The Course of Libertarian ideas in Colombia - Black Flag

Article from Black Flag #216 1999.

Colombia - the very mention of the name conjures up images of violence and narco-trafficking, but the country is rather more than this, in spite of her turbulent recent history and the absence of any indications of change therein. For instance there are at present five armies active there: on the guerrilla side, there are the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the EPI (People’s Liberation Army) which, altogether may number as many as upwards of 20,000 members according to the official estimates and these draw the bulk of their funding from kidnappings, trafficking in drugs and extortion of the big oil companies with holdings in the area. On the other, the government side, there are the Colombian National Army (seemingly powerless to stamp out “subversion”) and the increasingly active paramilitary groups which, having declared their independence from their sponsor (the Colombian government) operate as an independent force, carrying out numerous despicable massacres among the civilian population whom they may suspect is giving any sort of help to the guerrillas.

For its part, the government suits itself economically; no matter whether it is the liberals or (as in the current case following the recent victory of Spanish prime minister Aznar’s corrupt buddy Andres Pastrana) the conservatives who are in power, the upshot is always the same; a neo-liberal policy strictly obedient to the dictates of the World Bank and the IMF, eagerly pursuing that annual endorsement from the USA in drugs affairs that will guarantee their access to the plentiful American funding that goes with it. The result is that Indian lands are brazenly confiscated and the common people plunged into a crisis of long standing from which there seems to be no imminent escape. Surprisingly, the Colombian people lives on hope, to the sounds of vallenato music and on their great passion for life, weathering the storms as best they can. At one time there was a solid libertarian presence in these lush lands. Right now, decades later, an effort is being made to revive and spread it.

Anarchism in Colombia

The earliest properly libertarian signs were detected in the mid-19th century with the arrival on the coast of Proudhon’s writings. this was just about the time that the young Elisee Reclus arrived with the intention of setting up a colony there, a scheme that came to nothing in the end. By the end of the 19th century important strikes by artisans had a distinguished libertarian involvement and for a time there was a self-managing commune set up by J. Albarracin. 1910 saw publication of the first edition of Ravachol, a newspaper that was to become comparatively influential among the artisans and workers. Other publications of that time with some sort of libertarian involvement included Trofeos (1908), Crepuscolo (1910-1911), El Obrero (1912-1916), and Paz y Amor (1913). In 1918, the Atlantic coastal area was to be the arena for a number of strikes displaying unmistakable anarchist practice: direct action, sabotage, delegates effectively under the control of the rank and file, solidarity strikes, etc. In the 1920’s this burgeoning activity was multiplied by the influx of lots of anarchist immigrants from Europe and three significant labour congresses with a telling libertarian presence were held and new groups emerged: groups like the Antorcha Libertaria in Bogota, Via Libre in Barranquilla, Grupo Libertario in Santa Marta and the important FOLA (Atlantic Coast Labour Federation) which came to embrace sixteen trade unions from that area. Among others, the leading publication of this time included La Voz Popular, La Antorcha, El Sindicalista, Pensamiento y Voluntad, etc.

In an age of great activism, there were strikes and protests galore. We ought to single out Raul Eduardo Mahecha here, a committed libertarian fighter who was to be the driving force behind quite a few such protests and whom we might regard as the leading Colombian labour personality of his day. Other figures of note would be Vargas Vila and the little known and misunderstood Juan de Dios Romero. the “anarchist and adventurer” (as he described himself) Biofilo Panclasta deserves separate consideration; he saw the inside s of many jails in many countries and page after page could be written about his life and the legends surrounding it even today. Suffice to say that the story goes that in Pamplona (Biofilo’s native city) mothers would threaten their kids over lunch to “eat up your soup or I’ll send for Biofilo”.

The great retreat that libertarian ideas suffered in the 1930’s throughout the continent was also evident in Colombia which slid into several decades of libertarian “sluggishness” from which she has not recovered until quite recently.

The present position.

It is no easy undertaking to spread anarchism in the polarised Colombia of the present day (where one is either for the guerrillas or for the government). Non-aligned opposition groups are not welcomed and the situation facing local libertarians is reminiscent of that of our comrades in Euskadi. The decades of war endured by the country has also left its mark on the anarchists who sometimes find it hard to stand aloof from it. The most “mature” option to be found among the local anarchists is represented by the Alas de Xue-AIT grouping, a collective that strives to marry a libertarian discourse and libertarian practices with the cultural traditions of the original inhabitants of the country. The work done by several of its members in conjunction with Indian communities afforded them a familiarity with native organisational preferences and prompted them to salvage (like the Flores Magon brothers did in Mexico before them) quite a number of native traditional forms that come very close to anarchism (community living, their concept of authority, mutual aid and reciprocity etc.) which they have complemented with (let us say, classical) libertarian ideas imported from Europe. The very name of the collective mirrors this synthesis: Alas (wings) symbolising freedom in western anarchism, and Xue, a Muisca term for the sun, one of the deities of the Andean peoples of Colombia.

