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Hounded By Paramilitary Threats and State Smears, Can the New Voice of Colombia's Left Forge Peace?

A new Colombian social movement wants to tackle violence and environmental destruction, but faces a hostile establishment and paramilitary threats.
 
 
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Indigenous Colombians protesting hold up a banner that reads: "In the face of the rifle, the word."
Photo Credit: James Bargent

 
 
 
 

At the end of April, tens of thousands of Colombians from across the country descended on the capital city of Bogota to announce the birth of a new political movement – the Marcha Patriotica (Patriotic March). The streets were filled with representatives of communities on the front lines of Colombia’s struggles against violence, poverty and environmental destruction, united in their calls for a “second and definitive independence.”

Yet this new movement was born with an old stigma. Marcha Patriotica’s calls for a negotiated peace, economic justice and deeper democracy were quickly drowned out by other voices, denouncing the movement as a terrorist front. First the military and the police, then the media and politicians lined up to accuse Marcha Patriotica of being a political tool for the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the FARC.

After the accusations came the threats. Following the Bogota march, the movement’s leaders received a message signed the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) – a name used by right-wing paramilitary groups. The missive declared the Marcha’s leadership “military targets” and told them “you only have a few days left to abandon the city.” Already, local organizers have disappeared and one member has been murdered, giving rise to fears of a new political bloodletting reminiscent of the darkest days of Colombia’s recent past.

If the Marcha is to realize its primary goal of “peace with social justice,” it must also contend with a weakened but increasingly aggressive guerrilla insurgency and a government that risks political destruction if it is seen as “soft” on the guerrillas. Nevertheless, both sides of the conflict have recently edged toward peace with backhanded concessions and tentative calls for talks. Marcha Patriotica was born with stigma and fear, but also a cautious optimism.

A New Voice

The Marcha Patriotica was two years in the making as organizers gathered support from over 1,500 social movements representing a broad range of grassroots leftists and the disenfranchised. One of those organizers, David Florez, is a leader in the student movement and currently one of the Marcha’s national spokespeople. “We considered it necessary to build a political movement of the left that responds to another dynamic,” Florez said, “that doesn’t neglect social or popular mobilizations, that doesn’t neglect the demands of students, the indigenous, workers, Afro-Colombians, campesinos and neighborhood organizations ... [but instead] represents these dynamics and practices a new form of politics from these dynamics.”

Despite the diversity of groups involved in the Marcha Patriotica, Florez insists they share a common political vision. “All [of these groups] have set themselves up against the neo-liberal model and the commodification of society,” he said. In Bogota, the movement united to produce a 17-point platform that challenges the current economic model and calls for sweeping political changes, protection for minorities and the environment, land reform and solidarity based integration with Colombia’s Latin American neighbors.

However, the cornerstone of the Marcha Patriotica’s platform and of the movement itself remains its proposals for ending Colombia’s 50-year internal conflict and transitioning to peace. The movement’s main demand and objective is a negotiated peace with Colombia’s leftist rebels, the FARC and the ELN – the National Liberation Army – that addresses “the structural problems that created [the conflict].” To prepare the way for this “peace with social justice,” the movement has called for the exchange of guerrilla hostages for imprisoned insurgents and a reparation and restitution process for victims of state and paramilitary violence.

“The Marcha could have a fundamental role in peace negotiations,” said Florez. “These politics are not an exclusive issue for the state; it has to be a process that the state but also Colombian society and political movements participate in.”

 
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