The Colombian Truth Commission and its Truths

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

(01/07/2022)

(Reading time: 7 mins.)

The Truth Commission (CEV) in Colombia has just published its report on the Colombian conflict. As was to be expected it is a very detailed report and deals with many aspects of the conflict and therefore it is impossible to carry out a detailed criticism in just one article.

This article aims to deal with the document entitled Call for Peace and in later articles I will deal with some points in greater detail such as the regions, the business class and drug trafficking.

Of course, there are very positive aspects, such as the statistics compiled, some proposals that they make and also the stories of the victims that they included.

However, there are also some very problematic aspects on the ideological plane and how they present the conflict, the actors, motives and there is an underlying idea in the document that we should advance towards a new society — with changes — but a society that continues to be the same with regard the economy.

They discount any class struggle as not only as anachronistic but also as something which is undesirable, regardless of the methods used.

The document is full of adjectives, some of them emotive, something which is not a criticism as such, emotions have a place in this setting, but it is imbued with Christian references and the Catholic faith as such.

That is not that surprising given that the boss is a Jesuit priest, Francisco de Roux, s.j. But due to this, its starting point is based on suppositions not shared by everyone and that are very questionable.

Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro Francisco de Roux, President Truth Commission shake hands during presentation final Report (Image sourced: online)

OH BROTHER!

They start off with the statement and question “We started off from the issue that has dogged humanity from the beginning: where is your brother?”

I don’t know whether this first part is true or not, but the question about the brother presumes we know and share this concept of brother. In the Catholic faith we are all theoretically brothers, though not in practice.

But the idea informs a concept taken from family therapy that the Colombian conflict is between siblings that love each other or at least can love each other, just as a woman can love the man who abuses her in their relationship or the man who can stop abusing her and love her as she deserves.

It is a deservedly highly questioned concept, but it is applied in many countries that have gone through peace processes and truth commissions. But it is not the case, this conflict is not between siblings, but rather between interests.

The conflict has names and surnames and moreover surnames of the great and good and its victims are everyone else. There are power relationships. There are also economic interests.

It is an insult to say that the powerful, such as Luís Carlos Sarmiento and the Santos family are the brothers of their employees, or that associations such as the cattle ranchers of FEDEGAN represent people that are the brothers of the displaced peasants.

Though the report does acknowledge the role of some business people in the conflict.

…what has been grievous for the pain and injustice for the victims is the finding that leading business initiatives paid paramilitary groups in order to displace and steal the land and territories from the communities and implant mining or agribusinesses, or within their enterprises they stigmatised the workers and are complicit in the murder of hundreds of trade unionists.1

Such people, responsible for the murder of hundreds of trade unionists are nobody’s brothers, other than their shareholders’. They killed them as part of a strategy to accumulate wealth, the most base reason for doing so.

The CEV’s position turns the businessman into our brother, though it does acknowledge that

… we did not carry out any specific study on the armed conflict and the economy, following four years of listening to the drama of the war, the Commission takes as given that if no major changes are made to the economic model of development in the country it will be impossible to prevent the repetition of the armed conflict which will reappear and evolve in an unpredictable manner.

But despite not carrying out any specific analysis of the conflict and the economy the CEV calls on businesses to avoid a resurgence in the armed conflict.

The State, society and in particular the business people behind the large industrial and financial projects should prioritise guaranteeing the welfare and dignified life of the people and communities without any exclusions, with a shared vision of the future to overcome the structural inequality that makes this country one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of the concentration of income, wealth and land.2

It is part of the discourse that we are all brothers. Instead of criticising the call they make for a society where the welfare of the people is a priority for the businesses, we only have to ask a question. Where does this happen? In what countries does this occur?

They usually make clumsy references to Switzerland or Sweden, ignoring that it is not quite the case and the welfare programmes in Europe (those that are left) are the result of social struggles and are largely financed by the super-exploitation of the Global South.

It is an illusion and part of liberal mythology, that is usually sold during elections every four or more years depending on the country, but is not to be found anywhere in reality and couldn’t be — legally a company looks out for the welfare of its shareholders and nobody else.

The lack of an analysis of the economic model as a factor in the conflict is a serious weakness, something I will deal with in another article.

But in a conflict for land, where the landlords and business people murder peasants and trade unionists3, failing to analyse the context of the economic model is disingenuous.

AN OLD VERY BAD JOKE

The CEV, however, engages in another great act of untruthfulness when it repeats the old refrain of the business class and the state that paramilitaries are reactive i.e. they react to the presence of guerrillas.

It seems like a bad joke that at this stage a commission that supposedly seeks the truth repeats such a lie: a lie challenged at the time by many of the organisations that now praise the CEV, in the days when they didn’t receive as many cheques from USAID and the European Union.

