By Daniel Xie – Sep 3, 2021
Since April 28, 2021, Colombia has been struck with a series of ongoing protests against the healthcare reforms proposed by President Iván Duque Márquez, supposedly in response to COVID.
In reality, these healthcare reforms were actually tax reforms that would have—under the guise of funding Colombia’s COVID recovery—provided massive breaks for corporations while overtaxing the impoverished working class. Opposition to these proposed tax reforms resulted in an eruption of mass protests across Colombia.
These protests drew massive support from Colombian labour unions, student activists, along with social movements representing the marginalized Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Protestors demanded an end to the planned tax reforms, the resignation of the current government, and the trial of former president Alvaro Uribe for crimes against humanity. They also put forth demands to fight corruption, inequality and police brutality.
While the Colombian government has scrapped its tax reform plans, protests have continued with one of the largest demonstrations being a general strike that began on May 5th. The strike was launched due to concerns that the Colombian government would only replace the planned tax reform with an equally detrimental planned economic reform, as well as the lack of response by the Colombian government towards other protest demands.
The Colombian government responded to continued protests with excessive violence. Protestors have claimed that there have been more than 2,000 instances of police brutality, multiple cases of sexual violence, as well as around 200 disappearances. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch noted that, on June 9th, 2021, 34 deaths may have occurred during the course of the ongoing protests.
On July 30, 2021 Amnesty International reported that the Colombian government was illegally detaining and torturing protestors, and that excessive force was being used in cities such as Cali. The Amnesty report described the events in Cali as the “centre of repression.” The report revealed that Colombian police had used lethal force and venom-injected tear gas against protestors and Indigenous movements joining in the demonstrations, in coordination with armed government supporters.
More recently, the Colombian government has launched mass arrests of suspected demonstrators with some 178 protesters detained for their role in the anti-government demonstrations, particularly those tied to the Primera Linea protest collective, whom were protestors that armed themselves with stones and improvised shields to protect protesters from police when the protests flared up in April. Many of those arrested in the wave of arrests launched by the government face decades-long prison sentences for suspected “low intensity” terrorism charges. The rationale being used by the government to justify these terrorism charges was that they supposedly instigated much of the vandalism and crime that has taken place during the protests on the Primera Linea. Critics of the use of these accusations to launch mass arrests state that these arrests constitute a mass campaign of persecution undertaken to weaken the Primera Linea movement.
A recent chapter in a long history of political violence
In an interview with The Canada Files, Pablo Vivanco, former director of Telesur and current member of the Canadian Latin American Alliance, explained that the current round of violence erupting in Colombian cities is part of an ongoing chapter in a long and continuous process of state repression acting on behalf of ruling class economic interests and directed against popular dissent.
This violence dates back to the 1940s assassination of leftist presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who was killed due to his promise of land reform targeting the concentration of land by a landholding elite, who controlled 81% of the land. This kicked off a period of violence known as La Violencia, which culminated in the longest lasting insurgency in the Western hemisphere by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In recent years, the landholder elite, which is tied to both former Colombian presidents Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, has relied on US-backed paramilitary forces to suppress both FARC and peasants demanding land reform. It has been estimated at least 80% of political murders in Colombia per year during the conflict were perpetrated by far-right paramilitaries aligned with the Colombian government.
When the peace agreement to end the conflict was being drafted from 2012-2016, factions tied to the landowners such as Uribe’s far-right Democratic Centre (DC) Party, tried to prevent the peace accords from solving any of the longstanding problems plaguing Colombian society. They spread trumped-up claims that an early draft of the peace accords was too lenient towards FARC and that it would also promote “gender ideology” due to various provisions of the peace accords affirming the rights of women, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQIA+ persons. As a result of their fearmongering, the population were pressured to narrowly reject the first draft of the Peace Accord in a national referendum, with 50.2% voting against.
Consequently, the peace accord that was ultimately agreed upon was stripped of many of the radical provisions that were in the draft rejected during the referendum. The rejected provisions included a definition of gender protection defining gender protection as stretching beyond heterosexual differences and protections specifically protecting Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Peoples.
In addition, it ensured that no land in the conflict zones owned by the landowners backing the DC and other far-right factions would be expropriated, and made sure that any federal funding FARC’s political arm would receive would be reduced by 30% to prevent them from taking over via electoral means.
Because of the Colombian far-right’s sabotage of the peace accords and their efforts to circumvent means of transnational justice in Colombia with regards to trials for human rights offenders, the official end to FARC’s insurgency in 2016 has only seen a continuation of political violence. Rural Colombians continued to experience paramilitary violence in the face of land disparities, with some 1,000 social movement leaders having been killed since the end of the conflict in 2016.
