Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization by Mario A. Murillo
We Americans know very little about Colombia, but the biggest reason we should care to know is this: Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest recipient in the world. Billions of our tax dollars have gone to Colombia over the past few decades. Mario Murillo, a journalism professor from Hofstra University, has written Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization to give Americans a broader picture of Colombia. He offers us the history of its internal problems, and our involvement in their country, in order to help us determine if this has been a good use of our tax dollars.
If you asked the average American why our government would want to aid the Colombia military, the common wisdom would be that we are fighting “a war on drugs,” in particular, trying to eliminate the production and export of cocaine. Yet our efforts have spanned decades with little or no impact on the international drug trade. If this had truly been our goal, might it be time to reevaluate our strategy?
In fact, the “war on drugs” is only one of three justifications for our involvement in Colombia. Mid twentieth century, it was framed in terms of our fight against communism and in this century, it is spoken of within the context of the “global war on terror.” What exactly are the issues facing Colombia and what is our interest there?
Colombia is a country with considerable natural resources and productive capacity. It has petroleum, gold, and emeralds. It is a major producer of coffee and the second largest exporter of flowers, after Holland. A mountainous country, it has climates ranging from temperate in high altitude Bogota to tropical on the coast, providing a wide range of agricultural opportunity. But Colombians do not share in this wealth equitably.
Along with Brazil, it has the most inequitable distribution of wealth in the Western Hemisphere. On the one hand, there is an oligarchy – the financial and political elite – and on the other, those living at or below the poverty level, who make up over 60% of the population. This has been true for decades.
This inequality is at the root of Colombia’s unrest, which Murillo traces back to the assassination of presidential candidate, Jorge Gaitan, in 1948. Gaitan had successfully created a movement based on economic redistribution, political participation, and a challenge to the dominant two party system. His support crossed party lines, and during his candidacy, the mood in Colombia was hopeful as never before. His assassination triggered weeks of spontaneous protests in the capital, but the protestors were unable to mount the effect challenge to the oligarchy that led to the popularity of Gaitan to begin with.
In the countryside, the government reversed the agrarian reform in progress, killing hundreds of peasants, and displacing the thousands of others who fled the violence. In the cities, activist workers were fired and it became a crime to organize a strike as a means of social protest. The promise of a united union movement was destroyed. For many, Gaitan’s assassination became symbolic of democracy aborted in Colombia. Hundreds of other charismatic leaders have been murdered in the decades to follow.
Against this backdrop of government violence and repression, organized resistance to the government grew. The three best known resistance groups are: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which began among the peasants and was devoted to agrarian reform; the National Liberation Army (ELN), begun among middle class youth fighting against the generous oil concessions granted to foreign oil companies; and the urban based M-19 Movement, which grew out of the blatant robbing of the presidential election on April 19, 1970, and which was focused on abuses by the government.
There have also been attempts, during the past three decades to organize politically and participate in the legislative process. One such example was the Patriot Union, established in the mid-1980’s. Made up of progressive activists and intellectuals from agrarian reformers to trade unionists, they won many electoral victories. But they were undermined through assassinations, threats, and intimidation, and were unable to exercise power. This left the three major resistance groups, believing that their only path was armed resistance.
Over time, the FARC began to finance its operations through kidnappings and local control over coca production. The ELN began to blow up oil company pipelines, to the consternation of environmentalists, and the M-19 was responsible for assassinations of government officials. Three groups which had essentially been formed with populist intentions lost much of their popular support because of the means they chose to achieve their goals.
However, it was the Colombian government and the national police, with financial backing from the United States, who were responsible for most of the violence. Fully 70% of the human rights violations could be traced back to the government in the 1980’s. It was at this time that the country started to see the growth of the AUC, the United Self-Defense Forces, a paramilitary organization begun at the initiative of the Colombian army. Citizens were organized, on behalf of large landowners tied to international drug trafficking, to combat the anti-government forces. Now it is the AUC, with close ties to the government, which is responsible for 70% of human rights violations as opposed to the government itself.
With violence on all sides, what of the ordinary Colombian who longs for peace and stability and an economically viable way of life? Non-violent activists, who organize on behalf of indigenous communities, trade unions, and other progressive causes, find themselves denounced by the central government as terrorist sympathizers. Hundreds of trade unionists have been killed just in the past few years.
The situation is particularly bleak in the countryside, where both sides of the conflict fight to control the lucrative cocaine trade. Murillo interviewed a coca farmer from Southern Colombia who explained that every dollar’s worth of yucca that she could sell costs her two and half dollars to produce and bring to market. With coca, traders come to her, give her a good price for her crop, and she has the money she needs to support her children. While the government demands that farmers grow something other than coca, farmers are not given assistance or incentives to do so.
Is there any hope for Colombia? Murillo thinks so. He believes a negotiated settlement among all parties, as opposed to a military solution, is what is required, and that international mediation from the United Nations may be required. He has written this book for an American audience, because while it is true that Colombia’s problems have domestic origins, the United States has been financing the bloodshed. We have been doing that in two ways – with our demand for cocaine and with our military aid.
With both the paramilitaries and anti-government forces heavily financed by drug money, a severe drop off in demand would put a significant crimp in their operations, and people in the countryside could go back to growing food. Could more and better information regarding the impact of drug production on exporting countries influence people to stop consuming? Maybe so. Acclaimed British actress Helen Mirren recently confessed using cocaine as a young person, but stopped abruptly when she learned that Klaus Barbie, a Nazi living in South America, had become rich in the cocaine trade. Might American cocaine users react similarly if they knew the impact of their habit?
And what of our tax dollars going to aid the Colombian military? Since this has had no impact on the international drug trade, what possible justification do we have in continuing to provide military aid? Might our involvement be on behalf of U.S. business interests in Colombia and the wider region? Of what significance is the fact that Colombia is an oil producing country? Or that it is a nation so hostile to the concept of organized labor that being part of the labor movement puts one’s very life at risk? Colombia is a nation with which our government would dearly love to have a free trade agreement, even if, as analysts predict, it means putting local rice farmers out of business or providing expensive pharmaceuticals, while preventing the local manufacture of generic equivalents.
Our tax dollars are being used to maintain a most inequitable society in a region where democracy is flourishing. From Rafael Correa’s Ecuador to Michele Bachelet’s Chile, from the success of Evo Morales with his indigenous movement in Bolivia to the triumph of liberation theology in Fernando Lugo’s Paraguay, changes are going on throughout Latin America that would have made Jorge Gaitan smile. One wonders how long his native Colombia must wait.