Alas de Xue emerged towards the end of the 1980’s out of the protests mounted against the commemoration of the 500th anniversary. These protests came together into what became known as the “Self-Discovery Campaign of Our Americas. 500 Years of Native, Black and Popular Resistance”, a movement upon which they managed to stamp a libertarian seal. Later they were behind the organisation of two important nation-wide students’ encounters - again from an anarchist angle - managing to imbue a post-graduate organisation with a libertarian approach. Another of its tasks has been to rescue the history of the Colombian libertarian movement from oblivion (especially as it relates to the first two decades of this century), something previously approached only from a marxist angle, and we all know what that would entail. This historical research resulted in publication of the book “Biofilo Panclasta, the Eternal Captive”. After putting out feelers internationally, they joined the IWA, later mounting joint campaigns like the campaign in defence of the lands of the Uwe people against oil company trespasses. The motley political make-up of the collective (albeit for the most part libertarians) has led to a situation where, in recent years, several of it members have decided to pursue a different line and this has curtailed the collective’s activities somewhat. With an eye to recovery and in order to establish effective co-ordination of the different groups in Colombia, they decided to organise a festival last May under the name of “May 68-69, the relevance of libertarian thinking”. It drew anarchists from Bogota, Cali and Medellin, plus a presence from elsewhere in South America and from Europe.

The festival was mounted on some university campuses with a high degree of politicisation, where political meetings and demands are common currency and where some of the students openly support the guerrillas which is why campuses are the targets for paramilitary attacks. The young anarchist Humberto Pena Taylor and numerous human rights activists were among the victims of paramilitary groups which also threatened to attack the National University while the libertarian festival was in progress. There are libertarian sympathisers among the Law Library of the National University (who helped organise the festival) and among many individuals who participate from time to time in violent acts. There are improvised collectives such as the Anarquistas al Combate group.

Another of the collectives who shared the organisation of the festival in May was the Mujeres Libres group which operates in the anarcha-feminist area. There are also anarchists among the membership of the superb La Libelula Dorada theatre troupe, some of the members of which helped with the stunning and now resurrected libertarian publication Biofilos. In Medellin city there is the Vargas Vila Libertarian Collective whose activities focus on the music scene, trade unions and discussion, whereas in Cali there are various individuals who mount sporadic campaigns, such as fielding a dog called Walter as a candidate in the elections in order to bring them into disrepute.

Other areas in which libertarians are to be found are conscientious objection (with groups in Bogota and Medellin) and the music scene related to the punk and hardcore genres through which some groups peddle a libertarian discourse that occasionally lacks definition.

The Indian question

The demands frequently put by upwards of 50 native peoples through the ONIC (National Indian Organisation of Colombia) have received quite a bit of support from local anarchists in recent years. Instances of native lands being seized by international companies which - as in the case of the Spanish-based Repsol corporation - enjoy the blessing of the Colombian government, are commonplace. We know all about the plight of the Uwe people who live in the northwest of the country. Only a few years ago it was announced that there would be a mass suicide by members of this people (around five thousand of them) should Occidental Petroleum set foot on its land to carry out exploratory drilling. To the Uwe petroleum represents the life blood of Mother Earth and its removal signifies the death of Mother Earth and of her people. This campaign which, with backing from the IWA which mobilised in support of the Uwe, managed to bring the plan to a standstill, although there has not been a final resolution as yet. The Uwe are but one case among many where Colombian Indian tribes are faced by multiple threats and the contempt shown their traditional forms of organisation by government and guerrillas like - both of these being concerned with exploiting the earth’s resources and harnessing them for the benefit of their own causes.

In the “Locumbai” (Loony Columbia) where, as we approach the end of the century, five kids are murdered each day, where election candidates in several areas must sue the guerrillas for leave to campaign, where politics and drugs trafficking go hand in glove, we can only hope that libertarian ideas can make some headway and prosper.

Colombian libertarians can be contacted at: Alas de Xue-AIT Apdo. Aereo 52477 Bogota (Columbia) e-mail: smtorrer@bachue.usc.unal.edu.co (From CNT September 1998)

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