Preceding the unrest in 2021, 35 massacres took place, taking the lives of 135 people. Furthermore, despite the fact that the final peace accord did include some racial and gender justice provisions, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities continue to face violence and displacement, as the government has failed to uphold the agreement. With the recent spread of COVID-19, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Colombians risk exposure to the virus due to lack of adequate access to basic health infrastructure, and a failure to implement services for domestic violence.
What makes the current round of political unrest and violence unique, Vivanco notes, is the fact that social media has played a significant role in exposing the atrocities carried out by the Colombian government. This is compounded by the current wave of unrest that erupted in cities such as Bogota and Cali rather than the rural areas traditionally associated with political violence. The violence historically unleashed by the Colombian government against the rural population is now being unleashed in the cities.
Many of the cities that faced massive waves of protest, such as Cali, as noted in the previously-mentioned Amnesty report on the use of excessive violence and torture were centres of vast economic inequality and racial injustice. Cali is the city with the second largest Afro-descendant population in Latin America, many of whom face extreme inequality and structural racism.
The Canadian connection to the crisis in Colombia
The continuation of the ongoing political violence in Colombia unleashed by the Colombian far right and the landholding class is made possible not only through their continued opposition to the demands for equitable land distribution, but also through external support from countries such as the United States and Canada.
When the recent wave of protests flared up, many noted that the Colombian police used armored personnel carriers (APCs) to suppress political dissent. These APCs were manufactured by INKAS, a Canadian company operating in Barrie, Ontario, specializing in the design and production of a wide range of armored vehicles, such as executive SUVs, personnel carriers, and military vehicles.
The Colombian National Police, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen, first acquired INKAS APCs in 2014, when the FARC insurgency was still ongoing. INKAs describes the APCs it sold to the Colombian government as “big Humvees on steroids”
INKAS is not the only Canadian company that the Colombian government has purchased APCs from. As noted by an International Quality and Productivity Center (IQPC) presentation pertaining to the 2015 Armored Vehicles Latin America Conference, Colombia also paid $84M for 32 bulletproof armored vehicles from the Canadian affiliate of General Dynamics Land Systems.
These vehicles were to be stationed on the border with Venezuela, whose government was accused of fomenting FARC-perpetrated terrorism in Colombia. The presentation notes that these APCs can transport as many as 11 heavily-equipped soldiers in each vehicle, and are equipped with anti-mine technology and a remote-controlled weapons system.
Importantly, the presentation also notes that the vehicles will be used against “illegal armed groups” such as FARC, as well as to protect oil pipelines and other key infrastructure.
In addition to allowing the sale of APCs to the Colombian government by Canadian companies, the Canadian government has also made it easy for Colombia to buy arms from Canada in its efforts to arm its military and paramilitary groups against FARC. On January 2, 2013, the Harper government announced in Canada Gazette that Colombia would be added to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List.
This allowed Colombia to purchase automatic firearms such as assault rifles from Canada, which they could not do previously. News of Canada allowing Colombia to purchase automatic firearms brought concerns by human rights organizations working in Colombia. Amnesty International and Project Ploughshares both called on the Canadian government to assess Colombia’s human rights record before allowing them access to automatic firearms. The Canadian government remained silent in response to these concerns.
Prior to the Harper government’s actions, Canadian companies also provided military aid to the Colombian government through indirect sources, thereby circumventing any potential arms export restrictions either by working through other companies, or the arms sales of other countries. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Canadian government found ways to circumvent arms export limitations by sending CH-135 Huey & Bell 212 helicopters to be refurbished in the United States, before being shipped to Colombia as part of US arms sales, to be used in operations against FARC.
Using this method, 40 CH-135s were shipped between 1998 and 2000, while 12 212s had been shipped from 1994 to1996 for use by Colombian police and military forces. For their part, companies such as Montreal-based Pratt & Whitney built jet engines to be used in Super Tucano aircraft deployed in anti-FARC operations, with the aircraft being developed by the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer in a partnership lasting more than 50 years.
Canada also provides military training for Colombian military and security forces. As noted by the Canadian embassy in Colombia, the Canadian government provides military training to Colombia via the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program (ACCBP), which seeks to provide training and equipment to beneficiary states in order to assist them in combatting terrorism.