It has also been shown that companies paid armed groups large amounts of money as indispensable operational costs to keep their projects active. And the reality of economic actors that in despair at the guerrillas and in the face of insecurity, contributed to the creation of the Convivir [rural security cooperatives] and on other occasions sought out the paramilitaries to bring their security of terror. Following that there were those who took advantage of the land abandoned in midst of the terror to buy land through frontmen and set up projects. And there were those who used money to place members of the armed forces at their disposal.4

When the bloodthirsty Carlos Castaño called his paramilitary organisation United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, he did so for a reason: the need to present his barbarous acts as a necessary evil, that of self-defence.

Javier Giraldo, s.j. also a Jesuit has spent his entire life fighting against just such a lie. He has documented how the paramilitaries existed before the foundation of the guerrillas and they were not reactive, but rather they were a state policy.5

The problem with the focus that ignores the state and its role and says that we are brothers is that it asks for reconciliation on that basis, that we are brothers. De Roux in his presentation asked more than once “how did we do” and asked for reconciliation.

But this “We” doesn’t exist. As Javier Giraldo points out.

A similar effort must be made in order to translate the value of Christian reconciliation to the judicial/political arena. There must be a public clarification and admission of guilt, an explicit condemnation of the mechanisms, structures and doctrines which facilitate crimes, the implementation of corrective measures to stop them from being repeated and reparation to victims and society. These must all be dealt with head-on and unequivocally. The very nature of a political community makes this imperative: unless there is an explicit and profound social sanction of crimes, internalized by society’s members and engraved in society’s “collective memory,” such crimes are not truly delegitimated. Without these conditions, the Christian value of forgiveness becomes a perverse expression of its real essence: from a fraternal and creative act to an act which covers up the institutionalization of crime (bold not in original) and destroys the barriers which protect human dignity.6

THE GERMAN EXAMPLE – AN OLD ILLUSION

The CEV points to the case of Germany following the Second World War as an example to follow. It is usually a sign of the poverty of the arguments when someone refers to the Nazis in order speak ill of someone, like saying some such a leader is the new Hitler.

But it is also a sign of argument povery to a degree when they refer to the topic to speak of reconciliation and so forth in post-War Germany. However, that is what the CEV did.

Our German friends who accompany us in the Commission’s process have shown us how its people recovered its dignity and pride when, even decades after the genocide of Jews and the war crimes committed, took on board the suffering of the victims, the wound as part of the national psyche and accepted its collective responsibility.7

What they claim just isn’t true. First of all, the post-Nazi Germany was not a denazified country.

Various later personalities from that period held high positions of responsibility, amongst them Kurt Waldheim, an officer in the Nazi army who became Secretary General of the United Nations and also President of Austria; war criminal Adolf Heusinger who became President of the Military Committee of NATO8 and Johannes Steinhoff who was in charge of the Luftwaffe after the War. Kurt Georg Kiesinger was a member of the Nazi party, and worked side by side with Nazi propagandist Goebbels and later between 1966 and 1969 he was the German Chancellor.

Another Nazi, Wernher von Braun, who designed the Nazis’ bombs and rockets earned a good wage in the USA in order to put one of the rockets on the Moon. None of them confessed or accepted their responsibility.

And let’s not forget that young member of the Hitler Youth, one Joseph Ratzinger who became head of the Catholic Church. Of course, being a young man, he bore a lesser responsibility than the others.

The Nazis’ anti-gay legislation was applied up to 1969 and between 1946 and 1969 50,000 people were tried under that law. And whilst the Nazis had high-ranking posts the Communists were banned from working in the public administration and they and other dissidents, such as pacifists, were pursued.

Even under the “Communist Clause” victims of the Nazis who were Communists were not compensated.9 They chose a very bad example — or perhaps De Roux is conscious of the example he chose.

However, what it is about is blending one myth with another. It is surprising that they don’t mention South Africa, maybe because it is easier to see the reality of its Truth Commission and it is a more realistic comparison than Germany after the War.

What they aim to say is that if the Germans could accept their collective guilt, why can’t Colombia do so? But such collective guilt does not exist, or at least not in the way De Roux and company mean.

Many Germans lost their lives in the struggle against the Nazis, it has been calculated that the Nazis murdered 288,000 members of the opposition, including before Hitler came to power.

It wasn’t all Germans who did but amongst those who did, there are familiar household names, Siemens and Krupps, just to name two companies — both used slave labour in their factories and had close relations with the Nazi Party.

Hugo Boss menswear shop, Dublin; the parent is one of a number of German companies that had close links with the Nazis; it supplied uniforms for the Nazi Party, the Wermacht and the SS.

Or there is Hugo Boss, the Nazi Party member who made his fortune manufacturing the uniforms of the Nazi Party, later of the Wehrmacht and of course of the SS, which is why they looked so good.

And of course, Bayer, the company that made Zyklon-B, the gas they used, still exists and is still rich. Following the war, 13 directors from the company were convicted of war crimes but were freed without serving their full sentences and took up their posts in the company.

