GIobalization & Instability

The case of Colombia

by Edward S. Herman & Cecilia Zarate-Laun

Z magazine, September 1999


It has been an important ideological premise of the U.S.-organized New World Order that globalization is a very positive thing that "brings us all together," whereas ethnic strife and "balkanization" are regressive tendencies that conflict with globalization. A recent expression of this view was President Clinton's April 7 pronouncement that the bombing of Yugoslavia was to advance this benevolent globalization process by fighting off the ugly forces of separatism and ethnic violence.

Globalization Generates Conflict

But this counter-poising of globalization and ethnic strife is extremely misleading, as globalization has been a primary cause of fragmentation, ethnic strife, and other forms of violence. (In his April 7 address, Clinton acknowledged that globalization has created problems, which call for U.S. " leadership " in straightening things out, as in Kosovo.) Globalization has been "bringing us together," but under the rule of transnational capital and the governments and international institutions that serve it, and in a highly undemocratic manner. Where that rule is resisted violence occurs, frequently with the active support of the leaders of the globalization process. Globalization has been notorious for its income polarization effects, with vast numbers mired in poverty even as the world's rich become much richer; and as Oxfam noted in a 1995 report on poverty, "deepening poverty is one of the main driving forces behind the civil conflicts which are creating unprecedented numbers of refugees."

The ethnic strife in the most recent focus of attention, the Balkans, is in large measure a derivative of the forces of globalization, to whose account we may include: the integration of Yugoslavia into the global market in the 1970s and 1980s; its weakened economic condition from the recession of the early 1980s and then the brutal IMF structural adjustment plan imposed on it; and its active dismantlement encouraged by Germany, Austria, and the U.S. in the 1 990s in pursuit of their regional and global geopolitical interests. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the West's encouragement of rapid privatization and shock therapy in Russia, and the integration of China into the global market, have resulted in catastrophic conditions in the former and increasing chaos in the latter.

The devastating effects on Africa of its global economic links and IMF and World Bank policies has also been an important illustration of the close connection between globalization and instability. Peruvian analyst Oswaldo De Rivero even argues that globalization and IMF-World Bank policies have virtually created an important national category that he labels "chaotic ungovernable entities," with some 23 of them extending from Angola to Bolivia to Tajikistan now identifiable and their rapid proliferation and regressive tendencies making a mockery of the phrase "emerging economies" ("States in Ruin, Conflicts Without End," Le Monde Diplomatique, April 1999).

Violence to Facilitate Globalization

As regards the active support of violence by the globalizing leaders and institutions, we may recall the U. S. sponsorship of the National Security States in Latin America, Suharto in Indonesia, Mobutu in Zaire, and Marcos in the Philippines. These regimes not only killed and terrorized on a large scale, they also generated an enormous flow of mainly internal refugees, pushed off the land for the benefit of foreign as well as domestic agro-export, oil, mining, and timber interests. In Brazil alone, church sources estimated some seven million peasants evicted from the land in the years of military rule, and large numbers were similarly treated (with many killed) in other parts of the empire (including pre-Sandinista Nicaragua) to make way for the important, increasingly global, interests. These victimized people sometimes resisted and caused "instability" and "ethnic conflict" that had to be dealt with by the globalizing forces of law and order. "Stability" for the globalizers means no obstacle or resistance to their own radical destabilizing operations; the victims should accept their displacement, removal, and other injuries without complaint.

This same process goes on today, even in the nominally "democratic" provinces. In many cases, years of class cleansing by U.S.-supported rulers such as Pinochet have left the countries with democracies in complete thrall to the powerful-labor weakened and fearful; concentrated control of business and the media; dependence on foreign capital, global financial markets, and the IMF-and thus servants of neoliberal policies and interests. And very often the victims respond, calling for state and global action in the interest of "stability."

For example, Bolivia, often portrayed as a model of reform under Jeffrey Sachs's tutelage and IMF structural adjustment programs (SAPs) beginning in 1985, illustrates a commonly encountered sequence of policy actions, resultant devastating human conditions, conflict, and responsive repression (assisted by the United States). Privatization of the tin mines and other public assets, cutbacks in subsidies to the poor and small farmers, restrictive macro policies, a shift to agro-exports under IMF-U.S. pressure and need to service a growing external debt, generated serious unemployment, a fall in the real incomes of a large majority, and the familiar spurt of malnutrition and growth of the informal market. Many small farmers unable to compete in traditional crops without subsidies or protection in a global market moved into coca leaf cultivation. This rational economic choice has been increasingly attacked under U.S.-sponsored anti-drug programs that have used chemical warfare and military campaigns.

