Hernando Calvo Ospina’s recent book, Colombia, laboratorio de embrujos: Democracia y terrorismo de Estado (Colombia, Laboratory of Witches: Democracy and State Terrorism) is the most important study of Colombian politics in recent decades and essential reading in light of the Western media’s and politicians’ celebration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Calvo Ospina’s study provides a wealth of historical and empirical data that highlights Colombia’s peculiar combination of electoral politics characteristic of a Western capitalist democracy and the permanent purge of civil and political society characteristic of totalitarian dictatorships.
Unlike most Latin American countries, Colombia has never experienced the modernization of its political system. Since the 19th century Liberal and Conservative parties run by urban and rural oligarchies have controlled the political process through violence and patronage.
Middle and working class ‘radical’ and center-left parties in Colombia have been violently repressed and marginalized, in contrast to the political differentiation, which took place in Chile and Argentina in the early 20th century. No labor or social democratic or Marxist parties were allowed to secure representation and legitimacy unlike the experience in Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia or elsewhere in Sough America. The ‘two party system’ based on oligarchic family elites were ill prepared to accommodate and accept the challenges of the burgeoning urban working class and rural peasant movements of the post-World War period. In Colombia resistance to plural social representation and to a multi-party system reflecting lower class interests took the form of civil war – la violencia – as the Liberal and Conservative Parties resorted to massive blood letting in the 1950’s to resolve which of the two factions of the ruling class would rule. The result was a bi-partisan pact to alternate the presidency between the two parties. The key theoretical point is that the unity of the Colombian elite was based on rule through mass violence, social exclusion and the monopoly of political power.
Colombia’s failed ‘transition to modernity’ was based exclusively on the selective introduction of Western institutions of counter-insurgency by a traditional oligarchy devoted to the politics of mass exclusion. The historical legacy of oligarchic party continuity and mass violence provides the framework for the contemporary practice of elections and death squads.
Calvo Ospina’s study provides detailed accounts explaining the pervasive influence of the US government in Colombian politics. The entire senior officer corps with command of troops and control of strategic intelligence agencies have passed through US military and indoctrination programs. In fact, attendance and certification by US military programs are a necessary step up the career ladder. Central to these training programs is ‘counter-insurgency’; training Colombian officials to violently repress any mass movements which challenge the Colombian oligarchy allied with Washington. The strategies taught by the US military instructors include the recruitment and arming of paramilitary death squads; ambitions junior military officers are pre-selected by the US military for their political loyalty to the US and aptitude for engaging in war against the Left and the mass movements led by their own compatriots. Calvo Ospina provides numerous ‘case studies’ of Colombian generals who follow this ‘career path’: From selection and training in the US ‘advanced’ military training schools, to command of troops, to protectors and promoters of death squads, to authors of multiple massacres against civilians, to recipients of numerous decorations from Colombian presidents and visiting US political and military dignitaries (page 213).
Calvo Ospina’s study synthesizes a wealth of testimony, documents, news reports, eye witness accounts and human rights investigations detailing the organic links between the Colombian government (including the Uribe cabinet) over 60 members of Colombia’s congress (allied to Uribe), right-wing governors and mayors and the 30,000 strong death squads, the principle of which was Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia ( United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia). In fact, the rise of Uribe from Governor of Antioquia to the Presidency was linked to his ties with the death squads (page 235). Calvo Ospina’s study demolishes claims that the ‘death squads’ operate independently of the state. Not only are the death squads an arm of the state, but they also play a major role in linking the oligarchy and the political elite to the multi-billion dollar narcotics trade. The study provides us with a clear account of the complex network of inter-locking elites made up of the Colombian ruling class, the US imperial apparatus and the Colombian military. While the death squads played a major role in the killing of thousands of popular leaders and dispossessing 3 million peasants, they received the support of the Colombian oligarchy. Once the military and the regime, with $5 billion USD in US military aid, took possession of disputed regions from the guerrillas, the death squads were in part demobilized. The growth and decline of the death squads was clearly a result of US and Colombian policy: They were ‘tactical’ instruments designed to carry out the bloodiest tasks of purging civil society of popular, mass-based opposition. Calvo Ospina’s detailed survey of the horrific human rights record of the first 5 years of Uribe’s rule stands in stark contrast to the barrage of favorable propaganda showered on the macabre figure after freeing Franco-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt by Bush, Sarkozy, Zapatero, Chavez, and Castro among others. During the first 3 years of the Uribe Presidency (August 2002- December 31, 2005) over one million Colombians were forcibly displaced, the great majority peasants violently uprooted and dispossessed of their land and homes by the death squads/military, who subsequently seized their land under the pretext of eliminating potential supporters of the FARC and other social movements. The peasants-turned-urban-squatters, who became local leaders, subsequently were assassinated by the regime’s secret political police (DAS) or death squads. Uribe’s regime has murdered over 500 trade union activists and leaders since coming to power in 2003. One trade union leader succinctly summed up the dismal political choices for Colombian activists: “In Colombia its easier to organize a guerrilla (movement) than a trade union. Anyone who doubts that should try to organize one at their workplace” (page 348). According to the European Union, more than 300 human rights activists were murdered by the Uribe regime in its first term of office (page 349). In the first two years of his regime, Uribe was responsible for the assassination or ‘disappearance’ of 6,148 unarmed civilians in non-combat circumstances.
