World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: 'Plan Colombia' Debate Reveals Discrepancies

By Mario Osava

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jan 29 (IPS) - 'Plan Colombia,' a strategy to eliminate the illegal drug trade, won unanimous rejection at the World Social Forum, underway in this southern Brazilian city, but debate on the Colombian initiative revealed the broad range of opinions members of civil society hold on the matter.

The strategy implemented last year by Colombia's President Andrés Pastrana involves 7.5 billion dollars for social and economic development and for combating narcotics, with 1.3 billion dollars pledged by the United States, largely for military equipment and training.

The Pastrana initiative was the target of harsh criticism by Forum participants, a level of condemnation surpassed only by neoliberalism and the World Economic Forum, a gathering of political leaders, financiers and corporate executives in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos, running concurrently with the Porto Alegre conference.

The majority of Colombian society has expressed itself in favour of peace and does not support a military solution to the problems afflicting the country, said Pedro Santana Rodrígues, president of 'Viva la Ciudadanía' (Long Live the Citizenry), in his participation in a panel Monday on mediating conflict and building peace.

Santana pointed out that 10 million residents of Colombia - a quarter of the population - demonstrated in 1997, and again in 1999, in favour of peace accords between the government and the guerrilla forces, making it clear they want an end to the decades- long armed conflict.

But during the panel discussion, several members of the audience spoke up in support of the rebel groups and criticised the Forum for failing to include delegates from Colombian guerrilla forces or from Mexico's Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) among the panellists at the six-day event.

Protests at different sessions and pamphlets distributed throughout the conference indicate that many individuals and Brazilian organisations support the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's two largest guerrilla groups that have been battling the government as well as right-wing paramilitary squads.

Santana condemned the ruthless nature of Plan Colombia, categorising it as US intervention that will not contribute to resolving the country's armed conflict, but rather will lead to its escalation.

Plan Colombia obstructs negotiations between the government and the insurgents, it aggravates the population's social problems and harms the environment, he added.

The activist criticised the environmental movement for failing to lead actions against the fumigation of coca and poppy plants, used in cocaine and heroine production, respectively. Fumigation is an integral part of Pastrana's Washington-backed plan.

''Colombia is the only country in Latin America that permits the spraying of poisons over its forests,'' affecting 40,000 hectares and potentially destroying the rich biodiversity of the country's Amazon region, Santana said.

He also defended the ''decriminalisation'' of narcotics and proposed cultural measures to reduce consumption as methods that are more effective in fighting the drug trade.

''Condemning Plan Colombia is not enough, we must move forward because we do not want a peace based on cemeteries,'' charged an activist from an institution with ties to the Brazilian communist movement.

The fact that many of the Brazilians present at the forum sympathise with the Colombian insurgents reflects a natural diversity of opinion, with some even more radical than the FARC's own ideas, commented Santana, pointing out that the rebels have indicated willingness to negotiate.

'Viva la Ciudadanía' and other social movements, such as Brazil's union centrals, ''advocate a negotiated approach,'' beginning with a humanitarian accord that includes a ceasefire, respect for the civilian population, the indigenous communities, and a ban on recruiting minors to take part in the conflict.

Representatives from Colombian organisations attempted to explain the complexities of their country's situation, ''beyond the war,'' during one of the 400 workshops held during the World Social Forum - which has gathered more than 3,000 delegates from more than 120 countries, in addition to thousands of other participants.

People must have ''the right to withdraw themselves from the war, to not be forced to choose only between the criminal government of President Andrés Pastrana or the armed organisations'' of the opposition, stated Silvio Salej, of the Peace and Development Programme in Magdalena Medio, a central Colombian region where wealth, poverty and conflict are highly concentrated.

The Civil Society Permanent Assembly is a broad movement in Colombia that unites citizens and representatives from a range of sectors in seeking a ''non-military way out'' of the conflict. They also want to ''humanize'' a war that has displaced more than two million people, forced to leave their homes because of the violence - which is not limited to the struggle for political power.

In Colombia, 3,000 union leaders have been assassinated by the army, the police, right-wing paramilitaries and also by the guerrillas, pointed out Héctor Fajardo Abril, secretary-general of the United Central of Workers.

The paramilitaries are groups armed by large landowners, reportedly with encouragement from the army, and have begun acting on their own, expanding violence in the country.

The peace movement is therefore in a difficult position in rejecting Plan Colombia, a strategy that deepens the war, according to Fajardo, as well as the drug trade and other sources of violence, including the guerrilla groups.

This view of the Colombian conflict, which does not rule out demands for ''political, economic and social changes,'' in order to resolve the injustices that gave rise to the guerrilla movement, was voiced in various sessions of the World Social Forum.

On the other hand, local representatives of the FARC, ELN and more than 30 Brazilian groups that make up the Permanent Committee of Solidarity with the Peoples in Struggle, attempted to express their own rejection of Plan Colombia.

Members of the Committee, through a pro-guerrilla perspective, used interviews and quick interventions or applause during the panels, to get their point across.

Their efforts were applauded by Ben Bella, an independence leader and former president of Algeria, who defended armed struggle and revolution in confronting neoliberalism.

Bella said that he, at age 84, is willing to take up arms and affirmed that if Ernesto 'Che' Guevara were still alive, he would be participating in the World Social Forum. (END/IPS/tra-so/mo/dm/ld/01)

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