“It is comprehensible that Venezuela is paranoid”

By Thomas Sparrow and Camilo Jiménez

INTERVIEW - Raul Zelik, a German expert on Latin American politics, has been invited to the Hay Festival in Cartagena to speak about Venezuela and Colombia. interviewed him in Berlin, where he talked about the relationship between the two countries, about death-squadrons, and drug trafficking.
January 28, 2010

A young German scholar has become one of the most renowned European experts on Latin American politics, especially regarding the armed conflict in Colombia. His name is Raul Zelik, he lectured as a visiting professor at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá in 2009, and his most recent book is an extensive research on Colombian paramilitarism.

This year, Zelik will be a guest at theHay Festival in Cartagena (January 28th–31st) speaking, among other issues, about the crisis between Colombia and Venezuela. Author of Venezuela más allá de Chávez (Venezuela beyond Chávez), Berlin-born Zelik will discuss the topic with the Colombian writer Enrique Serrano.

In the following interview with Semana International, Zelik presents paramilitarism as the essence of Colombia’s suffering, he explains why he is coming to Cartagena not to support Chávez, but to defend Venezuela; and he stands up for the controversial idea of passing private media into public hands.

Where does your interest for Colombia come from?

When I was twenty, I worked in a camp for displaced people in Colombia. That was my first encounter with war, and I realized that not many people were aware of this situation. I travelled to the country to learn and to work with the displaced people. Since then, I feel committed to Colombian peasants.

But you are a writer.

Writing is a way of dealing with the helplessness I feel when I realize I can’t do anything against a reality that is so horrible. The experiences I have had in the country are the reason of my journalistic, sociological and literary writings.

Your most recent book is titled Colombian paramilitaries: ‘governing without a state’ or forms of terrorism in home security. And your thesis is that the main source of Colombia’s suffering is paramilitarism. What about other players of the conflict like the guerrillas and drug traffickers?

I am not unaware of the role guerrilla groups have. But I think the country has been lied to about the reality of what is happening in the conflict zones. Linked with the army, paramilitary groups are responsible of the majority of Human Rights violations. And nonetheless, after a research you realize that most of the work of the media is directed against the guerrillas, and not against that dreadful alliance. I must say, however, that in recent years important research has been done on paramilitarism.

How do you classify FARC’s crimes?

It is true that kidnapping is unacceptable. It is torture. But we must not forget something: many things are said in Colombia about kidnapping, but the coverage of massacres and of the displacement of peasants has been limited. Everyone has an image of Colombia as the country of kidnapping. But who knows it as the country of the chain-saw massacres?

How do you define paramilitarism?

It is a strategy of repression and domination that has become informal with time. And although it emerged from the state, paramilitarism is now transforming it.

Who dominates whom?

Political-economical elites dominate a majority they consider dangerous. At the core of these elites, the state’s functions have become informal in order to maintain that domination more effectively. They have taken control over the executive, thus changing the balance of powers within the state.

Who is part of these elites?

Let’s take a look at how paramilitarism rose in Magdalena Medio, a region in the center of the country. There, an informal alliance arose between cattle-ranchers, politicians, army members, oil companies and drug traffickers. By the way, it was an unstable alliance, because at a certain point the state had to clash with drug traffickers. Nonetheless, paramilitaries never worked independently, and their objective always was to maintain the political and economic status quo, and avoid a social revolution.

But the violence committed by the guerrillas can’t be ignored.

It is also part of the tragedy. Yet, I insist that paramilitarism is Colombia’s real drama, because it has taken terror beyond any limits. Just remember what happened in towns like El Salado, Chengue, Mapiripán, Gabarra, or Barrancabermeja.

Do you feel sympathy for Hugo Chávez’ political project?

I have spent twenty years observing the situation in Venezuela, and I think it is narrow-minded to consider the actual developments solely as an expression of Chávez’ government. The country’s current situation originated from the deep crisis of representation in which the traditional elites had fallen. General dissatisfaction with the state led to a series of social movements, and the consequence of this was Chávez coming to power.

But Chávez is not only a consequence. He is the motor of a deeply ideological movement. Do you identify yourself with his positions?

It may sound paradoxical, but I think Venezuela has become more democratic in the last eleven years. Between 2003 and 2005, I led a research in Caracas’ poorest neighborhoods. The people there told me that they felt recognized as citizens for the first time. I think changes are always achieved by majorities, and so, in that sense, I do not necessarily identify myself with Chávez. But I do feel some sympathy.


