Photos of the die in:
Colombian Vice president Francisco Santos has been speaking in London and Madrid over the last week at high level meetings to present a clean image of the Colombian Government claiming improvements in human rights and in fighting the War on Drugs. His key aim has been to secure support and continued military aid for Plan Colombia, a program widely criticised by Colombian social movements and international human rights organisations as a brutal military response to a social problem. In a surprise visit yesterday Santos came to speak in Bristol. He was met with a combination of direct action and a penetrating interrogation of his spurious arguments in a questions and answers session at the end of his talk.
Ten Members of Bristol Colombia Solidarity Campaign (BCSC) staged a symbolic die in on the steps of the Tyndalls Lecture Theatre before the talk. The action was to highlight two recent cases involving the deaths of 4 community activists, 3 trade unionists and 3 children at the hands of the Colombian state military and to make clear that despite the Governments claims of fighting a war on drugs/terror it is fighting a war on democratic protest. Indeed, in the case of the three murdered trade unionists, Vice President Santos initially claimed they were guerilla fighters of the ELN (National Liberation Army) killed in combat. When it subsequently emerged that the men had no connection with the rebel group and were pulled from their homes and shot at point blank range by the Army, Santos was challenged to resign. He remained in office. The murdered community activists and children were members of the San Jose de Apartado peace community, internationally recognised as non-aligned to any armed group but nevertheless resisting oppression. When their bodies were exhumed by the military a machete was found near the grave. The army then washed the machete in a nearby river to remove all fingerprints. (see link to article below for more details of the cases).
With the lecture theatre full the chair laid down the rules of what he described as the debate though only one speaker was present. BCSC had spoken in advance to the event organisers so that someone from the Colombian Committee for the Defence of Political Prisoners, would get a platform. Whilst this had indeed been agreed to, the Colombian Embassy had apparently vetoed the decision. The chair allowed the spokesperson 60 seconds at the end of the Vice Presidents talk. This was extended to 3 minutes due to audience outrage.
The central theme of Santos speech revolved around the issue of drugs referring to the nightmare of coca. He claimed that Colombias problems only date back to the 70s with the start of the cocaine trade thus ignoring the Colombias long history of political violence fuelled by inequality and elite rule along colonial lines. Regarding the advances made on the war on drugs and contrary to the recently released US International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INSCR), which estimates an increase in Cocaine production by 100 tonnes over 2004, the Vice President claimed cocaine production had been reduced due to increased fumigation. When later asked about the devastating effects on people and the environment of coca fumigations, he claimed that the chemicals being used were weaker than garden pesticide. He went further to say that the chemicals found on devastated crops were pesticides used by farmers to protect the coca plants. While ignoring the obvious that cocaine is one of the the most resilient and robust crops in Colombia and thus use of pesticide is unnecessary, this also flatly denies the documented use of Agent green in aerial fumigations, a toxic fungus (Fusarium oxysporum - Fusarium EN-4) designed by the US and banned by the biological weapons convention.
The Vice president was eager to present a picture of a Colombian government cleaning up on human rights. He cited reductions in numbers of homicides and kidnappings but ignored
figures on increases in total human rights violations (up 21%) mainly due a 120% increase in mass detentions brought to the attention of the audience by a representative of the Colombian Commitee for Political Prisoners. He made a point of announcing a reduction in forced displacements though this again contradicts respected figures of the Bogotá-based Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) which recently announced that 287,581 Colombians were forcibly displaced in 2004, a startling 38% increase over the previous year.
When asked how the documented assassinations of students, teachers, trade unionists and community leaders at the hands of the state was a democratic response to terrorism (the title of his talk) he responded We are working hard, its a tough situation and we cant always get everything right, indeed this seemed to be his response to the majority of challenging questions. He added that there are many organisations that wish to paint a deceptive picture of the Colombian state.
Santos was pressed further regarding this issue and asked why Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez had expressed such explicit disdain for NGOs including Amnesty international and during his visit to the EU parliament had commented that human rights should not be used to cover up terrorist actions." His response was shaky at best and he wavered between claiming that the views of the President were not his own and saying that many NGOs openly support the guerillas (and thus terrorism).
The issue of the negotiations with paramilitaries featured toward the end of the questions session. Colombian paramilitaries are recognised by Amnesty international, Human Rights Watch and other organisations as both responsible for the vast majority of human rights abuses and as being intimately linked to the government. They also are recognised by the US State Department as primarily responsible for cocaine trafficking. When questioned as to whether such negotiations constituted a conversation with oneself due to the documented links between state and paramilitaries he spoke of the need to balance peace with justice implying the falsehood that government and paramilitaries are or had at some stage been at war with each other and thus, that concesions to these groups are necessary to achieve peace. He spoke of the need for truth justice and reparation. What he failed to clarify was that the Restrepo-Santos Bill on penal alternatives for paramilitaries, which he proposed, would effectively eliminate that possibility by granting such groups impunity - impunity which, earlier in his speech, he described as the achilles heel of Colombia.
When asked if he was surprised to find so many critical opinions the Vice president challenged audience to come to Colombia and see for themselves. A final question remarked that the majority of those in the audience with critical opinions had been to or had lived and worked in Colombia in the past. He responded that the audience (made up of students, academics and working Bristolians) was young and idealistic and this probably accounted for the critical views of many.
At the end of the talk Santos and his entourage left the bulding via a back entrance where impassioned activists waiting outside threw red paint over the Vice President. Colombia Solidarity Campaign have issued a statement condemning the action: "Our response to the Vice-President's visit was to bring from London a leading Colombian human rights lawyer to speak at the meeting with the permission of the organisers, to ask searching and researched questions and to stage a quiet, dignified and silent protest outside. We want to remember the victims of the violence in Colombia, in which the Colombian Government has been repeatedly proved to be complicit. We are against all violent attacks on individuals, including this paint-throwing incident. Their concern is that such confrontation could have grave consequences for the personal safety of the spokesperson for whom even adressing the Vice President has meant great personal risk.
While this final act may have detracted form the initial peaceful action, the fact remains that Santos came to Bristol University expecting to preach his discourse of democratic security without criticism. What he got was a barrage of difficult and informed questions backed up with the aplause of a critical audience - a strong exhibition of dissent to the policies of the Colombian State. In the lecture theatre he was genuinely surprised ...and he left genuinely worried remarked the spokesperon on the Vice presidents visit.