The murderers continued in power with the tale of “collective guilt”. The Nazis were a political project of a sector of the German bourgeoisie to stop the rise of the Communists, any similarity to cattle ranchers declaring Puerto Boyacá the anti-capitalist capital10 is a mere coincidence, I suppose.

The reference to Germany as an example of reconciliation is a cheap tale. If Colombia goes down the same road, the surnames Mancuso, Uribe, Santo Domingo, Samper and Santos and the others will be the dominant surnames in the future, with their economic and social power intact.

Families of people killed as allegedly “positive” FARC guerrillas stage a protest in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2009 pretending to also be “false positives”. (Image credit: Getty Images).

THE “FALSE POSITIVES”

The CEV also deals with the issue of the “False Positives” and states something about the issue which is absolutely true that “If there had been ten, it would be very serious. If there had been one hundred, it would enough to demand a change of army. But there were thousands and it was monstrous.”11 But almost immediately it states that:

There was no law or written instructions that ordered it, but the soldiers who fired felt that they were doing what the institution wanted, due to the incentives and pressure that demanded immediate results with corpses, the publicity that they gave to those “killed in combat” and the protection given to the perpetrators.12

Yes, it is true that there was no law or written order that instructed them to do so. But we can’t expect criminals to leave us easy proof. There was no law, but there were incentives as they pointed out.

There were directives and a system for bonuses that encouraged the murder of civilians. Who authorised the payments? The then minister of Defence, Juan Manuel Santos. What does the document say about Santos?

The former president Santos – who was Minister for Defence from the end of 2006 to the end of 2008 – came to the Commission to contribute to the truth with his testimony, as ex-President and public servant, and he centred his intervention on the rigorous analysis of the False Positives to conclude asking for forgiveness from all the families and Colombia and invited the Armed Forces to ask the national and international community for forgiveness.13

It is not true, his intervention was not very rigorous and he ended by asking for forgiveness, as the CEV says, but at the same time he said he wasn’t to blame.

He took up Samper’s excuse regarding drug trafficking and said that it all happened behind his back and he lied on various occasions in his declaration to the CEV.14

Then Colombia President Juan Mañuel Santos and then President of the USA Donald Trump, October 2019 (Image sourced: Internet)

IN CONCLUSION

Without a doubt the CEV will contribute to the knowledge of the conflict with its data, interviews and in some parts, its analysis. But the report as a whole will not be the truth about the conflict.

The CEV stated that “we don’t share the position, according to which, there are many truths that are equally valid regarding the same matter.”15

Yes, not all “truths” are equal, you have to analyse them, discuss them, contrast them with the facts and even look at who is enunciating them to see which perspective is closer to the truth, but in this case, it is not the “truth” of the CEV that is true.

Neither do I share the idea that any truth is of equal value no matter how powerful or well thought-of those who write that truth are.

End.

FOOTNOTES

1 CEV (2022) Convocatoria a la PAZ GRANDE p. 39 https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/hay-futuro-si-hay-verdad

2 Ibíd., p.56

3 “The Human Rights Information System of the National Trade Union School (ENS) recorded 15,430 violations of trade unionists’ rights to life, freedom and integrity in Colombia between 1 January 1971 and 29 September 2021. Around a fifth of the cases reported were murders: 3,288 trade unionists have been assassinated over the last five decades in Colombia.” https://www.equaltimes.org/colombia-has-signed-a-peace?lang=en#.YtXwJuzMI6E

4 Ibíd., p.39

5 Giraldo, J. (2004) Cronología de hechos reveladores del Paramilitarismo como política de Estado. http://www.javiergiraldo.org/spip.php?article75

6 Giraldo, J. (1996) Colombia, The Genocidal Democracy. Common Courage Press. Maine p.44 http://www.javiergiraldo.org/IMG/libros/Colombia_The_Genocidal_Democracy.pdf

7 CEV (2022) Op. Cit. P.45

8 Ayuso, M. (10/01/2016) Adolf Heusinger: la historia del general nazi que acabó dirigiendo la OTAN https://www.elconfidencial.com/alma-corazon-vida/2016-01-10/adolf-heusinger-la-historia-del-general-nazi-que-acabo-dirigiendo-la-otan_1132337/

9 Creuzberger, S. ‘Make life for communists as difficult as possible’ State-run anticommunism and ‘psychological warfare’ in the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany. Asian j. Ger. Eur. stud. 2, 9 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40856-017-0020-7

10 The location was the birth place of the paramilitary model that arose in the 1980s and was avowedly right wing. There was a sign on the way in to it, that said “Welcome to Puerto Boyacá, Anti-Communist Capital of Colombia.”

11 CEV (2022) Op. Cit. P.26

12 Ibid

13 Ibid., p.28

14 Ó Loingisgh, G. (12/06/2021) Santos Whitewashing His Image, Washing His Hands http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/RecentArticles/RecentColombiaSantosWhitewashingHisImageWashingHisHands.html

15 CEV (2022) Op. Cit. P.42