Renán Vega Cantor is one of the most outstanding Colombian intellectuals, although he himself disbelieves in this term which, for the Falsbordean tradition, arbitrarily separates the sentimental nature of those who work with ideas and culture. His training has long transcended academic disciplines, although his favorite approaches are those of history, economics and geopolitics: from them he has written more than 35 books on Colombia and on Latin America and the Caribbean. Renán Vega has won the 2007 Libertador Prize for Critical Thinking, as well as being a member of the Historical Commission of the Armed Conflict and its Victims. He has directed the journal CEPA since 2008, founded by Orlando Fals Borda, and is a full professor at the National Pedagogical University of Colombia.
In a slow but continuous rhythm, and in the grave and almost taciturn tone of a perfectly threaded exposition, we talked with him in the very sanctuary of his private library in his residence in Bogotá. We asked and re-asked questions on a wide range of subjects to which the professor responded with the same unflappable solvency. We present here, for reasons of space, an edited version of an extensive conversation lasting more than an hour and a half.
Lautaro Rivara: What changed in Colombia in that period that goes from the agrarian strikes and indigenous mingas to the social outburst of April 2021? Are we seeing a more or less sustained process of accumulation in organizational, ideological and programmatic terms, or rather a kind of “rebound” after decades of uninterrupted militarist and neoliberal policies? How do you read the Colombian cycle of the last few years?
Renán Vega Cantor: In Colombia, social protest has been permanent, although it had never reached the dimension it had last year. Because the National Strike was the most extraordinary mobilization in the history of Colombia: there is no other precedent of such dimensions. It is even compared to the Civic Strike of September 1977, which took place 45 years ago. However, that civic strike did not have the same prominence and dimensions as the one of the previous year. This one was unprecedented for many reasons. For its geographical extension: it covered practically 80 percent of the Colombian territory, it covered the big cities, even places where there had never been an open mobilization before. Because of its temporal extension: it lasted the longest. And also because very diverse social sectors participated.
In terms of protest there are continuities, but also ruptures. In effect, there has been a permanent mobilization in this country, which has always been brutally repressed by the State and by para-state factors. This makes almost any social mobilization here heroic. We have historical examples of mobilizations and strikes that have left dozens of people dead. This strike was no exception: we are talking about 80 dead, many disappeared, rapes, people who lost their eyes, imprisonment. So what is new about this strike? This one is part of a shorter cycle that began around 2010, when the country’s independence was celebrated, when there was an important mobilization that spoke of the “second independence”, in which the Marcha Patriotica movement emerged. This was channeled in some way towards the debates around peace, and in other cases it was projected beyond.
This social mobilization has had different protagonists: university students, peasants, indigenous people. Now it is a civic movement in which multiple social sectors participate: some say that the protagonist of this protest is what they call the “ninis”, those who neither work nor study, to speak of young people who were the driving force of this strike and these mobilizations. They are not young university students, they are young people who sometimes have not even finished high school. They are unemployed, whose families generally belong to the informal economy, what is called the “economy of the scraps”, with very precarious jobs in general, without any immediate prospects for the future, without access to education, without health services, in neighborhoods with terrible infrastructure. This is where the social outburst is concentrated.
What then explains the magnitude of the protests? I think we have to take into account the impact of the pandemic, and the way Iván Duque’s regime handled it. The pandemic was felt by the people as an expression of the inequality that eats away at Colombian society: that inequality is historical, structural. We are one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the pandemic demonstrated the prevailing levels of social injustice. Before the strike there were some triggers: for example, there were marches here, in Bogotá and elsewhere, of what were called the “red rags”. When people were literally dying of hunger in the popular neighborhoods, they began to wave red rags to announce their situation. What was the response of the State and the local governments, the mayors, the governors? Repression.
“The greatest impact of this process is that it delegitimized Uribism and urban paramilitarism […] these were the main losers of this mobilization”
There was another explosion, which was local, which occurred here in Bogota, in a town called Soacha, on September 9 and 10, 2020. It occurred in the middle of the quarantine, when a citizen was killed in a CAI (Police Immediate Attention Center). There, a 42-year-old person was killed by the ESMAD [the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad, a special unit of the Colombian National Police]. This generated a feeling of outrage that led to a near insurrection in Bogotá, which resulted in half of all the CAIs in the city being attacked. As a result of police repression, 14 people were killed. This shows that a series of contradictions were building up, that the situation was a pressure cooker about to explode. The explosion was precipitated by a tax reform presented by the Duque government to Congress, absolutely unpopular for what it proposed. This was the trigger that brought out the social unrest. The strike began on April 28, 2021 and lasted for almost two and a half months, with a very significant repertoire of struggle, with the participation of new social sectors, with the protagonism of poor women from the neighborhoods, mothers of young people who had never participated in any protest before. This gave a special meaning to this mobilization, which transformed the country.
