Colombia: the real and bloody legacy of Belisario Betancur

by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

Belisario Betancur, the ex-president of Colombia (1982-1986) died in his bed on the 7th of December, 2018.  He corpse hadn’t even time to go cold before he received and avalanche of eulogies from politician, ns and the press.  El Espectador gave over various pages to him and the magazine Semana did likewise.  They are all in agreement, the man of peace has died, but unlike Salvador Allende, the real Man of Peace in Benedetti’s poem, he did not die under fire from the bullets, warplanes and tanks of the Empire, but rather he died in peace and will be buried in the midst of a wave of praise.

The eulogies from the press are not surprising.  Betancur was, after all, one of them and social etiquette is to speak well of the dead, especially if he happens to be a president of the country.  You only have to look at all the liberals praising the recently deceased president of the USA, George H.W. Bush, the man who brought new vigour to conventional warfare and also to the death squads in Central America.  Death pardons everything.  It would seem scientists can discuss whether we are born with a blank slate, but without a doubt the press and the powerful give a kind of blank slate to some when they die.  It is hardly surprising.  But, what has the reformist left in Colombia to say for itself?

Reformist view

There are two tweets that embody a certain vision of Betancur and the issue of peace.  The first is from Carlos Velandia, the former spokesperson for the ELN, more commonly known as Felipe Torres in his days as a militant of the ELN.

“Egoism and the political immaturity of Colombians did not allow us to acknowledge Belisario Betancur’s contribution to peace, whilst he was alive.  He had the political courage to engage in dialogue with the guerrillas.  The peace that is being built today is thanks to that first attempt.  Honour and Glory.”

The second one is from Gustavo Petro, the ex M-19 guerrilla and a man who took an active part in the peace process with that group and nowadays is seen as an alternative pole, at least in electoral terms.  Petro gave us the following gem.

“Belisario’s government left us various now forgotten teachings.  He spoke of the objective conditions of violence to be found in social injustice.  His party abandoned his thesis and took up that of Uribe which denies there is a conflict.”

Deliberate forgetting

It would seem that the teachings of his government are not the only thing that has been forgotten.  It is worth reviewing, just a little, Betancur’s criminal record and some have forgotten that he has a record.  One of his first crimes happened when Petro and Velandia were very young.  Petro was barely three years old and Velandia was eleven.  Their decision to take up arms was in a still distant future.  But Belisario and others would make blood run whilst these two future guerrillas played as the children they were back then.

In 1963, as Minister for Labour in the government of Guillermo León Valencia, blood ran in the streets of Santa Barbara, Antioquia where the workers at a cement factory were on strike.  The army murdered 12 of them and left a further 52 injured in their efforts to break the strike.  Following the massacre, Betancur appeared before Congress with a supposed soviet made Molotov (yes, the current uribistas do not have a monopoly on stupidity, it has been an historic feature of the elite).  His most powerful response was to threaten to take away the union’s legal status.  This massacre is one of those that has been forgotten in Colombian history, although the historians Andrés Jáuregui González and Renán Vega Cantor recovered the story in great detail in their book Sangre y Cemento (Blood and Cement).  There can be no doubt as to Betancur’s responsibility in the matter.  The workers themselves affiliated to the ‘Cementos el Cairo’ Workers Union stated as much years later and their denunciation is still valid today and it is of the kind unions no longer make and Petro never made.

In our particular case – the Santa Barbara massacre – we will never stop denouncing and accusing those who we now know where the intellectual authors, until such time as the Colombian revolution is victorious and we sit in the true court of popular justice and we have real justice done to the criminals, amongst them, but not limited to, are:  FERNANDO GOMEZ MARTINEZ, GUILLERMO LEON VALENCIA, BELISARIO BETANCUR, EDUAROD URIBE BOTERO, ARMANDO VALENCIA PAREDES, CARLOS PIZANO, RAUL MORENO, SAMUEL SYRO GIRALDO, and with them the entire National Front system.  To that end, we the workers of El Cairo, will spare no effort, nor accept peacemakers, but rather we will have justice.[1]

Two events

The criminal record of the man of peace does not end there.  Two internationally known incidents show what class of a criminal he was.