It has been the least repressive government towards the poor, and the most inclusive. In comparison to previous presidents, Chávez is more legitimate and more democratic. It is a mistake to be unaware of that. And I can say that, even though I dislike his aggressive rhetoric.

You have been invited to the Hay Festival to speak about the conflict between Colombia and Venezuela. Will you defend Chávez?

No. To think that poor people in Venezuela are finally being represented, does not necessarily mean I am fond of Chavez’ ideology. Yet his is, by the way, a different position from that of the opposition and the middle class, which are classist and racist. The new voices of the poor are the most interesting aspect about Venezuela. We should not reduce everything to the president.

What are Chávez’ merits?

He has challenged social and political injustice. But the problem is rather that plenty information regarding him has been manipulated.

Which information?

Not long ago, Chávez said that the European Union was enabling the military positioning of the United States in the Caribbean. Then, the media said that Chávez was threatening the European Union, as if he were crazy. But in fact he was only claiming that the US military bases in the Netherlands Antilles take part of that military positioning.

But the US presence in that region is not new.

That is true, in fact it has always been directed to democratically elected governments. The United States is not there to fight drug trafficking. Washington’s targets in Latin America are left-wing governments.

You are German, and in your country there are more than seventy US military bases…

I welcome everyone who is willing to call those bases into question! And I say this because US bases in Germany have been part of CIA’s kidnapping network during the last nine years.

Do you consider yourself anti-American?

It may sound strange, but I feel great respect for the United States. It is a nation with a strong democratic tradition. In addition, thousands of Americans gave their lives to free Europe from fascism. So, I don’t consider myself anti-American. But I do criticize military bases, in Colombia as well as in Germany, because I think they establish zones of impunity and exception, which are beyond any democratic and judicial control.

Officially, the bases in Colombia are aimed to fight drug trafficking.

According to official military documents, US bases will not only be used to fight drug trafficking, but also to act against governments considered ‘enemies of the United States’. Insofar, Venezuela’s worries are valid.

Do you justify Chávez’s verbal aggressions?

His rhetoric may sometimes be awkward, but its content is right: we are indeed seeing how the United States repositions itself in Latin America. And this is a threat not only for the guerrillas and organized crime, but also for democratically elected governments.

Many think that Chávez’s discourse is merely rhetorical, and that he in fact is laying a smokescreen in order to hide the internal problems of Venezuela.

It is valid to question Chávez’ discourse. But we can’t forget that he has already suffered two coup attempts, and that these were supported from abroad—among others, by Colombian paramilitaries. So, the Venezuelan government may be paranoid; but, to a certain point, that’s comprehensible.

Bearing in mind Chávez’ proximity with Colombian guerrillas, aren’t you defending a kind of ‘doublespeak’?

I understand the fears the Colombian government may have. In the borders, the Venezuelan army has some sort of tolerance toward the guerrillas. But I don’t think this is military or logistic support, it is rather a kind political recognition.

In Colombia, this support is assumed to be economic and logistic. But even if weren’t, you can’t deny that political backup presents a problem.

I agree that Chávez’ position is part of the conflict. Yet, in any case, you first have to call into question your own affairs. That means: in Venezuela you should query Venezuelan mistake; in Europe, European mistakes; and in Colombia, the Colombian ones.

But there are solid arguments to criticize Chávez from abroad.

That’s true: there are elements which can be questioned. Corruption and bureaucracies are still controlling the country. Instead of democratizing society, he has brought it under the control of the state.

Chávez threatens the opposition and wants to perpetuate himself in office.

For a member of the opposition, Colombia is a more dangerous country than Venezuela.

Even if that were true, it would not wipe out the negative aspects of the repression in Chávez’ government.

We have to be more precise. The fact that a private television channel lost its license is not an expression of a dictatorship. Quite the contrary, in a real democracy the media should not be in the hands of a few enterprises, but in public hands.

In a real democracy, Chávez should respect freedom of expression.

No. In a democracy, media should not be owned by private companies. Especially mass media like television. In Europe, for example, private-owned television is a recent phenomenon. There are countries with a strong democratic culture, like Denmark, which don’t recognize private channels. Like in education, where the state keeps its hegemonic role, radio and television should be public property. Public, not state-owned. Private information monopolies don’t follow the interests of majorities, but certain private ones.

How is Colombia’s conflict seen in Europe?

I think Colombia still needs a political solution. There are elements of the conflict that are still legitimate, like the struggle for an agricultural reform. If this happened, one of the guerrillas’ main arguments would be disposed of once and for all. And then, the guerrilla would have to resume its political character—or disappear.





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