The greatest impact of this process is that it delegitimized Uribism and urban paramilitarism. I believe that these were the main losers of this mobilization. Because it must be said that in the last 20 years, since 2002, there was a legitimization of Uribism as a political movement and also of paramilitarism, which is nothing more than armed Uribism. Legitimized even in the cities, in the popular neighborhoods, everywhere. But they were extremely discredited in this mobilization and people lost their fear of them. One of the slogans that became generalized in the protests was “Uribe, paraco, the people are angry”. This is a slogan that used to be intoned by restricted circles of militants, especially students. It was very revealing of all that was at stake, and of the sector that was singled out.
The strike had a series of demands, which were not the same as those presented by the unions that initiated the protest. They were a series of very local demands. I believe that one of the problems of the strike was organizational: spontaneity prevailed, there were no organic structures that would allow us to look beyond, or to maintain a more long-term movement. It remains to be seen what organizational lessons can be learned from the strike and what can be learned from it.
Some have wanted to link the strike with the figure of Petro, but these links are not so immediate. Petro, thinking about the elections, was supremely timid, even more than cautious. He did not get directly involved in the protest, he did not participate in the big mobilizations, he was not in the neighborhoods of the conflict. This puts in tension something that has occurred in other countries: the existence of a social agenda and an electoral agenda that do not necessarily coincide. Sometimes, for very immediate electoral interests, mobilization is sacrificed.
L.R: You have referred to a kind of “non-compliance syndrome” on the part of the Colombian elites, which seems to go back to colonial times, when the uprising communards were betrayed and murdered in 1871. What is the current situation of the peace process, six years after the signing of the Havana agreements? Is such non-compliance verified today?
R.V.C.: I would call the peace process a resounding failure. Why? If we wanted to give an indicative figure, we would have to say that since the signing of the agreement, 350 of the demobilized [FARC guerrillas, now a political party] have been killed. This does not include family members or close friends of the signatories of the agreement, because in reality the figure is much higher. If only one death had occurred, the agreement would have already been a failure. What can we call this situation, then, if precisely the demobilization was given to guarantee respect for life and the right to participate in politics? This is a first element that I consider indisputable.
But not only that. There are an enormous number of aspects of this agreement that have not been fulfilled: those who have dedicated themselves to investigating it say that only 15 percent of what was agreed upon has been fulfilled – and the figure is sometimes inflated – only 15 percent of what was agreed upon. But in the substantive aspects the non-compliance is total.
Add to that the fact that the justice mechanisms that were established ended up being tribunals to judge the FARC and not to judge the Colombian state. The JEP [Special Jurisdiction for Peace] really became a court to judge the FARC. There are quite optimistic readings from people you surely know, such as Iván Cepeda [human rights defender and Senator for the Polo Democrático Alternativo]. Cepeda considers that the peace process is extraordinary, and that the JEP is one of its most favorable results. But what does the JEP have to show for it? Only everything related to the FARC dossier, but nothing regarding the other dossiers.
“The war in Colombia never ended. We are in a third cycle of war, with other characteristics.”
They say that the JEP found the existence of more than 6,400 false positives [extrajudicial executions in which the Armed Forces killed peasants and young people to present them as guerrilla “casualties” in exchange for certain rewards and incentives]. First, that is not a big breakthrough because that was quite clear. Even the actual number of false positives during the Uribe administration is higher, something like double. But the fundamental comparative element is how the actions of the FARC and the Army are being adjudicated. In the case of the FARC, they judge from the top, holding the leadership and command responsible, and then start judging downwards, the whole group. But in the case of the false positives, individual cases are judged from the bottom up, without ever reaching the top. The highest authorities, such as the presidents, such as Álvaro Uribe himself, will never be tried in this space. The JEP became a tribunal to judge the FARC and delegitimize their struggle in historical terms, saying that they were simply kidnappers, extortionists, without ideological or political motives to justify their insurgency. What concord can be derived from this treatment?
Thirdly, it must be considered that the Armed Forces do not speak of an agreement, they speak of a surrender. Therefore, rather than a peace agreement, there was a pacification. The counterinsurgency doctrine remains the same, unpunished, even more arrogant, because of this logic of the supposed triumph of the armed forces.
The fourth element is that the war in Colombia never ended. We are in a third cycle of war, with other characteristics. That third cycle begins with the signing of the agreement in 2016. We do not know where this third cycle will lead, but the worrying thing is that the second cycle lasted no more and no less than half a century. The third has been going on for five years now, and we don’t know how long it will last. There are many factors – such as the counterinsurgency, the gravitation of the United States, the failure to implement the agreements to solve the underlying issues, the murder of former combatants – that do not allow us to think that the war in Colombia is going to end quickly.