Thus, having destroyed the livelihoods of large numbers of Bolivians, and afforded them no survival alternative to coca leaf cultivation, the United States is now spending large sums directly and through a militarized Bolivian state to crush the coca leaf producers by violence. A Banzer government plan for the Chapare area of coca leaf cultivation calls for the relocation of 20,000 families, many of whom moved there after the 1985 SAP closed the tin mines. The hope is that agro-businesses like Chiquita can be induced into the area to replace the peasants. But the peasant families are refusing to move in a conflict clearly related to the interests of a tiny local elite and the United States and its globalizing program, surely not those of the Bolivian people (see the interview on Bolivia with George Ann Potter, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Washington Report on the Hemisphere, July 1, 1999).

As another example, in the case of Mexico's corrupt democracy, a Salinas and Zedillo can privatize everything in sight, alter Article 27 of the Mexican constitution to end protection of community land rights, terminate subsidies to small farmers and increase them to agro-farmers, and open up timber areas that were a commons of indigenous communities (and protection against flooding) to timber giants like Boise Cascade. These anti-people actions, along with the effects of NAFTA, have produced another burst of refugees from the land, into Mexico City and across the U.S. border. It has also led to a series of outbreaks of indigenous violence, including but by no means limited to the Zapatista revolt. These conflicts have been closely and directly related to the annexation and globalization of Mexico.

Of course both Mexican globalization and the Mexican government's steady deployment of state violence have been actively aided by the United States. Clinton has more closely embraced Zedillo in the face of new evidence of corruption and fraud and a more aggressive Mexican counterinsurgency policy in dealing with rural grievances. This U.S. support of both a globalization process that generates revolt and the instruments of state terror that are designed to keep that response in check recalls an important Brazilian church document of the 1 960s, which noted that the National Security State was needed because the merciless economic policies being carried out by the Brazilian military government (with enthusiastic transnational corporate participation and U.S. political support) were "generating a revolution that did not previously exist." State terror was needed to cope with the "instability" produced by the already operative "growth with injustice" model. Then, and as regards Mexican state terror and its role today, the U.S. mainstream media avert their eyes.

Terror and Globalization in Colombia

Even more dramatic than Bolivia or Mexico today is the case of Colombia, where political killings of peasant and labor leaders, teachers, journalists, priests, nuns, lawyers, women rights leaders, human rights workers, and citizens, carried out mainly by the government and its affiliated paramilitary arms, were estimated by human rights watchers at over 3,800 in 1998. (Over half the trade union leaders murdered in the entire world in 1997 were located in Colombia.) This is a far larger figure than the number of Albanians killed in Kosovo prior to the beginning of NATO bombings in March. The number of internal refugees in Colombia is reckoned at some 1.5 million, also vastly greater than the pre-NATO bombing refugee numbers in Kosovo.

Unworthy victims. But, like Turkey and Suharto's Indonesia, as well as Bolivia and Mexico, Colombia is an increasingly important part of the global economic order, its oil and mineral wealth have attracted the interest of important global economic players, and its government, army and paramilitary forces are allied with and kill in the interest of those important players. These victims therefore fall into the "unworthy" category, attract little international attention, and can be killed and dispossessed on a large scale without indignant outcries from Susan Sontag or platitudes on the importance of each individual by Vaclav Havel. These moralists reserve their preachings for worthy victims.

The unworthiness of Colombia's ordinary citizens can also be read from the fact that, as with Mexico, Turkey, and Suharto's Indonesia, the Colombian government is actively aided by the United States; in this case, with several hundred military advisers, joint training exercises, a strong CIA and DEA presence, and $290 million in military aid, making Colombia the third largest recipient of such aid (after Israel and Egypt). This funding is about to be sharply increased as the Clinton administration further militarizes the "drug war," the press reporting a proposed $1 billion allocation to the Colombia struggle against "narco-terrorism." But in fact this will go to an army that is itself tied to the drug trade, and that directly or indirectly has been guilty of human rights violations that will bear comparison with any in the world.

