In a movement apparently spawned by users of Facebook, millions of Colombians are expected to take to the country’s streets on February 4 to protest against the FARC guerrillas.
On its own, this is positive. After so many years of attacks on defenseless civilians in Colombia, the FARC should be made to feel the rejection of a critical mass of organized, energized fellow citizens. Though the guerrilla group is famously impervious to outside pressure or persuasion, perhaps a mass display of disapproval and rejection can have at least some impact on their morale, if not their behavior.
The march will be happening, though, in the midst of a strange, highly charged atmosphere within Colombia. While a display of outrage at the FARC is appropriate and well timed, the marchers and their organizers should avoid unintended consequences.
- Don’t escalate the possibility of conflict with Venezuela. President Hugo ChÃ¡vez is dead wrong to have called for giving the FARC political status in return for no change in the group’s atrocious behavior. He is even more wrong to be fanning the flames of conflict with Colombia by claiming that Washington and BogotÃ¡ are planning a military “provocation” against Venezuela. Hugo ChÃ¡vez’s actions over the past two weeks are a key inspiration for the February 4 protest march.Marchers are free to say that ChÃ¡vez is wrong and should stay out of Colombian affairs. But the march must not devolve into an expression of anti-Venezuelan sentiment. If the protests are filled with bellicose or warlike messages about Colombia’s neighbor, they will heighten tensions, taking both countries further in a disastrous direction in which neither truly wishes to go.
- Don’t let it turn into a pro-Uribe political rally. With the president’s popularity at 80 percent and his anti-guerrilla policies widely backed, many marchers may use the February 4 rallies for partisan purposes. The message may be that Uribe is the only leader capable of fighting guerrillas and, as a result, he must be re-elected to a third term in 2010.It was only five years ago in the United States – post-9/11 and pre-Iraq – that George W. Bush had a popularity rating similar to Uribe’s. Today, thinking back on that period makes most Americans cringe. President Bush’s 80-percent period was marked by the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, renditions, waterboarding, rampant media self-censorship, “shock and awe,” and “Mission Accomplished.” If the anti-FARC protests become a massive pro-Uribe demonstration, Colombia will be that much more likely to commit similar mistakes.
- Don’t intimidate the opposition. Many Colombians oppose the FARC but have deep doubts about the Uribe government’s security policies. Many Colombians oppose the FARC but believe that only negotiations offer hope of achieving peace or releasing long-suffering hostages. Many Colombians still recall that key government supporters also have had long histories of supporting paramilitarism, and worry that they may avoid justice.Will there be space at the marches for those who reject the FARC but who believe in finding another way out of Colombia’s conflict, and who are not among the 80 percent who claim to support Uribe? Or will the marchers do their utmost to make them unwelcome? Will they even find themselves subject to unfounded accusations of supporting the guerrillas, if not outright aggression?
In today’s El Tiempo, columnist MarÃa Jimena DuzÃ¡n expressed some of these concerns quite well. Here is a translation.
To the Facebook Marchers
By MarÃa Jimena DuzÃ¡n
El Tiempo, January 28, 2008
It is impossible to deny the impressive response to the call that some Colombians made via Facebook to carry out a march against the FARC next February 4 all over the world. For a country accustomed to not protesting about anything, this coming awakening can be ignored neither by social organizations nor by political parties.
Having said that, it is also evident that for many Colombians who do not belong to Facebook’s community, this march raises more than one concern. The first is that there is an important sector of Colombian society – of which I form a part – that does not feel represented by the main postulate, over which the march has been conceived: “No more FARC!”
At first glance, the slogan doesn’t inspire much disagreement – nobody in the country likes the FARC. However, things get complicated when one views their Facebook pages and notices that the march organizers are not interested in the details of what might be the way to achieve that purpose. I respect their position, but I do not share it. I don’t like false shortcuts. Nor do I believe that we are “near the end of the end of the FARC,” as Gen. [Freddy] Padilla [chief of Colombia's armed forces] suggests. After five years of struggle against the FARC, we have a guerrilla group that is beaten back but not defeated, and which maintains its rearguard intact.
I think that the only way we can remove this scourge is through a political negotiation. Something which – it is good to clarify – has not kept me from going out to protest the FARC, which I consider to be a terrorist group that must be repudiated.
Another aspect of the call to protest that concerns me is its organizers’ insistence on not including a rejection of other forms of violence, since “it would do damage because it clouds the message.” With this virtual argument, with a single cut they exclude the 5 million victims of the paramilitary holocaust who are still awaiting the arrival of the truth, justice and reconciliation that the government promised them. It is probable that the victims of paramilitarism don’t belong to the select Facebook club, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist in reality.
It is especially worrying that young Colombians are so happily willing to reduce the complexity of Colombia’s conflict, and to consider the FARC the greatest evil, while they convert paramilitarism and narcotrafficking into lesser evils (see colombiasoyyo.org ). According to Michael Ignatieff, who is so much in style today, a society that tolerates its lesser evils for too long runs the risk of turning them into greater evils and, at the same time, lays the foundation for a government devoid of political ethics.
The other great virtual lie is to say that it will be a march with no political content. It could have started that way, I don’t doubt that. But today it has been co-opted by President Uribe, who sees in the declared purpose of the march a congruence with his own presidential speeches. It is no accident that it is being sponsored by “Colombia is Passion” [the Colombian government's image-boosting public-relations campaign].
My final doubt is that this protest has an element of inflated patriotism that disgusts me, because it exacerbates a false nationalism: that which one sometimes feels on “La W” [news/talk radio station] when Colombians call from Bal Harbour to condemn [freed hostage] Consuelo de Perdomo for having given her captors a goodbye kiss. There is no doubt that ChÃ¡vez’s interventionism in our affairs causes repulsion, but it is a bad joke to appeal to patriotic sentiment when there is no anti-FARC military operation in which the U.S. embassy is not involved.
Finally, I am full of fear that the government could use this march not to move the country toward peace, but to foster its agenda of re-election and to consolidate its image of the great caudillo and savior of this nation.
Having said all of the above, I will go out and march, though I will feel like a cornered dog among so many uribistas.