L.R: Even considering the non-compliances you mention, don’t you think that, at least indirectly and undesirably, the peace process could have contributed to the social outbreak, helping to redirect social conflict in Colombia in a non-military direction?
R.V.C: That is a reading that has been made from a very dichotomous vision that separates what is understood by “the armed left” and “the democratic left”. The argument that is usually put forward is that mobilization is now possible because the FARC is not there. I find that argument unconvincing, because social mobilization here never disappeared. It was always present, of course not at the levels of the outbreak. In my opinion, the fundamental reason was the exhaustion of the Uribista model of domination. I do believe that the demobilization had an impact on another factor, of which little is said. We cannot ignore the fact that the so-called “front lines” and the sectors that were most active in the strike, had some kind of military training, training that did not fall from the sky, but has to do with the fact that former combatants also participated in the strike as citizens. Subjects with minimal military training, unarmed, which allowed them to organize elementary logistics to confront State repression. For me that would be a clear form of advocacy.
“What the strike did was to bring the war to the cities, so many urban sectors discovered that the Colombian state is terrorist.”
I do not see, at least not so clearly, the relationship between the demobilization and the outbreak itself. What perhaps the mobilization did show was that the war, here in Colombia, was so successful as a model for the dominant classes, that in the urban world it was always seen as a distant phenomenon. The conflict has been fundamentally a rural, agrarian phenomenon. The war was always seen from the television. What the strike did was to bring the war to the cities, so that many urban sectors discovered that the Colombian State is terrorist, that the Colombian army is a criminal army, that the police -militarized- is also a criminal army. This has always been experienced by young people in the popular neighborhoods, but the middle class had never seen it that way. They have never experienced it firsthand. Therefore, it was surprising that there were those who thought that this was new in Colombia, when it has been happening here for at least 70 years. There was a demonstration effect in that, in the sudden discovery of the repressive, counterinsurgent character of the Colombian State. That, I believe, is a long-lasting political lesson, from which one would believe that very interesting fruits can be borne in the medium term.
L.R: I would now like to ask you about the tense Colombian-Venezuelan relationship. What is the situation in the border territories? Why do you think there were comparatively unfavorable results for the Historical Pact in departments such as Arauca or Norte de Santander? What kind of link could be expected between a government of Gustavo Petro and that of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela?
R.V.C: The result of the border indicates a discontent of the inhabitants there, for whom the rupture of diplomatic and commercial relations with Venezuela has been brutal. And the fact is that these people have always lived in this extensive border, moving from one side to the other, without any kind of inconvenience. When this commercial and diplomatic rupture occurs, it has destructive effects on local economies: unemployment, misery and crime increase. This has been demonstrated.
In addition, the other factor that is radically new is the reception of hundreds of thousands of migrants. Colombia has always been a country that has been an expeller of population, not a receiver. What is the population that has come to Colombia? Many are third or fourth generation Colombians who return, a factor that is almost never mentioned. Even if they are already part of the Venezuelan culture, they are also Colombians, and they return because they have a family member or some other type of connection here. Another part arrives on their own initiative, but without wanting to stay in Colombia, seeing the country as a way station to the other side, to the north, but also to South American countries. Many times they have to stay here because of the difficult economic situation or the scarce support they receive, in the midst of terrible xenophobia and chauvinism.
On the border, the situation is truly explosive. There, it seems to me that Petro and the Historical Pact have made a mistake, which the other candidate has taken advantage of. Rodolfo Hernandez was clearer when he said he would reestablish relations with Venezuela. Petro has also said it, but with a lot of criticism to Maduro’s government, to try to distance himself, and with a very negative ingredient: always comparing Maduro with Uribe, which is absolutely ridiculous. On the other hand, Petro has never linked the situation in Venezuela with the US blockade. He never had a clear position, for example, against the aggressions against Venezuela such as Operation Gideon, or when the “humanitarian concert” in Cúcuta took place. In general, the migration is almost always blamed on internal policies of the Venezuelan government, which is a factor of course, but not the only one.
The blockade as a criminal policy, which Venezuela, a practically mono-exporting country, could not resist, has a fundamental influence here. This fact takes its toll on Petro due to his lack of clarity on the Venezuelan issue. The other candidate, in this field, was very clear, by proposing the reestablishment of relations in Venezuela, although we can imagine under what conditions. What we have to do here is to examine self-critically the cost of not having a clear position in the international arena and of believing that politics is played in the strictly domestic arena.
L.R: I would like to go now to the other factor that determines the Colombian situation. There is a historical, organic, almost promiscuous link between the local elites and the U.S. establishment. This has been going on for at least a century, since the time after the secession of the former province of Panama. However, this relationship began to be increasingly mediated by the paramilitary issue, a phenomenon that Colombia began to export to Venezuela, Haiti, the Middle East and now Ukraine. Why did Colombian paramilitarism become a factor of regional and global incidence?