Obstacles to "progress." Throughout Colombia indigenous tribes, peasants, and small miners stand in the way of oil drilling, agro-business, and large scale mining which cause their dispossession and severe environmental damage. Occidental Petroleum has had a long-standing dispute with the U'wa Indian tribe that opposes their drilling on Indian lands. Exxon's giant El Cerrejon coal mine, and other nearby mines in Venezuela, have had injurious effects on a half dozen local Indian tribes that have opposed their operations. The Choco area in the Northwest part of Colombia below Panama is rich in minerals and oil and contains one of the world's last pristine rain forests. It is being rapidly opened to mining, oil, and timber exploitation, and pipelines, ports, railroads, a canal, and the last 65 miles of the Pan American Highway are being pushed forward to bring this region into the global market. Free trade zones are in the planning stage for the Choco area. The local peasants are resisting, and the paramilitaries, army, and other drug warriors have been quietly pushing them out, often by extreme terror (a preferred paramilitary method is cutting people alive in pieces with chain saws, impelling a flight in which everything is left behind).

In Southern Bolivar there is a gold mine long coveted by the transnational mining companies as it produces first quality gold in an open pit location. Local peasants have been exploiting this mine for 40 years, along with miners organized in a union and working for a local company. The peasant and union leaders in this area have been murdered and in 1998 some 10,000 farmers and peasants were driven out by paramilitaries, who were funded by gold mining companies and protected by the Colombian army.

These Colombian conflicts and "instability" are closely tied to the new global economic order. Colombia, like Bolivia and other Latin American countries, has been subjected to a SAP that called for enlarged exports of primary goods to generate hard currency. This program helped force privatization and liberalization of trade and investment, encouraging an influx of foreign capital. The United States enthusiastically backed these "reforms," which benefited their transnationals. But these policies have threatened and damaged indigenous communities and their ecological systems, and helped produce terrorist responses; the main oil pipeline in Colombia has been bombed over 500 times, and the regions of oil development are notorious for death squads and other human rights abuses.

Anti-narcoterrorist death squads. The situation in Colombia is somewhat reminiscent of that in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, where the U.S.-aided armies killed and produced refugees on a truly massive scale, with the help of paramilitaries (death squads) closely affiliated with the army. It is recognized by all human rights groups, and has even been acknowledged in the State Department's own human rights reports, that most of the killing in Colombia is done by army-affiliated and protected right-wing paramilitaries. As in El Salvador and Guatemala, the use of death squads allows the army to do much of its dirty work by proxy, making it appear that the army and government are not in the business of mass murder.

It is also widely recognized that the Colombian paramilitaries and army are heavily involved in the drug trade; the conservative London Economist even alleged that the drug traffickers protected by the paramilitaries "are far deeper into drugs [than the guerrillas]-and the DEA knows it" (February 20, 1999). But this has not prevented the United States from aiding the Colombian army in the name of fighting a drug war.

In effect, the United States supports a "narco-army" and "narco-paramilitaries" (death squads) to combat "narco-guerrillas." The guerrillas do receive enormous amounts of money coming from the drug trade and they kill on a large scale; some 14 percent of total human rights violations reported by Colombian NGOs are attributed to the guerrillas. But that leaves 84 percent to the paramilitaries and 2 percent to the army. Nevertheless, the United States has aligned itself completely with the dominant killers and dominant participants in the drug trade and leaves their drug terrain alone.

U.S. aid to Colombia has been earmarked for specific regions of the country such as the Amazon and Orinoco basins that happen to be the areas of influence of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), while largely avoiding the northern areas of the country where the drug trade routes are protected by paramilitaries closely allied with drug-traffickers and members of the Colombian army. Exempting and supplying arms to an important segment of the drug trade suggests that, as with anticommunism in the past, the drug war rationale covers over the pursuit of larger objectives, that can be read from what the army and paramilitaries do-remove, kill, and silence the large segments of the rural population that stand in the way of the exploitation of Colombia's resources.

U. S. - and TNC-sponsored militarization. The Colombian army and police have long been trained and supplied arms and intelligence by the United States, and I that close cooperation has been enhanced recently, including "a series of electronic surveillance and radar stations built and staffed by American technicians...maintained around Colombia as part of the enhanced cooperation strategy" (NYT, July 14, 1999). The Colombian army is proud of its close connection with the U. S. army, one of its leaders, General Manuel Jose Bonett, stating recently that "we're fighting this war on behalf of the United States" (Washington Post, May 25, 1998). It is also the transnational corporations' (TNC's) army. On September 11, 1996, the London Guardian disclosed that British Petroleum (BP), the largest investor in Colombia, had secretly rented 150 officers and 500 soldiers of the Colombian army to serve its " security" interests, and had brought in British counterinsurgency professionals to train the Colombians. BP also exchanged intelligence information with them, some of which was used in tracking and killing local "subversives." The other oil companies in Colombia have also cultivated the army and police and hired paramilitaries and foreign mercenaries to protect their oil pipelines.