Through the ACCBP, Canada has provided $5.4M to strengthen Colombia’s security forces. The security forces were also provided with training by RCMP and the Canada Border Security Agency (CBSA) personnel. In addition, Canada has allowed Colombia to be a member of the Canadian Department of National Defence’s (DND) Military Training and Cooperation Program (MTCP) since 2011. This program provides further training to the Colombian armed forces, and as of 2021, around 239 Colombian officers have participated in MTCP activities.
Colombian government warmly received by Canadian government despite far-right violence
The Canadian government’s ties to the Colombian government goes beyond weapons sales and training for Colombian military and security forces. The two countries enjoy various economic links that have little regard for issues of human rights. According to the Canadian embassy in Colombia, Canada has shared 40 years of collaborative engagement on development, in particular towards poverty alleviation and the protection of human rights in the region.
The Canadian embassy notes that it has provided international assistance valued at $40M to the region to support poverty reduction, humanitarian efforts, improving security conditions, maintaining the peace process, and empowering women. In reality however, these aid are provided to stabilize a far-right regime that Canada has strong economic ties to, over actual concern for Colombian human rights. Said economic ties include Colombia being Canada’s fifth largest bilateral trading partner and Canada’s third largest export market in South America, as well as the fourth largest investment destination for Canada in South and Central America.
Lack of genuine concern for any human rights is evident in how Colombian human rights violations are presented in annual reports on human rights and free trade published as required by the 2010 Agreement concerning Annual Reports on Human Rights and Free Trade, which stipulates that Canada and Colombia each produce a report every year on the effect on human rights in both countries as part of measures taken under the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement. For instance, in the 2020 annual report on Colombian human rights, the Canadian government blames” various factors” for the cause of human rights violations such as FARC remnants or armed gangs. At the same time, the Colombian government’s actions are whitewashed and portrayed as making strides towards a better human rights record despite all evidences to the contrary.
As Yves Engler has demonstrated, neither the current Duque government’s support for an attempted invasion of Venezuela nor massacres directed by the Duque government against ex-rebels, Indigenous land defenders, and social activists have led to any condemnation from Canada, which also supported Juan Guaidó’s attempted coup in Venezuela. Instead, the Trudeau government has chosen to continue Canada’s partnership with the Colombian government, with the Trudeau government working alongside Duque on further ways to undermine the Venezuelan government.
The joint opposition against the elected government of Venezuela was not the only occasion when Trudeau cooperated with Duque on similar goals or expressed political support for the Duque government. In 2018, when Duque came to power in an election marred by suspected fraud by his Centro Democrática party, Justin Trudeau and then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, rather than raising any concerns about the electoral process, decided to congratulate Duque for his victory.
Trudeau would go on to thank Duque on September 25, 2018 for a fruitful discussion on growing Canada and Colombia’s economy and undermining the Venezuelan government during their first political meeting. Despite allegations of fraud and the escalation of violence, the Trudeau government is evidently more concerned about economic ties and profits for Canadian multinational corporations and the military industrial complex. .
Trudeau’s support for the far-right Colombian government should be seen as continuation of Canada’s foreign policy, rather than a break from it. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was active in seeking political alliances with far-right Latin American regimes as a counterbalance to leftist “Pink Tide” governments such as Venezuela, while also laying the groundwork for the imposition of neoliberal economics in Latin America.
The Trudeau government is no different in their support of far right political parties and prioritizing of Canada’s economic interests in Colombia’s resource sector, which, according to a 2017 House of Commons report, represents 83.76% of the imports Canada receives in Colombia with regards to merchandise trade. Within the resource sector, one of the most-valued resources sought by Canada for import was crude oil, which is considered Colombia’s leading export, and was valued $202.7 million in 2017.
Harper viewed former far-right Colombian president Alvaro Uribe as an important ally in the region to secure Colombia’s resource sector for Canadian interests. This was even as Uribe and his government was facing scrutiny for their connections to paramilitary violence. Harper would also formulate the plans for the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement as part of his “Americas Policy,” which sought to expand Canadian trade ties with countries that supposedly shared the values of democratic governance and human rights; this being despite many of the countries targeted by the Americas Policy such as Colombia having horrific human rights records. When the Free Trade accord was being signed, the Colombian government was unleashing paramilitary death squads on trade unionists, Indigenous groups, and Afro-Colombians.
Under the Canadian-Colombian free trade agreement, Canadian mining and oil companies significantly increased their economic influence in Colombia, with their economic assets expanding from $30B to $210B between 2005 and 2015. The Canadian government also provided $6.7M from the federally-run Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in order to further develop mining projects in Colombia.
