Pablo Navarrete of Alborada Films recently made a documentary on the civil war in Colombia and the role of the US government in it. He sat down with NLP’s Samuel Grove* to discuss the conflict, the British and US governments’ role in it, and the failure of the western media to report on this connection.
What is 'The Colombia Connection'?
In Colombia, left-wing guerrillas (mainly the FARC) have been fighting the Colombian state for nearly 50 years in a brutal armed and social conflict, whose victims run into the millions. Human rights violations have been committed by all sides, but the vast majority of these have been attributed to the Colombian army, security services and rightwing paramilitary death squads closely aligned to them.
‘The Colombia Connection’ refers to the key role of the US government in this conflict, primarily through its funding of the Colombian security services. Colombia has had traditionally strong ties with the US, which have been deepened, particularly in the military sphere, under rightwing presidents Alvaro Uribe and now his successor Juan Manuel Santos. Colombia is the biggest recipient of US military aid in Latin America and one of the largest recipients of US military aid in the world, having received around $8 billion since the year 2000. And under Barack Obama the US had plans to use seven military bases in Colombia.
What does the US government seek to gain from funding the Colombian military and the military bases?
At present, the US government’s funding of the Colombian military occurs in a regional context where in recent years, a wave of leftwing governments have been elected to office in Latin America. These governments, to varying degrees, have challenged the US’s historic domination of the region by seeking greater economic and political integration and independence from Washington. For example in December 2011, CELAC, a new regional organisation for the 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries, was formed. The US and Canada were excluded from this new body and this reflects a renewed spirit of regional unity.
While Colombia has joined the new regional bodies such as CELAC, the commitment of its government to regional integration is questionable given that for example it has sided with other rightwing governments such as Chile and Mexico in forming an alliance of countries facing the Pacific Ocean. Therefore it is strategically very important for the US government to support rightwing governments such as Colombia in order to try to stall regional processes that are effectively challenging the US’s ability to impose its will on Latin America and its historic record of assaulting progressive governments in the region.
Why was it important for you to make this documentary?
This documentary follows on from my first feature documentary, which was released in 2009 and looked at the Venezuelan process of radical change under the Chavez government. Shortly after ‘Inside the Revolution’ was released I turned my attention to Colombia, and particularly the human rights situation. Primarily through the work of the UK-based human rights NGO ‘Justice for Colombia’ (JFC), I became much more aware of the scale of the human rights violations taking place in the country. Reading JFC’s bulletins and reports on, for example, how Colombia is the country where more trade unionists are murdered than in the rest of the world combined, really conveyed the horror being lived daily by much of the population. It also really brought home the double standards of the mainstream media in this country that largely ignores this while at the same time falling over themselves to report on alleged human rights abuses taking place under the Chavez government in neighbouring Venezuela. You have the situation where it appears the media has virtually put an embargo on reporting the ongoing human rights tragedies taking place in Colombia. I felt strongly that these tragedies needed greater exposure, and in 2010 I was commissioned by Al Jazeera English to make two short programmes; the second of which looked at two journalists that had been victims of persecution by the Colombian government for reporting critically on the government’s role in the conflict. ‘The Colombia Connection’ builds on the Al Jazeera reports and tries to offer a more expansive look at the conflict and the US government’s role in it.
Why do you think the Colombian conflict hasn’t received the attention in the UK it should have?
Firstly, I think that Latin America is clearly not a priority for the British media. At a trivial level, I am still surprised when I see Colombia spelt as Columbia in major British newspapers; I think this reflects the lack of seriousness there is in covering what is taking place in Colombia. Now, given that the British government has, for some time now, provided secret military aid to the Colombian government you would think that this aid, and its possible links to the human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Colombian security forces, would be worthy of investigation. Yet, shamefully for the British media, it has been left to NGOs such as Justice for Colombia to do the work of exposing this connection.
But I think the main answer to why the British media largely ignores the Colombian conflict can be explained by the priorities and motivations of the state and corporate British media. It is these motivations that led an ostensibly centre left newspaper to produce an advertorial with the Colombian government promoting Colombia’s tourist industry. Incredibly this included its then Latin America correspondent spending a day with Colombia’s former president Alvaro Uribe, a figure who will surely be remembered for presiding over some of the largest human rights atrocities in recent Latin American history.
Can you be specific?
In the second part of the film we cover the story of ‘La Macarena’, a secret cemetery that was found in Colombia in 2009 containing the bodies of an estimated 2000 people, reportedly killed by the Colombian army. This formed part of a wider scandal that involved the murder of thousands of civilians by the Colombian army because of bounties of cash and holidays they offered their soldiers for delivering bodies they could say were killed fighting the guerrillas. Had this happened in Venezuela you can bet that there would have been an avalanche of editorials and comment pieces denouncing the Chavez government for presiding over barbaric human rights abuses.
In sum then, I’d say that the British media on the whole broadly offers critical reporting on official enemies of the British and US governments while providing sympathetic coverage, underplaying or simply ignoring abuses by official friends.
‘The Colombia Connection’ has been released by the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV. I’d like you to discuss the ethical implications of making the film for Press TV given the human rights situation in Iran.
I did consider this when the possibility of making the film for Press TV materialised. For me the key issue was to have editorial control on the documentary, Press TV assured me this would be the case. To their credit they kept their word and I take full responsibility for everything contained in the documentary. From my own experience and discussions I’ve had with people involved in making documentaries for major British broadcasters, editorial control seems to be a luxury. There are cases of senior award-winning documentary makers who have had documentaries released with their name as director but where the film did not reflect their take on the issue, and this was the product of the channel’s commissioning editor overriding them and effectively making the key editorial calls on the films. I should also mention that I did pitch the documentary to Channel 4 but never heard back.
With regards to making a documentary commissioned by a state-funded channel of a country that undoubtedly commits human rights abuses, I’d say the following. Would you be asking me this question if I’d made the documentary for the BBC? I ask this because the British government, which partly funds the BBC and exerts substantial control of it, illegally invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. Between the invasion in March 2003 and June 2006 the respected scientific journal ‘The Lancet’ estimated that there had been 601,027 violent deaths out of 654,965 excess deaths.
Regardless of these facts, I wouldn’t have had a problem with the documentary being commissioned by the BBC as long as I retained editorial control, since the issue for me when making documentaries for state media or otherwise is that I should have editorial control. Hopefully when people watch the documentary they can look beyond who it was commissioned by and judge it on the merits of the arguments and substantive points made in the film. If the documentary can make people reflect on how the US government has, through its funding for a military solution to the Colombian conflict, hindered rather than helped the search for peace in Colombia then I will have achieved what I set out to do with the film. As I concluded in the film—for the victims of the Colombian conflict, peace has never been more urgent.
On Friday 15 February in London there will be a free screening of the festival version of the film. More information here.
*Samuel Grove was one of the producers of the documentary.