From Coca-Cola to Cocaine:
Several events that occurred in the final weeks of 2005 represent a microcosm of the hypocrisies evident in the security and economic policies being implemented by the Bush and Uribe administrations. The recent demobilization of the Central Bolivar Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) shed more light on the Colombian military ’s collusion with the right-wing paramilitary group. Just as disturbing is President Alvaro Uribe's recent acknowledgement that the Colombian military has been implicated in a plot to overthrow the democratically-elected leader of neighboring Venezuela. Meanwhile, the inequities in Washington’s “free trade” policies were again made evident by the realization that the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of indigenous Colombians would not be afforded the same rights as those enjoyed by U.S.-based multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola.
While Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has intensified the war against the country’s leftist guerrillas, his administration has engaged in a farcical demobilization process with right-wing paramilitaries. The December 12 demobilization of almost 2,000 fighters of the AUC’s Central Bolivar Bloc presented the latest evidence of the Colombian military’s collusion with right-wing paramilitaries. Little fuss has been made over the fact that the paramilitary group handed over two helicopters armed with heavy machine guns at the demobilization ceremony.
There have been allegations over the years that paramilitaries have used helicopters during military operations. The Central Bolivar Bloc’s handover of the two helicopters appears to confirm these claims. However, the question that needs to be asked is how, given the fact that the Colombian military controls the skies with aircraft and tracking technology provided under Plan Colombia, could the AUC operate helicopters unbeknownst to the government?
When the two principal operating zones of the Central Bolivar Bloc are taken into account -- the coca growing regions of Putumayo and southern Bolivar -- it is inconceivable that the paramilitaries would have been able to operate helicopters without the Colombian military’s knowledge. Both of these zones have been heavily militarized under Plan Colombia with the government maintaining control of all airspace in order to conduct aerial fumigation operations. The Colombian military’s command of the skies is, after all, one of the principal reasons that neither of Colombia’s two leftist rebel groups possess helicopters. Simply put, it is too easy for the military to locate them, either visually or with tracking equipment. And yet, the paramilitaries appear to have no problem using helicopters.
Furthermore, the Central Bolivar Bloc is deeply engaged in drug trafficking. In 2002, AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso attempted to improve the AUC’s image in preparation for demobilization talks with the Uribe government. In September of that year, Mancuso warned that the Bloc “must stop using the [AUC] name if they continue with narco-trafficking activity.” Given the obvious collusion between the military and the paramilitaries that would be required for the Central Bolivar Bloc to operate helicopters in heavily militarized regions of the country and the group’s clear involvement in drug trafficking, it is clear that the counter-narcotics component of Plan Colombia has been corrupted.
Another problematic component of the demobilization charade was again brought to light during the December 12 ceremony. While 1,924 AUC fighters demobilized, only 1,254 rifles were turned in, many of which were unusable. One Central Bolivar Bloc fighter admitted to an Associated Press reporter at the ceremony that the old gun he was turning in was not really his weapon. He claimed that he had handed his good weapon over to his commander two days earlier. According to Organization of American States (OAS) monitors overseeing the demobilization process, about 30 percent of all the weapons turned in by AUC fighters were unusable or in poor condition.
A September 2005 report by Amnesty International made evident that demobilized paramilitaries in Medellín were continuing their dirty war activities as security guards and informers in the neighborhoods they used to patrol as AUC members. Given that many demobilized paramilitaries remain active while receiving a monthly stipend of $180 from the government, it is not surprising that paramilitary fighters are not handing over their better weapons at demobilization ceremonies.
Despite the fact that some 13,000 AUC fighters have “demobilized” over the past two years, the Bogotá-based Resource Center for Analysis of the Conflict (CERAC) recently reported that paramilitaries killed 658 civilians during the first six months of 2005, more than double the amount for the same period in each of the previous two years. Which raises the question: What sort of peace is the Uribe administration achieving with its demobilization process?
At the same time that the Colombian government claims to be achieving peace with the AUC and defending democracy from terrorism, it appears to be plotting the overthrow of the democratically-elected leader of a neighboring country. Uribe recently confirmed that ex-Venezuelan military officers opposed to President Hugo Chávez had met with Colombian military officers in a government building in Bogotá. Uribe also admitted that the building where the meetings took place houses Colombia’s intelligence operations directed at Venezuela.
Not only is the U.S.-supported military closely allied with right-wing paramilitaries responsible for most of the human rights abuses in Colombia, it is evidently working to destabilize the Andean region by seeking to oust Venezuela’s democratically-elected president. Which raises the question: What sort of war on terror and democracy promotion is the Bush administration engaging in?
It is not only in the security realm that hypocritical and cynical policies are evident. The Uribe government has made Colombia a poster child for neoliberalism over the past three years. However, the wealth generated by the implementation of so-called free trade policies has not been equally distributed. In fact, 64 percent of Colombians remain mired in poverty, the same number as when Uribe assumed office in August 2002.
In an attempt to alleviate poverty and the lack of economic opportunities in one rural region of southern Colombia, a small Nasa indigenous community recently began manufacturing a soft drink made from coca leaf extract. Nasa leader David Curtidor acknowledges that the community’s golden-colored, carbonated drink -- called Coca Sek, which means coca of the sun in the local indigenous language -- is more than an important economic endeavor; it is also intended to make a political statement. Coca Sek is being marketed in Colombia as an alternative to Coca-Cola. According to Curtidor, Coca-Cola does not purchase its ingredients locally even though it dominates Colombia’s soft drink market. Consequently, says the indigenous leader, the soft drink giant “symbolizes imperialist domination.”
As the indigenous producers of Coca Sek have come to realize, the so-called free trade policies being pushed by Washington are primarily intended to benefit multinational corporations. While the Coca-Cola Company benefits from neoliberal policies that contribute to its domination of the Colombian market, the U.S. government protects the soft drink giant from competition in the United States. Because coca leaves provide the principal ingredient in the processing of cocaine, it is against the law to import coca leaves or coca-derived products into the United States. Consequently, Coca Sek cannot compete with Coca-Cola in the U.S. soft drink market.
However, the secret recipe for Coca-Cola includes the use of an extract from the allegedly dangerous coca leaf. For more than a century, the U.S. government has given the Coca-Cola Company an exemption with regard to the importation and use of coca leaves in its famous soft drink. Consequently, the Stepan Company, a New Jersey-based chemical manufacturer, is permitted to legally import coca leaves from Peru, which it then processes for Coca-Cola.
As a result, one of the world’s largest multinational companies benefits from government policies that give it a monopoly in the coca-derived soft drink market in the United States, protecting the soft drink giant from all competition. And so, while Coca-Cola’s access to Third World markets helped it earn $1.28 billion in profits in the third quarter of 2005 -- a 37 percent increase over the same period last year -- the world’s largest soft drink market remains closed to a product manufactured by a small indigenous community in rural Colombia where 85 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Needless to say, it promises to be a very happy holiday season indeed for supposedly demobilized paramilitary drug traffickers and the very profitable Coca-Cola Company. Meanwhile, Colombia’s impoverished indigenous and peasant populations will once again receive little more than the proverbial lump of coal in their holiday stockings.
Garry Leech is the editor of Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared (www.colombiajournal.org), and author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention.
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