Power Have The People

Last week I complained of this:

Technology as protagonist in news stories. The role of technology in the latest humanitarian disaster/terrorist outrage/doolally starlet banged up in mental health institution story. How Twitter helped Gloucestershire residents tell their families on the other side of the country that their carpets were still safe from the floods! How Islamist terrorists have been keeping Islamist terrorist encyclopedias- on their Blackberries! How famous people use the internet too, as evidenced by a comment left by a famous moron on the Bebo site of another famous moron currently in rehab!

And yesterday I saw this:

Facebook used to target Colombia’s FARC with global rally


There is an excellent piece on the FARC and Colombia in Oil Wars.

..by what right does any group in a democracy have the right to resort to violence, which is what an insurgency is, against an elected government? After all, at the very least the FARC does that. And if there is no legitimate reason behind their waging armed struggle in the fist place than they can safely be condemmed regardless of what role they play or don’t play in the Colombian drug trade.

In short, if the FARC have political designs then why don’t they just compete for power electorally? Heck, even the Venezuelan opposition finally saw the light and has started doing that.

The answer to that question is quite simple – leftists have tried participating in electoral politics in Colombia only to be massacred by state supported right wing death squads. Most recently this happened in the 1980s and 1990s when some FARC members, communists, socialists, trade unionists, community organizers and other leftists formed a large political party called the Patriotic Union.

And what happened to the Patriotic Union? Well, lets just say 20 years on there aren’t many members still alive to tell about it.

And then:

So by now hopefully you can see why there is no Colombian equivalent of Chavez, or Correa, or Kirchner, or Lula. Well, there actually may be Colombian equivalents of those leaders. But rather than be public figures, which would make their life expectancy very short, those few that survived and didn’t go into exile are probably in a jungle somewhere holding a gun.

And can they be blamed? No they can’t. The reason is, Colombia is not a true democracy. Certainly any country where politicians of a certain persuasion are systematically murdered cannot be considered to be democratic and its citizens certainly have the right to use any means at their disposal, including armed insurgency, to change that government.

A few weeks back, I was listening to a French interview with Eric Hobsbawm that touches on revolutionary guerilla movements. Whilst he lamented the fact that there was no longer any revolutionary aspect to the FARC’s activities, he displayed a certain sympathy for the FARC for precisely the reasons Oil Wars outlines: the fact that its attempt to form a civilian political movement was met with extreme and murderous violence from the Colombian state meant that there was no alternative but armed insurgency.

What I find troubling about the events presented in the proliferation of stories about the anti-FARC protests is the entire absence of any attention to the role of Colombian governments and their backers in creating the situation obtaining in Colombia.

One might be inclined to conclude, from the impression delivered by the representation of these protests, that the purity of demands issued (No More Kidnappings, No More Terrorism, No More Deaths, No More FARC) reflected the purity of Colombian government objectives. The New York Times presents things as such in its report on the marches, describing the FARC as ‘Marxist-inspired’ (which Marxist?), and gives special relevance to Hugo Chávez’s role in proceedings.

I am not really concerned with the fact that newspapers represent events in line with imperial priorities, since that is a fact of empire. It is more the potential that now exists to generate an event, with purportedly ‘good’ objectives, and to have this understood as an authentic expression of people power, when it is in fact a legitimation of state or imperial power. By ‘event’, I don’t just mean the simple fact of people marching on the street with banners. I also mean the representation of these people marching on the street with banners, and what it connotes.

Some connotations of the FARC march are:

  1. FARC is bad, ergo Colombian government and its allies good
  2. Ditto Hugo Chávez, in the case of the NYT report
  3. People have the power. An acceptable manifestation of people power is to unite with the Colombian government.
  4. Social networking technology is synonymous with people power and progress

There are others, but I don’t have the time. For this post, I want to focus on number 3. What is the Colombian government’s relationship to people power or democracy? Well, this Amnesty International report from July 2007 should give some sort of idea:

Terror tactics are also used to enable powerful economic elites to protect, expand and consolidate their interests. Over 60 per cent of the more than 3 million internally displaced people in Colombia have been forced from their homes and lands in areas of mineral, agricultural or other economic importance. The conflict provides a useful cover for those seeking to expand and protect economic interests. It is in this context that trade unionists are the target of numerous human rights violations. Trade unionists are repeatedly labelled as subversive by the security forces and paramilitaries. Such criticisms are often followed by human rights violations which also frequently coincide with periods of labour unrest or negotiations over working conditions.

Impunity is a key component of this counter-insurgency strategy – the knowledge that the perpetrators of human rights violations will not be brought to justice sends a clear and powerful message to individuals and organizations not to seek justice. It also sends a clear message to such groups that their members and leaders could suffer further human rights violations if they do not put an end to their activities. Impunity ensures that the perpetrators of human rights violations are still at large and more than willing to repeat their actions.

The impunity enjoyed by security force personnel responsible for human rights violations has been guaranteed through a variety of techniques designed to ensure that crimes are not fully investigated. The security forces have covered up their involvement by using paramilitary groups to carry out their “dirty war” tactics and have sought to improve their human rights image by denying that paramilitaries operate with their acquiescence, support or, as is often the case, under their coordination.

The use of paramilitaries provides another dimension of terror to the Colombian conflict. At the national and international level the armed forces and Colombian government deny links between the armed forces and the paramilitaries, at most admitting to individual cases of collusion involving a few “rotten apples”. However, at local level these links are often not denied and are sometimes even deliberately made evident in order to increase fear among the civilian population. In essence, the message is “who are you going to turn to for help?”

Colombia is, in fact, a terror state, and therefore, as Oil Wars says, not a true democracy. But the demonstrations as represented provide no room for the expression of this fact. Rather, they cover it up, in pretty much the same way as others cover it up:

Our two nations are working together to fight drug trafficking and terrorism, and to promote security, democracy and the rule of law throughout the Americas. President Uribe’s leadership and the courage of the Colombian people are creating a bright future for Colombia.

I’m making observations here specific to the content of the anti-FARC marches. But they can apply to a whole range of manifestations of ‘people power’, as represented by modern media. Where these are in support of US interests, and spout glittering generalities about peace, saying no to terrorism, and so on, they are glorified. Where they address specific issues that run counter to US interests, they are denounced bitterly. A case in point is the Palestinian destruction of the wall on the Egyptian border with Gaza, as stunning an example of people power in response to oppression as anything in recent years. This Washington Post editorial railing against Mubarak’s inability to contain the Palestinians, claiming that ‘no one is starving in Gaza’, and implying that many Palestinians simply wanted cheap cigarettes, is a good example.


1 Response to “Power Have The People”

  1. 1 Donagh February 7, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Venezuela, of course, is as good an example any of how crowds are used for this end, with images cut and pasted to suggest that they are larger or more violent then they really are, depending on the message that they want to get across. But just the other night I was reading the chapter on Democracy in Eric Hobsbawm’s Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism.

    He mentions Columbia as an example of a country that has all the trappings of a liberal democracy in that it holds regular elections and that the parties in government alternate between liberals and conservative, in the familiar way of such things. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that millions of Columbians have been killed, injured or displaced and that such violence is continuing on an ongoing basis. Know’s his stuff, does Eric.

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