Plan Colombia

Malcolm Deas

In memoriam, Jesús Antonio Bejarano, murdered by unknown assassins on his way to class, 1999.

Many more people continue to die in Colombia than in the Middle Eastern troubles between Israelis and Palestinians, and it’s high time more attention was paid to it internationally. It’s a country in the Northern Hemisphere and its capital city is within easy commuting distance of Miami. It is large and populous – with a population of more than forty million, the third most populous country in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico; but also dauntingly complicated: geographically, racially, economically, politically, militarily and diplomatically; and newspaper editors have little time and less and less money or space to spend on setting the scene, or dealing in nuance. So they leave Colombia alone, apart from the occasional bit of colour provided by drugs and guerrillas.

Our moral or intellectual engagement with conflict abroad is also, as Michael Ignatieff puts it, ‘notoriously selective and partial’. Colombia does not appear to be strategic. Certainly, for most of its independent history it has not been so. One disdainful late 19th-century Foreign Office note on a despatch from Bogotá mooting a small show of force to bring some interminable minor dispute to a conclusion, remarked that any entanglement with ‘the great Colombian republic’ would be a waste of time and money, absurd to the point of hilarity. Colombia became even less strategic with the loss of Panama in 1903. Nowadays, even Panama is not very strategic.

Nor does Colombia appear sufficiently ‘Western’ to excite a sense of solidarity. We follow, not to use so earnest a word as study, events in the Balkans partly because the Balkans had opera houses, railway stations with sleeping-car connections to the centres of the higher civilisation, Vienna, Berlin and Paris, and Luger pistols stamped with double-headed eagles, and countries there are now applying for membership of the European Union. That their democratic future should be the active and expensive concern of the United States has been taken for granted. Colombia has a much longer and stronger democratic tradition than any Balkan state, and is just as ‘Western’ in most of its culture and institutions, though long ago separated from Spain, which we still have some difficulty in remembering as a fount of Western culture.

Colombia’s conflicts lack an obvious cause: there is no national liberation struggle, no separatism or irredentism. Though its neighbours are sometimes apprehensive, they are not participants in its troubles. Even President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (about whom Richard Gott has recently written in the LRB) has done no more than strike an occasional ‘Bolivarian’ populist attitude. Few countries in the last two centuries have been as little involved as Colombia in international wars, which may be one of the reasons Colombians have frequently fought each other, and is certainly one of the reasons for the rest of the world’s indifference towards the country.

Why do Colombians fight so much among themselves? In a recent House of Lords debate one speaker confessed that he had spent only a couple of hours in transit at Bogotá airport, but that it was nonetheless clear to him that the root of the country’s violence lay in social injustice. This is a common view (and has nothing to do with the airport) but it is increasingly being called into question. In a recent article, Paul Collier, the director of Development Research at the World Bank, looked at a large number of conflicts and civil wars all round the world, and tested them for common factors that might account for their persistence. He found that poverty and inequality are statistically insignificant. The important correlations included a flow of primary exports easily taxable by rebels, a youthful, relatively uneducated and thereby recruitable population, a large territory, a dispersed settlement pattern and a previous history of conflict. Colombia has all of these. The taxable export is primarily, though not exclusively, drugs: oil, coal, gold and bananas also figure in the taxation schemes of both rebels and paramilitaries. These flows of resources are much easier to detect than to reduce or control. Colombians have noticed that it is not exactly in the poorest parts of the country that guerrillas and paramilitaries flourish. Local theory is familiar with the relationship between bonanza, migration and subversion and it takes into account poverty and inequality (bonanzas are rarely egalitarian), but a necessary element in exploiting such situations for the end of armed struggle is an organisation determined on that end.

But should not these organisations be properly categorised as left-wing guerrillas fighting for social justice and right-wing paramilitaries fighting against it? Only up to a point. The largest guerrilla organisation, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc), has its origin among some of the more agrarian contenders in the conflicts between the country’s Liberals and Conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s: peasants who had come under the wing of the small pro-Moscow Colombian Communist Party. The Farc provided that not very radical party’s necessary revolutionary credentials in the era of enthusiasm for guerrillas that followed Castro’s overthrow of Batista. Over the last forty years they have grown into a force of between fifteen and twenty thousand, with a tail of friends, relations and suppliers four or five times that number. They have systematically multiplied the number of their fronts, using methods in which gaining popularity and political influence are not fundamental. Their resources are not drawn from the peasantry: the leadership’s line on popularity, when it feels it has to have one, is that popularity can wait until after the revolution.

The second guerrilla movement, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), started out as a consciously Castroite ‘foco’. Its numbers are much fewer than those of the Farc, less than five thousand, and it has not been doing well lately. It has specialised in extortion, in destruction of the oil and electricity infrastructure, and in kidnappings. Its assault on the environment, measured in barrels of oil spilt, has been the equivalent of more than an Exxon Valdez a year for the last decade and a half.

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