22 June 2010
by Kate Paarlberg


To name something is to give it shape and substance.  Language forms our thinking, and
therefore our views of reality.  To
name is to write history, and the future.  In Colombia, the power of naming, like many other powers once
more widely available, has been usurped.  State, para-state, and multinational corporate actors use the
power of language to insist upon a version of reality that favors the massive
extraction and export of Colombia’s natural resources: oil, precious metals,
and export crops like the oil palm.  To construct and reinforce that exploitative reality, these
forces must rename the truths of Colombians’ everyday lives.

The most common renaming, which Colombia’s government shares
with others throughout twentieth-century Latin America, is its indiscriminate
application of the concept of subversion.  Union members, feminists, church leaders, human rights
advocates, and community organizers are stripped of their identities as
legitimate political actors and renamed as “terrorists,” “undesirables,” and
“enemies of the State.”  These
names make activists military targets, which means death threats, intimidation,
and assassination.

The U.S. and Colombia recently signed an agreement
stipulating that U.S. military forces would join Colombians on seven military
bases in strategic parts of the country.  These bases represent increased surveillance and violence for
the inhabitants of the region.  The
presence of armed actors is already all too common, and will only increase with
this agreement, along with the other typical side effects of militarization—increased
sexual violence and prostitution in the area, for example.  All the same, the Colombian government
has renamed this military agreement as an “economic benefit” for the community
– and community leaders who oppose these encroachments as “obstacles to
progress,” who stand in the way of military benefactors’ good intentions.

Colombian president Alvaro Uribe’s government also claims
that paramilitary forces, responsible for massacres and extrajudicial killings,
no longer exist.  They have been
renamed as “demobilized.”  In reality,
the successors to these groups act as much like paramilitaries as their
predecessors, and many of them never demobilized at all.  Some simply went underground; even
disguising themselves as support organizations for victims of paramilitary
violence, and subsequently using the information they gleaned from these
victims to inflict further violence on them. No matter what they are called, the forces of paramilitarism
endure, and continue to violate the rights of Colombians through displacement,
threats, and physical violence.

Uribe’s government has reconstituted the national discourse
in such a way as to name the violence of “democratic security” as the only
answer to the country’s problems.  Government programs encourage a culture of fear and,
rewarding civilians for informing on the activities of their neighbors.  Uribe uses this fear of insurgency to
justify state and paramilitary violence against union leaders, farmers, miners,
and other civilians.  The
government even uses fear of guerillas to vilify human rights defenders,
claiming their work discredits the military and enables the guerrilla forces.  Injustice, renamed “security,” is used
as a cover for indiscriminate violations of international humanitarian law.

In Colombia, foreign multinationals investing in operations
in the country are called “inversionistas.”  This comes from the word “inversión,” Spanish for investment,
but also for “invert.”  In order to
create and enforce a climate that will attract investors, state forces
consistently invert the realities of Colombian’ daily lives—activists are
“subversives”; victims are “combatants”; the innocent are “guilty”; paramilitaries
are “reformed”; injustice is “security,” and oppression is “opportunity.”

Uribe’s government renames Colombian reality as it
steamrolls the Magdalena Medio Region to pave a landing strip for more and more
companies from Canada and the United States that are eyeing Colombia’s riches.  Should this project continue unchecked,
the renaming will result in billions of dollars of profit, and Colombia’s
campesinas and campesinos— then renamed the “urban poor”— will see none of it.  The task thousands of Colombians are
undertaking is a task we must join.  We must insist, in the face of all the forces that oppose us,
on a reality that names and values hope, human rights, justice, and peace.


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