The use of paramilitary death squads promoted/financed and protected by the Uribe regime to murder and ‘disappear’ popular leaders serves several strategic political goals: It allows the regime to lower the number of human rights abuses attributed to the Colombian Armed Forces; it facilitates the extensive use of extreme terror tactics – public amputation and display of dismembered corpses – to intimidate entire communities (psychological warfare); it creates the myth that the regime is ‘centrist’ – opposed by the ‘extreme left’ (FARC) and the ‘extreme right’ (death squads, especially the AUC). This claim is particularly effective in furthering the regime’s diplomatic relations in the US and Europe, providing a convenient alibi for liberals and social democrats who provide Colombia with military and economic aid.
Calvo Ospina’s study of US-Colombian relations provides useful insights into the mutual benefits to Colombia’s ruling class and the empire. The death squads (sicarios) were originally organized by the Colombian elites to destroy peasant movements pursuing agrarian reform. With the massive entry of $6 billion USD in US military aid and several thousands US Special Forces, the death squads expanded from scattered, decentralized local killers into centralized 30,000 strong extension of US and Colombian counter-insurgency forces. They were oriented exclusively to exterminating villages and social organizations in guerrilla-influenced regions. Calvo Ospina’s study highlights the central role of the Colombian ruling class as well as the US military in the growth of the totalitarian terrorist state. His study clearly rejects the simplistic view of many on the Left who see oppression, exploitation and terror simply as impositions by ‘outside forces’ (imperialism). The theoretical point is that the US military’s entry, expansion and influential role was possible because it coincided with the long-term, large-scale interests and needs of the Colombian ruling class.
The most important contribution of Calvo Ospina’s study of Colombian politics is his account of the construction and elaboration of a totalitarian terrorist regime, with the open collaboration and support of US, European and Latin American capitalist democracies.
The infrastructure of totalitarian terror defines the boundaries, content and participants of electoral politics. It includes: Rule by Presidential decrees suspending all constitutional guarantees (page 295); A nationwide secret police network of 1.6 million spies (page 296); Peasants forcibly recruited and forced to act as local military collaborators (“Soldiers of My People”) in 500 of Colombia’s 1,096 municipalities; 30,000 military-trained and armed death squad paramilitary forces; 300,000 active military forces, the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguidad – Security Administrative Department) – the secret police numbering in the tens of thousands. The private militias of landowners, bankers and business leaders involving private security agencies number over 150,000 gunmen.
Colombia is the most militarized country in Latin America. The Congress, electorate, judiciary and civil service exercise no effective control. The constitutional protections are totally non-existent. The scope and depth of human rights violations exceed those of any military dictatorship in recent Latin American history, including those in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia.
The totalitarian terrorist infrastructure of the state defines the political character of the political system. The electoral process serves exclusively as a façade facilitating ‘normal relations’ with liberal, conservative and social democratic regimes in Europe and North and South America. In effect their praise and support of Uribe in the aftermath of the Betancourt affair served to legitimize the terrorist regime. Their condemnation of the FARC was also a rejection of the anti-totalitarian and anti-terrorist left.
While Calvo Ospina’s study has deepened our understanding of the structure and practice of contemporary totalitarian terrorist regimes, there is a need to proceed further to examine the emerging mass base of support for the regime. Uribe mobilized over one million Colombians against the FARC in the spring of 2008 in support of his totalitarian regime, at a time when the mass media, the Colombian judiciary and former leaders of the death squads revealed that scores of pro-Uribe Congresspeople, Cabinet Ministers and Generals were linked to the AUC. In other words, hundreds of thousands of middle class Colombians knowingly embraced a totalitarian leader.
The emergence of mass-based totalitarianism, replacing the traditional authoritarian oligarchy, is part of the emergence of new virulent right-wing politics in Latin America. In Bolivia, the far-right Santa Cruz ruling class has combined a mass middle class base with its own ‘para-military’ shock forces in pursuit of ‘autonomy’ (secession) and control over the massive oil and gas revenues accruing from partnerships with foreign multinationals. In Argentina, the hard right in the provinces has built a mass base of several hundred thousand in defense of huge commodity profits. In Venezuela, the hard right can put several hundred thousand in the street and engages its own paramilitary shock troops.
The emergence of the totalitarian right coincides with the inability of the ‘center-left’ and the left to capitalize on the commodity boom to finance structural changes and organize the working and rural poor into ‘fighting forces’.
In Colombia, the center-left (Polo Democrático) has generally sided with the Uribe right against the FARC – and in the process given a powerful impetus to the regime’s attraction of the mass urban middle class. The ‘center left’ regimes’ embrace of agro-mineral export strategies in the rest of Latin America have immobilized the masses and vastly increased the power of the new totalitarian right and encouraged their use of ‘direct action’ tactics. Far from Uribe’s Colombia being the ‘exception’ to a ‘progressive wave’ in Latin America, it is more realistic to view him as emblematic of the new totalitarian leaders who combine elections and political terrorism.
Colombia, as Calvo Ospina describes it, is indeed the ‘Laboratory of the Extreme Right’. Uribe’s success spells danger for the workers, peasant and popular movements of Latin America.