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Colombian Peasant Leader Speaks Out Against U.S. Intervention

An Interview with Miguel Cifuente

Part 1 of 2
by Thistle Parker-Hartog and Meredith Aby-Keirstead |
September 26, 2004
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Members of the Colombia Action Network, Thistle Parker-Hartog and Meredith Aby , interviewed Colombian peasant leader Miguel Cifuente, the executive secretary of the Cimitarra River Valley Peasant Association.

In July, a Colombia Action Network (CAN) delegation of student and anti-war activists went to Colombia to investigate the effects of U.S. military aid. Evidence given to the delegation shows that paramilitary death squads coordinate their activities with the U.S.-backed Colombian military.

For part of their stay in Colombia, the CAN delegation was hosted by the Cimitarra River Valley Peasant Association (Asociación de Campesinos del Valle del Rio Cimitarra ). Together with the peasant association, the delegation met with campesino (peasant) leaders and took testimonies from campesino communities in the department of Antioquia.

Fight Back! : How has Plan Colombia, the U.S. military aid package in place since 2000, affected the situation of the campesinos?

Miguel Cifuente: Plan Colombia has an element called fumigation [the arial spraying of chemicals to kill crops]. The fumigations are devastating. There have already been three fumigations. It is the fourth fumigation that they are doing in the regions now, and fundamentally it violates four rights. The right to food, because all of the staple crops are fumigated. The right to health, because this gives us a grave health crisis - skin, gastrointestinal, vision conditions, and they especially hurt children and senior citizens. Those military operations and fumigations displace people, and they are violating our right to have our land. And the pollution in general is violating the right to have a healthy environment. It hurts the water, the fish, the chickens and the cows. This is a crisis.

On the other hand, Plan Colombia contains a component of judicial reform [a legal arm]. Today we have four of our members of the previous Board and two other activists from our communal groups who have warrants out for their arrest. The government, with its frame-ups, has said that they are guerrilleros [rebels], and so today they have an arrest warrant for rebellion and robbery.

Fight Back! : What is the situation faced by campesinos with the presence of government-supported paramilitaries in their communities?

Miguel Cifuente: The paramilitaries, in the different military bases in the populated areas that make up part of the region, control the foodstuffs that enter and leave the region. There are a series of constant targetings on the part of the commanders of the bases where they accuse us of whatever action the guerrilla [forces] take. They say that because of us, the guerrilla come in and carry out an attack and that it is our fault because we had organized in that community. And they have accused us publicly of the actions of the guerrilla. [Accusations of being a guerrilla or a guerrilla sympathizer endanger activists, often resulting in death threats and attempts on their lives from the military and paramilitary.]

There is a parastate and paramilitary component that for the last four years has been putting up food, health and movement blockades throughout the region. So, five or ten minutes from the military bases, there are paramilitary checkpoints where they enjoy an absolute social control. They charge 10% of the products that enter or leave the region. They put a stamp or a signature on the product receipt. If it doesn’t have this stamp, it can’t pass.

They have lists here at all the checkpoints, and the people that are on the lists simply disappear. In some cases, the body will show up; in other cases, you never see them again. In these four years, we have arrived at a calculation of about 500 campesinos that have been victims of those disappearances or murders. From those checkpoints, the campesinos are under constant threat.

They stage razed-earth raids to take all of the goods of the campesinos’ farms, massacring and quartering [cutting off all four limbs]. Toward the end of January of this year [2004] was the last case that we have had of a quartered person, a man named Victor. They quartered him, and they stuck his head in a site so that the people would be terrorized and leave.

In the last two weeks of May and the first week of June there was a paramilitary operation in Southern Bolivar where they murdered three people, beat up several others, burned 35 dwellings in the area of Jardin and Alto Canabraval. Supposedly they are in the process of a unilateral cease fire with the government, which is false. They are always carrying out these types of action. [There is currently a sham peace process between the Colombian government and the paramilitary forces, even though the paramilitary forces serve the interests of the Colombian government.]

Fight Back! : How do the campesinos resist against the increased militarization and the repression?

Miguel Cifuente: We have a denouncement system that allows us to know if it is a military operation or not. So we verify that that is a military operation. Then we simply send letters to the whole world telling them to respect life and goods and everything and the campesinos, because that is the function of the army. And then it becomes more difficult to say that it wasn’t them and that it was someone else. [The military often claims that attrocities were committed by other forces.]

We resist by organizing the population. So, when we know that there will be paramilitary incursions and we want to try to make the state put a little more social investment in the region, we do action campaigns. In the 80s there was a campesino organization, the Magdalena Medio Campesino Coordination (Coordinadora Campesina del Magdalena Medio) that resisted, doing various marches, looking for vindication for the campesinos. In ’96 there was another very large march at the location of San Pablo and at the location of Barrancabermeja, trying also to make the state invest in the development of the region. The agreements made were always violated. In ’98, we did a mobilization from the Cimitarra River Valley and from Southern Bolivar with 10,000 campesinos. President Luis Pastrana signed a series of agreements with us, like refinancing a development plan for human rights in the Magdalena Medio, which was never financed. They also agreed to create a search blockade against the paramilitaries, which they also never created.

What we are fighting for today is a fulfillment of that agreement. It was created because of all of our pressure, but they have suspended it. So we have done various takeovers. We have taken over the Defensoria del Pueblo [similar to a human rights division of the Attorney General’s office] here in Bogota, on two occasions. We have taken the Bucaramanga city offices, the Jondon city offices and the Barrancabermeja city offices. And we have worked together with other social organizations, like the displaced [individuals forced off the land by the military, paramilitary or combat operations]. In that way, we have always been involved in these activities protesting government policies, the paramilitarization and the militarization of the region.

Fight Back! : What would you like the American public to do to show support for your work and for the campesinos here in Colombia?

Miguel Cifuente: Fundamentally, in order for us to move forward with the goal of resisting the forced displacement, we need international accompaniment, brotherhood with the people of the United States or with the European people, because that is the practice that we have noted works and a way we can resist.

I think that you should continue your commitment to be conscious of what the government of the United States, with Colombian government, is doing, like financing the plan for war - Plan Colombia. Practically it is a foreign intervention in all internal matters, political, social, economic, with the excuse of the war on drugs. I think that the American people should look further. I believe that the U.S. is spreading war to all places, not just to Colombia. But, yes, Colombia is one of the countries that receives the most military aid and economic assistance from the United States.

So in the event that you could suspend all manner of aid, I think that we Colombians could find a solution to the conflict that we have. We believe that the armed conflict, which has lasted 40 years, has to be given a political solution, a political resolution. And it has to be the Colombian people who have to come up with that political solution. In the sense that the United States has interests of whatever type, like through the multinational corporations, in all the economic and natural resources and the social control of this country, this will not do. The United States will never have the authority to participate in that process. So, I believe that we Colombians have to arrive at that political solution.