In November 1985, the M-19 guerrillas took the Palace of Justice a short distance from Congress and the official residence of the president the Nariño Palace.  The military violently retook the Palace killing various people that were inside.  After taking various people alive, they disappeared some and killed others, placing their corpses back in the Palace of Justice.  There are those who wish to present Betancur as a weak president who couldn’t take on the military.  It is not true, it was his minister for communications who censored the press during the siege preparing the ground for what later transpired.  He is morally but also legally responsible; they were his troops who did that and he supported them, regardless of what the peaceniks say when they rewrite history.

A few days later the country was once again in mourning.  The Nevado de Ruíz volcano erupted and buried the town of Armero in Tolima killing more than 25,000 people.  Betancur and his government were of the opinion that there was no need to evacuate the town and it was also very expensive and the poor are worth nothing.  They were warned about the risk of an eruption; an Italian mission even came and, in the month of October, published a report on the risks.  Betancur and his ministers paid no practical heed to the report.

These are two events that show the kind of person he was.  Glory and honour?  He was an oligarch that showed disdain for the lives of the workers and the poor, one of the intellectual authors of the Santa Barbara massacre and responsible for the Armero tragedy and of course for the retaking of the Palace of Justice and the ensuing murders and disappearances.  More a case of ignominy and dishonour.

Forgiving the military

In the framework of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, both Velandia and Petro want us to forgive the military for their murders and now they want us to completely forget the crimes of the presidents of the country, once they are dead.  Someday, Santos will die and those men, if they are still alive at that time will ask us to forget that Santos is the man that paid bonuses to soldiers for kidnapping poor young men, dressing them up as guerrillas and then murdering them in order to present them as killed in action and thus justify the military budget by showing results.  In the name of peace, we are being asked to rewrite history and forget who the people’s real killers are.

It should also be pointed out that Petro sees a difference between the Conservative Party of Betancur and the support this party now gives to the uribistas and in opposition to the peace process.  Perhaps, but it is not the case that the Conservative Party is made up of saints and angels that have suddenly found themselves allied with the devil.  Andrés Pastrana, a conservative president (1998-2002), was also thought of as a man of peace whilst he negotiated with the FARC in El Caguán and is nowadays an ally of Uribe.  But under his government and in the midst of the negotiations with the FARC, the paramilitaries underwent their largest expansion ever seen.

Not only did they take vast rural areas, but they also took important cities such as Barrancabermeja, the centre of the oil industry and Buenaventura, the country’s main port and the largest and most important port on the Pacific coast of the American continent.  For many years we couldn’t criticize Pastrana either, but now we can because he is an ally of Uribe.  So let’s be clear, Betancur is not the only conservative who has blood on his hands, Pastrana does as well; all of them do.  Petro is wrong: there is no good Conservative Party and another bad one.  There is a party that has always represented the interests of important sectors of the oligarchy and imposed its will by fire and sword.

Roses for whom?

To finish off, the academic awarded a medal by the army and the favourite son of the peaceniks, Alejo Vargas opined that:

“The Colombians are in debt to Belisario Betancur, for setting out on a path that we are still on, seeking to overcome the confrontation between compatriots.  He was coherent and continued to always support the efforts of his successors for a negotiated peace.

“A rose upon his tomb in gratitude.”[2]

And how many roses will this honoris causa soldier place on the tombs in Santa Barbara or in Armero?  When we can finally bury all of the disappeared from the Palace of Justice, how many roses will he place?  I don’t know, maybe many, but without pointing to or criticizing the man that sent them to their graves, Belisario Betancur, the man of peace.  The peace process requires complete surrender, so complete that it robs us of what little is left, our memory.

Notes

[1] Commiqué from the union in 1971 cited in Jáuregui González, A. y Vega Cantor, R. (2013) Sangre y Cemento: Huelga y masacre de los trabajadores en Santa Bárbara (1963), Sutimac, Bogotá. p.276                                                         [2] Vargas, A. (10/12/2018) Belisario Betancur: conservador que buscó la paz www.olapolitica.com

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh lives in Colombia and has written several books and various articles on Colombian politics.

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