Notes from last Thursday’s Chiquita-Drummond hearing Appeasement, complicity, slander, opportunism…
Jul 082007

One out of every nine Colombians took to the streets of the country’s main cities on Thursday. They were called to march by President Uribe himself, though the event wasn’t completely stage-managed: members of the opposition participated as well. In Medellín, they were serenaded by pop star Juanes. In Bogotá and Cali, seas of people dressed in white filled the plazas and the main avenues.

Millions of people gathered to – well, to do what exactly?

  • Certainly, they rejected the practice of kidnapping and called on the FARC guerrillas to release all hostages in their custody. This outcome is unlikely; the FARC’s extreme indifference to public opinion is a key reason why the group has never stood a chance of taking power. Still, it is important that Colombians issue constant, unanimous and public rejections of the brutal tactic of hostage-taking.
  • As President Uribe had requested, many took to the streets to support his government’s hard line. They shouted a resounding “no” to a negotiated exchange of prisoners in a demilitarized zone, refusing to give an inch to the guerrillas. This is a tough, consistent position, though it offers almost no hope of winning freedom for the guerrillas’ hostages. The chance of a successful military rescue of all 47 of the FARC’s so-called “political” hostages is microscopically slim.
  • Some, including the hostages’ relatives, gathered to call for a negotiated “humanitarian exchange,” which would take place in a temporarily demilitarized zone. While it doesn’t show as much “firmness” against the guerrillas and may not even succeed, this option offers the most hope for freeing the FARC hostages.
  • While a minority marched Thursday to try to score political points for “their side,” the vast majority of the participants simply wanted to grieve and to voice their outrage. All directed this outrage at the FARC, who bear the responsibility for this tragedy. Some directed outrage also at the Colombian government, which has made the situation worse with a strange combination of hard-headed stubbornness and occasional displays of willingness to make concessions.

Thursday’s protests showed Colombians unified in their grief and anger. But they also showed extreme polarization. Sociologist Juan Carlos Guerrero Bernal vividly described the division in an online column for Semana magazine.

A close observation of some of the placards in the Plaza de Bolívar [in central Bogotá] was enough to notice this division. Those of the relatives of the policemen and other hostages called for a demilitarized zone and a humanitarian exchange accord, and rejected an all-out rescue attempt. By their sides, clusters of Uribistas carried slogans calling for firmness against the terrorists of the FARC, such as the rejection of any demilitarized zone. As the shouting quieted and the crowd of people in white shirts began to return to their jobs, the difference between both positions became more visible and audible.

Increasingly alone in the middle of the Plaza de Bolívar, in an new attempt to be heard with firmness, pain and desperation, the relatives of the hostages yelled through megaphones: “The people say it and they’re right, a humanitarian accord is the solution.” Not far away, every once in a while, the President’s sympathizers replied: “Uribe, friend, the people are with you.”

Elsewhere, Semana asks some of the big questions left by Thursday’s protests.

The question today is, will this be of any use? What does it mean that more than five million Colombians went out to demonstrate against kidnapping and the FARC? Is this the role that a society should play against the constant whiplashes of violence? Who or what will capitalize on this gigantic collective expression of pain and solidarity? Could this be the beginning of something big that we still have yet to glimpse? Or is is simply an expression of pain, ephemeral and spontaneous, from a society that will soon return to normality, and whose memories will be nothing but headlines in the press?

Right now, with so much polarization and lack of clarity about what to do next, last Thursday looks more like a catharsis than a turning point.

It will be interesting to see whether, as a result of the past few weeks’ events, Colombians’ attitudes about negotiating a humanitarian exchange have shifted at all. In April [big PowerPoint file], the last time Colombia’s Invamer-Gallup polling firm asked urban respondents with telephones whether they supported a “humanitarian exchange” negotiation, 48 percent were in favor and 46 percent were opposed. Opinions have been similarly divided for about 2 1/2 years.

Citing data from a poll taken Friday (numbers that we have not seen elsewhere in Colombia’s press), Semana columnist Guerrero reported that 60 percent of respondents now favor a humanitarian exchange. However, only 27 percent support an exchange if negotiations must take place in a demilitarized zone.

Colombians showed impressive unity this week in their rejection of violence. But they remain bitterly divided about where to go from here.

3 Responses to “Unity amid polarization”

  1. Tambopaxi Says:

    Adam,

    Good post. It’s clear that the majority of Colombian people correctly view the FARC as the proximate cause of grief for the country. The fundamental problem, though, is that ultimately, the Government of Colombia will never be able to whip the FARC militarily.

    The country is simply too large and the government’s resources are too limited. Colombia is still a work in progress as a nation and polity, and one aspect of that same problem is the government is not able to project its presence (in terms, for example of military presence, provision of social services, rule of law, and so on). The FARC has captialized on that and will continue to do so for, well, for a long to come, is my guess.

    We’ve talked about negotiations and despejes before, and it appears that the FARC is pushing for another despeje in return for, bizarrely, the bodies of 11 people that it most likely murdered. The FARC’s continued vision of a despeje, which I presume they’d like to make permanent, is their acknowledgement that they themselves can never whip the GOC. Failing that, they’re still trying to form their own country within a country and their own government within that political island…

    I gotta go, but the question occurs to me, and I’d appreciate your insights: How is the FARC renewing (including, obviously, recruiting) itself these days, and what keeps its cadres motivated? I take it no one really knows, otherwise the GOC would have tried to cut the FARC off at these roots if it could…..

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    The best explanation of that comes from analysts like León Valencia, who insist that while the FARC are reviled in most of Colombia, they still have a loyal social base.

    Support for the guerrilla group remains strong, they claim, among the “colonos,” the 3-5 percent of Colombia’s population that lives in “agricultural frontier” zones – remote, neglected areas that have little or no state presence but make up a big portion of the national territory. A lot of these people scratch out a living as coca-growers or coca-leaf pickers.

    In Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare, Vichada, Arauca, Catatumbo, the Pacific Coast, much of Tolima and Huila – people too often see the government as predatory, corrupt and abusive: something to run away from. They probably fear the FARC too, but still turn to the guerrillas to resolve disputes or to help them sell their coca crop. Families in these zones often have several children per household, and let’s face it, you don’t have a lot of life choices if you’re one of five kids on a farm in southern Guaviare somewhere.

    Far too many of these kids end up replenishing the ranks of the guerrillas. And as you say, it will be a while before the Colombian government can change that.

    The goal should be to increase, day after day, the number of square miles of Colombia where people no longer fear or mistrust their government, where they see laws as having some meaning and where the state is more than just soldiers and spray planes. The more square miles where that happens, the less relevant the FARC becomes.

  3. boz Says:

    Yanhaas has a new poll out saying 38% support a humanitarian exchange including a demilitarized zone while 58% oppose.

    I think the poll numbers on this issue really do reflect a complex view by the Colombian public. Everyone wants to see the hostages released, but everyone also has their own particular “red line” as to how far the government should go to give in to FARC demands.

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