To get an insight into the situation in Colombia today, Mario Hernandez interviewed Renan Vega Cantor, a professor at Colombia’s National Pedagogical University.
The interview, originally published on Rebelion, has been translated and abridged by Green Left Weekly’s Federico Fuentes.
Five years ago, Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement with the US came into force and with it, Buenaventura was transformed into the country’s most modern and important port. Inaugurated in March last year, 70% of Colombia’s production now leaves via that port.
Yet in the city we have 62% unemployment and 90% of the population involved in the informal sector. This is despite investments worth $500 million. There was a civic strike there recently. How do you explain the situation?
I think that what is happening in the port of Buenaventura, which is the country’s most important port, in which the majority of international trade occurs, whether imports or exports, has to do with a model that is not specific to Colombia and is what we can call the return to economic enclaves; that is, places that are linked to global capitalism but with no positive impact on the local economy.
In Buenaventura’s case, we are talking about a city that has between 400 and 450 thousand residents, but the majority of the population has nothing to do with the port, because it is run by foreign concession holders and Colombian functionaries.
It is as if the population lives in a different world despite being only a few streets away. There is a gulf between modern Buenaventura, the port tied to international trade, and the rest of the population that lives in disgraceful living conditions, in a shocking level of generalised misery.
To give you two facts that reveal the terrible situation of the population, which is majority Black: this city has no first-level hospital that can attend to fairly critical or specialised health problems and when something happens to a patient they are left to die because there is no one that can attend to them, or in the best case scenario they are sent to Cali, which is the capital of Valle del Cauca, which is more than 120 kilometres away.
At the same time, this city, which is situated in a coastal zone with a humid tropical climate and where the average temperature is above 35oC, has no clean running water. The people drink water that is in very bad condition, which generates a very bad quality of health, above all for children and women.
This indicates that the large resources that circulate through the port are the domain of monopolies that profit from this trade, while the people receive none of the benefit that this activity generates.
There has been a change in the last 25 years: there used to be a public entity called Colpuertos, which employed about 12,000 workers, and these workers would spend money in the city, passing on some of their earnings to other sectors of the population.
Colpuerto has disappeared, the port was privatised, the majority of the workers were fired and now there is no relationship, not even indirectly, between the income of dockworkers and the population of Buenaventura.
This has led to generalised unemployment, and to this we have to add the fact that this zone has been taken over by paramilitary groups that have assassinated hundreds of residents in the past few years.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said there were 389 attacks against human rights defenders in 2016 and Colombia’s own Ombudsman reported that between January 2016 and February 2017, 120 social leaders and human rights defenders were assassinated.
There have also been denunciations of the expanding presence of paramilitarism, despite the peace accords reached between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
The report on assassinations of human rights defenders, trade union leaders, community activists, which refers to a figure of close to 200 people, is a continuation of a long process in Colombian history that dates back at least 30 years.
If we look at it year by year, we will find similar or worse figures. What is “new” in terms of what is happening now is that it is occurring within the context of a so-called peace process and the demobilisation of the FARC, which indicates that the idea held by more conservative Colombian academics that studied the violence was never true.
They said paramilitarism had emerged as a resistance to the insurgency; we no longer have an insurgency, or at least most of it is gone, and yet the paramilitary groups, recycled under new names such as “criminal gangs”, continue operating and killing all those they deem to be enemies, and always under the incredibly anti-communist logic that is engrained in the imagination of the ruling classes of this country.
Any worker that organises a workplace, any indigenous community that defends its rights, any community that asks for better infrastructure, these are seen as terrorist demands that have to be repressed, and this illegal armed wing that the government says does not exist, continues to operate with the encouragement of different ruling political and economic sectors in the country.
What is significant is that these new paramilitary groups – which are the same ones, they never went away – are taking control of regions that were previously under the influence of the FARC that were left unoccupied and that, in general, are regions where there are large mining, energy and hydroelectric megaprojects. What this is about is giving backing to investment by transnational capital to ensure the unimpeded functioning of foreign investment.
This is a fundamental precept of paramilitarism: clear the land to ensure smooth functioning for big business deals and, in this sense, this is no different to what has happened in the past few years in this country, which is the consolidation of what I would call a militarised neoliberal model, militarised in both a state and para-state sense.
What role has Colombia played in Venezuela’s internal crisis?
It is a very active and very negative role.
Very active because many of the sectors that today participate in protests in Venezuela, that are very organised and do so with the aim of destabilising the constitutional government of [President Nicolas Maduro], have for many years been armed and sponsored from Colombia.
When paramilitary incursions into Venezuelan territory are denounced, we are not dealing with speculation or something that is invented. We are talking about an extensive border between the two countries that is nearly 1000 kilometres long, across which it is possible to bring paramilitary groups, of which there are many in Colombia, and more so when the right-wing opposition, like the one Venezuela has, is calling for certain types of support for its strategy of sabotage.
There is also the issue of a large part of the contraband that is bleeding dry the Venezuelan economy – products produced there are flowing over to Colombia and being sold in cities like Bogota.
Moreover, there is a well orchestrated international strategy, as was made clear during [Colombian President] Juan Manuel Santos’ visit to the US, where one of the issues they were going to discuss in depth was Venezuela. And Santos has played a very important role in the destabilising action of the Organization of American States (OAS).
As such, Colombia is playing the role it unfortunately always has: being the Israel of South America, a type of land-based US aircraft carrier for sabotaging the progressive processes in the region.
The Colombian government has not even had the minimum level of diplomacy to hide its open support for the Venezuelan opposition.
In this sense, I think what is happening in Colombia is an embarrassment for the rest of the continent.