The United States has a long and terrible history of supporting military governments and regimes of terror in Latin America. This used to be rationalized on the grounds of a Soviet-communist threat, as in Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, and El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s. Although this was a fraud and cover for the desire to assure a completely amenable and investor-friendly environment, it was effective in making active U. S. backing of the institutionalization of state terror acceptable to mainstream intellectuals and media. It was even claimed that we supported and trained military personnel in the interest of democracy and human rights, an Orwellian claim that was not challenged in the mainstream even as ten democratic governments were displaced by our military trainees in the 1960s, with our tacit or open support, and even after Amnesty International reported in the 1970s that Latin America-the U.S. backyard-had become the world's focal point of torture and "disappearances."

Normalizing U.S. aid to Colombian state terror. It is a testimonial to the power of rationalization, and to the willingness of the mainstream media to suppress information on-and normalize-U.S.-supported terror, that the United States can once again escalate aid to a military regime that is committing Guatemala type and scale human rights atrocities, do this at the same time as it engages in "humanitarian intervention" in the Balkans, and while Clinton humbly apologizes for U.S. connivance in earlier military violence in Guatemala, and come off with a halo of virtue. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey can assert without contradiction that it is the guerrillas that are making "a criminal attack on Colombian democracy" and pretend that U.S. support of the Colombian army and paramilitaries is favorable to democracy, without eliciting any mainstream critical analyses or references to the scandalous contrary record of history.

Colombian human rights workers documented 1,332 killed in 201 separate massacres in 1998, in addition to another 2,500 more individual assassinations. Many of these massacres were extremely dramatic and immensely newsworthy, with heads cut off and hung on poles, and numerous flights of hundreds of terrorized women and children. It would have been possible to arouse a great deal of public indignation if reported here, but these were people standing in the way of progress, killed by agents supported by the U. S. government. Accordingly, the media have been busy elsewhere.

The flurry of articles on Colombia in the New York Times in July focused mainly on fights between rebels and the army and U.S. "concern" and involvement in the interest of controlling the drug trade (July 12, 14, 17-19, 27, 29). Larry Rohter's apologetic frame is "Colombia's war against the twin plagues of drugs and guerrillas" ("With U.S. training, Colombia Melds War on Rebels and Drugs," NYT, July 29, 1999), which downgrades and even legitimizes the mass killing by the paramilitary death squads, who are allies and agents of the U.S.-supported Colombia army. The problematic of this attack on drugs, such as army involvement in the business, the discriminatory locus of attacks on drug cultivation, and the possibility that the narco-terrorism focus is misdirected and even a cover for other ends are not raised. Neither this nor any other article in the recent series mentioned the penetration of Colombia by the oil companies and their conflicts with the indigenous peoples.

Although paramilitaries and army have carried out the great bulk of Colombian killings, the Times had no article (or paragraph) on the organization, funding, and death dealing activities of these forces. It did, however, devote a full article to "A Guerrilla's Half Century in Colombia's Mountains" (July 19), which quoted an unnamed diplomat on guerrilla leader Tirofijo's "Pol Pot" qualities and gave numbers supplied by the Colombian government on people he executed or who were missing to Tirofijo's account. The paper did not mention, nor did it cover in 1998, any of the 201 massacres listed by human rights groups.

There is also no account in this Times series of the history of U.S. military aid and its consequences for democracy and human rights. By ignoring this history, giving unwarranted credence to the drug war rationale, demonizing the narco-guerrillas while treating gently the U.S.-supported mass killers, and reserving its attention and indignation for worthy victims (e.g., Kosovo Albanians, people executed by Tirofijo's forces), the Times once again serves as a propaganda agent of the state. At this historical juncture it helps engineer consent to U.S. support of another round of very serious state terror aimed at crushing any resistance to the ongoing process of globalization without justice.


Edward Herman is an economist and media analyst; Cecilia Zarate-Laun is co-founder and program director of the Colombia Support Network.

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