This expansion followed earlier efforts by the Canadian government to push for the liberalization of Colombia’s mining sector in the 1990s through a mining law drafted by CIDA that was ratified in 2001. This law gave Canadian mining companies significant power in Colombia. A key provision of the mining laws drafted by CIDA was opening 40% of Colombia for mining projects by mining companies, with even protected agricultural reserves and national parks being up for grabs by Canadian mining companies should the government give them the permits. In addition, mining companies only have to pay taxes at an annual rate of 0.4 per cent.
The expansion of the power of Canadian mining companies has been detrimental to the livelihoods of Colombians. According to Colombian trade union leader, Francisco Ramírez, the 2001 approval of CIDA’s proposed mining reforms facilitated the weakening of environmental regulations along with the weakening of labour protections for workers, while opening the land held by Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians to further exploitation. This would worsen the crisis over access to equitable land and the presence of paramilitary death squads. Entire populations would be relocated and their homes destroyed due to the rapid expansion of Canadian and other multinational mining companies.
Any resistance to the expansion of mining would be met with paramilitary and military violence used by the government to force the population off the land. Canadian mining companies such as Eco Oro Minerals (formerly Greystar Resources) would be complicit in directly furthering paramilitary violence themselves, utilizing paramilitaries as a private security force to defend their profits and facilitate land grabs at the expense of working-class, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian populations.
Similar use of paramilitaries was reported to have been deployed by Canadian oil companies operating in the region as well. As noted by Amnesty international in 2000, the Canadian company Enbridge Inc, which operates the OCENSA pipeline in Colombia alongside TransCanada Pipelines, had been linked to Paramilitary violence in the region through their use of Defence Systems Colombia, as well as their purchasing military equipment for the Colombian army’s 14th Brigade. The military equipment was purchased by Enbridge through Silver Shadow, a private Israeli security company. Amnesty notes that the Colombian 14th brigade has been responsible for widespread atrocities against the civilian population, including a massacre of 15 unarmed civilians in Segovia in April 1996.
Decades long support of Colombian far-right continues to this day
Overall, the Colombian government’s horrific repression directed towards those seeking socio-economic justice in Colombia is made possible in part thanks to Canadian complicity. The Canadian government, under both Trudeau and Harper—and in coordination with Canadian multinational companies and the military industrial complex—, has played a role in propping up the Colombian regime by providing both vehicles and weapons to far-right paramilitaries and security forces. This was first shown in their efforts to stamp out the FARC insurgency, and later, in consolidating power through the ongoing horrific repression of social justice activists, afro-Colombians, Indigenous land defenders, and gender rights activists.
The far-right violence unleashed in 2021 by the Duque government is just the latest chapter of violence against political dissent backed by Canadian arms and diplomatic ties. This is further assisted by the activities of Canadian mining and oil companies which have worsened the cycle of violence by means of laws drafted by a Canadian government agency giving them control of much of Colombia’s land and economy.
In reflecting on how Canadians might challenge our government’s unjust foreign policy in Latin America and elsewhere, Vivanco told The Canada Files that Canadians, both within and outside the Colombian diaspora in Canada, have a responsibility to pay attention to what the Canadian government is doing worldwide and bring the issue of Canada’s imperial foreign policy and its violent impact on the rest of the world to the forefront.
Vivanco noted that foreign policy is an aspect of political and electoral discussion that is all but ignored in Canada. Our ignorance comes at a cost, as we enable our government to carry out imperial foreign policy goals intended to destabilize governments (or left wing oppositions) in Columbia and elsewhere in Latin America leading to political violence, the rise of the far-right, and massive refugee crises in the region. Rather than continuing this apathy, Vivanco argues that Canadians must make foreign policy an issue, expose the hypocrisy behind our government’s supposedly “progressive” foreign policy and bring it to account.
With a snap election season launched by Trudeau in an effort to seek a majority government, it can be expected that endless debates on reopening and dealing with the Delta variant of COVID-19 will swamp any discussions of foreign policy. The importance stressed by Vivanco of bringing our imperial actions abroad to the forefront of our political discourse should be seriously considered by all Canadians wanting a more just and independent foreign policy for Canada.
Daniel Xie is a firm anti-imperialist, who is a member of Climate Justice Toronto. He serves as the Associate Editor of The Canada Files.
Featured image: Pictured: Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland alongside Vice President of Peru Mercedes Araoz; Colombian President Ivan Duque; and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro backing the U.S.-sponsored coup instigator Juan Guaidó as “interim president” of Venezuela in 2019.