R.V.C: There is a long-term strategy here. The United States today presents the Colombian case as a world success, thanks to Plan Colombia. Even theorists of U.S. geopolitics, of the State Department, of the CIA, political scientists and well-known analysts of that country, say that it is an extraordinarily successful case, which has triumphed in a short time. They assure that in a short time it has gone from a “failed state” to a successful model. And that this is largely due to the advice, financing and participation of the United States, directly, in the armed conflict, and in the complete reengineering of the Colombian Armed Forces. If one takes the number of Colombian military and police – here they are not separated, because the police is a military force – Colombia has the record, the world shame, of having been the country that trained the most troops in the School of the Americas. In other words, Colombia has almost 60 percent of the personnel trained there.
“Colombia has prepared 16 armies and police forces around the world, teaching what it learned at the School of the Americas.”
The reengineering has to do with the fact that it was arranged that these trained military personnel would become instructors at the international level. Colombia has prepared 16 armies and police forces around the world, teaching what it learned at the School of the Americas. Here there is, so to speak, a decentralization on the part of the United States. The idea is that Colombia will be a “natural” extension of the Southern Command, taking over many of the preparation tasks previously performed by the Command. This, for the United States, is very beneficial, because they avoid presenting themselves directly: those who act are formally independent armies and police, but trained and indoctrinated at the School of the Americas.
That’s the legal part, but what about the illegal part? In Colombia it is very difficult to separate the legal from the illegal, in all areas. What is happening with paramilitarism in Colombia is remarkable. Twenty years ago, the human rights organization Human Rights Watch – unsuspected of being a leftist organization – wrote a document called “The Sixth Division”. At that time the Colombian army had five divisions: what was the sixth? Paramilitarism. There was talk of a sixth division because the paramilitaries were – and are – integrally linked to the Colombian State, to the Armed Forces and to the ruling classes. This is what one researcher called the “counterinsurgent power bloc. The paramilitaries are a component of this power bloc. They have also been promoted by the United States, directly and indirectly.
What was the school that made possible the resurgence of the paramilitaries in Colombia in the 1980s? The Israeli school. Mercenaries from Israel arrived here – the most famous is Yair Kelin, a member of Israel’s Mossad – who was brought in by the Ministry of Defense and who prepared the most bloodthirsty paramilitary groups in Magdalena Medio, linked to the Medellín Cartel. Mercenaries from Israel, British instructors and advisors from the United States participated in this preparation. All the financing, logistics and planning was done by the United States: there is already known documentation of this. This is what they call a “cold war in a hot land”.
The United States transferred to the paramilitaries the function that the Colombian army could not fulfill directly. But there are even more long-standing facts. In 1962, a military mission came to Colombia and made a series of recommendations: one of the main ones was to create paramilitary groups to kill all those who at that time were called “communists”, which included union leaders, peasants, students, anyone who had a critical stance towards the establishment. The presence of the United States in that field is evident.
Now, its internationalization derives precisely from the Colombian counterinsurgency “success”, which consists in the reengineering of the Armed Forces (with more sophisticated weaponry, with intelligence advised by the United States, with the establishment of bases and quasi-bases in Colombian territory, with espionage networks to control the whole continent), but also with the “sixth division”, that is, with the paramilitaries. There are very recent examples that confirm this, such as the Clan del Golfo. This is a structure created by the Colombian state, although one does not know to what extent it has become independent. What we do know is that there are active members of the Colombian Army who receive salaries from the Gulf Clan. This was denounced by Petro himself.
You will remember this character, Otoniel, the former leader of this group, recently extradited. Otoniel is a character of long duration in the counterinsurgency. Here we have the thesis that he was always a guy at the service of the Colombian state, an infiltrator. He was part of the EPL [Popular Liberation Army], had a brief stint in the FARC and ended up in paramilitarism, as part of Carlos Castaño’s United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and then the Gulf Clan. But there is another event that is worth remembering, which is 25 years old, and that is the Mapiripán Massacre, which took place in the Eastern Plains, where there was a significant FARC influence. At that time the AUC decided to strike a blow against the FARC in the heart of one of its strongest bases. And how did they do it? Paramilitaries were transported in Colombian armed forces planes to the south of the country, a few kilometers from a battalion where U.S. military personnel were giving training courses. The military from this battalion received the paramilitaries and drove them, protected, to Mapiripán, where they committed the massacre of dozens of Colombians. Otoniel was one of the perpetrators of this massacre and he told the story himself. The United States has never responded for this crime, although his direct links have been denounced. This is just one example, among thousands, of this longstanding collusion between the Colombian state, the paramilitaries, and the United States.