to express their displeasure with a wide variety of policies. To date, Santos has yet to announce any major policy changes, meaning the demonstrations will likely continue in one form or another.
Banana companies have long had a horrible history in Latin America, based upon political corruption, economic exploitation, and even the overthrow of democratically-elected regimes. Yet the horrible practices of multinational fruit companies in the region is not a relic of the past, limited to the twentieth century. Just in the last decade, Chiquita Brands International (which was originally the United Fruit Company, which in turn played no small part in the 1954 Guatemalan coup that led to 36 years of civil war and violence that left 250,000 people dead or missing) was found to have given money to Colombia’s Autodefesas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-defense Forces of Colombia; AUC). Given that the US government declared the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary organization, to be a terrorist organization in 2001, Chiquita’s funding of the AUC was a criminal act.
Yet today, Chiquita is fighting to prevent further knowledge, details, and understanding of its ties to the AUC to become public, filing a lawsuit to prevent the release of thousands of pages of documents. While such an act already smells like more than a little bit of a coverup, the fact that Chiquita is framing the issue as one of victimhood is even worse:
Despite the clear and existing evidence that Chiquita had engaged in criminal activity, Chiquita is arguing that under Exception 7(B) of the Freedom of Information Act, mandatory disclosure provisions do not apply to “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes . . . to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.”
In an effort to portray the multinational corporation as the real victim in this case Chiquita’s lawyer, James Garland, argued that the disclosure of the documents “will make them available to the general public, including members of the press and individuals and organizations that seek to distort the facts surrounding the payments that Banadex (a subsidiary of Chiquita) made to the AUC under threat of force. Past experience with release of Chiquita’s documents has demonstrated that media campaigns based on gross mischaracterizations of released documents are certain to occur in an effort to entrench misconceptions of relevant facts in the minds of fact finders integral to the fairness of the proceedings.”
Furthermore, Garland has engaged in a campaign alleging that the National Security Archive is not an independent research organization, but instead is seeking to assist lawyers involved in a class action lawsuit against Chiquita in Colombia, on behalf of the victims of paramilitaries, in addition to an ongoing criminal investigation of former Chiquita employees in Colombia. The fact that the National Security Archive would not have found evidence of criminal wrongdoing if it had never happened in the first place seems lost on Garland.
This is not just a case of some benign, consequence-free series of financial transactions, either. In 2007, the families of over 400 murdered and tortured individuals sued Chiquita, pointing to the company’s support for the AUC and the AUC’s subsequent violence as leading to the fruit company’s responsibility, and the AUC has long been known for targeting civilian populations and worsening the violence in Colombia’s nearly 50-year civil turmoil. That it is doing so while trying to prevent further understanding of the nature of Colombia’s civil war, and the ways multinationals affect and are affected by it, is disturbing; that Chiquita is framing itself as the victim, while disregarding the actual dead and their loved ones who suffered at the hands of the right-wing paramilitary forces Chiquita itself was giving money to is simply vulgar.
-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.
-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.
-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.
-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.
-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.
-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.
-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”
-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.
-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]
Argentina and Spain aren’t the only countries where children were stolen from their parents during military rule. As the Associated Press reminds us, El Salvador has its own history of children stolen from their parents during the civil war of 1980-1992. During that era, there were
hundreds of children who disappeared under a variety of circumstances during El Salvador’s brutal, 13-year civil war, which left some 75,000 people dead and thousands more missing. In most cases, the parents have yet to find out what happened to their children, while a few hundred of the missing have been identified after giving investigators DNA samples and other evidence.
Now, a human rights group, Probusqueda, is uncovering another macabre, and mostly unknown twist to the tragedy. In Contreras’ and at least nine other cases, low-to-mid-ranking soldiers abducted children in what an international court says was a “systematic pattern of forced disappearances.” Some of the soldiers raised the children as their own, while others gave them away or sold them to lucrative illegal adoption networks. In Contreras’ case, an army private spirited her away, raped her and gave her his own surname.
As the article goes on to point out, the work of Probusqueda has demonstrated that El Salvador is the second Latin American country where kidnappings of children of political opponents to military regimes took place, following Argentina. In Argentina, groups like the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have successfully researched and revealed hundreds of such cases, leading to the prosecution and conviction of military-era leaders for their role in these kidnappings. Certainly, El Salvador has a longer way to go – only now is the depth of these crimes becoming clear, and prosecuting those responsible has a long way to go; while there have been some minor instances of the government making efforts to go after those responsible for human rights violations and even apologizing last year for the El Mozote massacre, such efforts have usually been timid at best, and a culture of impunity that allows human rights violators to walk freely continues to persist. Nonetheless, there is some hope – after all, in the region, the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide in Guatemala marks the first time in Latin America that a former head of state has faced trial for genocide in a national court. Such trials show that, while it may take decades, justice for human rights violators is not a lost cause; perhaps the attention drawn to El Salvador’s own kidnapped children will bring not just justice, but a powerful reminder and greater awareness of the depth to which the military’s actions during the civil war tore families and lives apart.