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.

In the numerous surveys of popular attitudes carried out in Colombia the guerrillas’ standing is lower even than that of the politicians, and way below that of the Army, which commonly rates second after the Church. The surveys are predominantly urban, but so is the population. The guerrillas currently achieve an approval rate of around 3 per cent. To the evidence of the polls can be added the massive demonstrations against violence mounted by various citizens’ organisations in cities throughout the country, which are hardly reported abroad, and to which the violent retaliate with threats against the organisers. For this reason many Colombians dislike their conflict being called a civil war, which usually implies a greater degree of polarisation and of popular involvement on one side or the other. This was recently the subject of an exchange between President Pastrana and Chávez, after which Chávez retracted his use of the term. All the same, Colombia’s conflict regularly produces two or three thousand directly attributable violent deaths a year.

The Farc has a skimpy ten-point programme, heavily Marxist in tone, that few Colombians bother to read, and wisely refrains from calling much attention to it: such programmes, particularly in Colombia, immediately attract critics, so there is much to be said for remaining vague. The Farc Secretariat prefers to project itself as the muscle that will enforce the creation of the ‘new’ Colombia, without defining what that is; it will simply emerge from the will of the people, as expressed under the protection of the Farc. The rank and file are predominantly rural and small-town young, without much education or many prospects, and the majority are probably not much interested in any future agricultural or land reform.

So what are the Farc fighting for? As a rule of thumb, the more general and utopian the ends of any such organisation – social justice, equality – the more they should be read as a sign that the organisation means to go on fighting. Nobody anywhere knows how to negotiate social justice and equality: they first have to be reduced to the concrete and practical, and a guerrilla leadership is commonly loath to consider anything practical because that leads to discussion in organisations that are essentially authoritarian, and discussion leads to division. The insufferable self-righteousness and pedantry of guerrilla leaders is not just a common character trait, it is functional: the leadership has always to be right. The Farc’s negotiating style has all the charm of the small print in an insurance policy, but it is similarly there for a purpose.

At a broad guess, the minimum that the Farc are fighting for is some sort of recognition of the place in the country’s history that they have achieved over four decades of survival and expansion, and for a share of power commensurate with what they exercise now, though neither they nor anyone else can quite see how that can be properly measured, accorded or guaranteed. Until that becomes clearer, the easiest thing, as for so many guerrillas, is more of the same, because that maintains discipline, morale and income. More of the same consists commonly of attacks on villages and small towns, usually garrisoned only by police posts: places chosen for the difficulty of any rapid Government response. These ‘tomas’ have become much more destructive since the Farc adopted the Salvadorean weapon of the exploding gas-cylinder. Occasionally, larger and more risky operations have been carried out, concentrating as many as a thousand guerrillas, but these cannot be repeated frequently and have not always been successful.

Then there is the endless business of survival and logistics. The guerrillas are directly or indirectly responsible for most of the kidnapping in Colombia, which has the highest kidnapping rate in the world, with far more than the three thousand officially recorded cases a year. This in itself provides a substantial flow of income, and is the sanction that encourages payment of the rest of a whole range of extortions. It is also an obstacle to any ceasefire, for it’s hard for any government to agree to a truce under whose terms kidnapping could continue, and hard for the guerrillas to renounce such an important source of income. Then there is the attention demanded by coca, amapola – heroin poppies – and their ancillary industries and trades. Colombia, which at the birth of the Farc in the early 1960s did not figure at all in the world drug trade, not even in marijuana, is now, notoriously, the leading grower of coca – having taken over from Bolivia and Peru in the last decade – and producer of cocaine, and a significant producer of heroin.

Some in the Farc leadership have still larger military ambitions, and talk of putting out an army of thirty thousand and of waging a war of mobility and position on a far greater scale. Certainly, the Farc continue to recruit and to arm: there is much surplus weaponry left over in Central America and they have harmonious commercial relations, whereby drugs can be exchanged for arms, with the Russian mafia.

Guerrillas naturally find ceasefires and truces much more of a strain than do regular armies; divisions of opinion become more apparent, and breed mutual suspicion. Peace holds out different prospects for different types of leader: anyone too enthusiastic for it will be conspicuous and vulnerable. In recent years in Colombia the greatest danger to the lives of guerrillas who have been ‘reinserted’ into society – past peace efforts have produced several thousand of them – has been other, un-reinserted guerrillas. This all makes guerrillas conservative, much given to routine. The leadership of the Salvadorean FMLN, themselves engaged in a more clearly defined civil war and much more politically agile, considered the Farc to be torpid.

And what of the paramilitaries? They are said to number at least five thousand, and to be expanding rapidly in the atmosphere of uncertainty and frustration that has resulted from two years of peace talks with the guerrillas (which despite large Government concessions have made little progress). The Colombian Government faces a problem that should be familiar to British and Irish readers: too many concessions to the one side produce un-peaceloving reactions on the other. The paramilitaries have in some places emerged out of local exasperation with guerrilla excesses – local patterns vary, and it is never easy from a distance to be sure who is doing what to whom and why. They have some rich backers, and are as interested as the Farc in the drug trade. They say that their methods mirror those of the guerrillas: their speciality is the massacre of suspected guerrilla sympathisers, methods which repeat those of the counter-guerrillas of the 1950s. Their ranks contain many former guerrillas; the work is much the same and the pay probably better.

The guerrillas for their part insist that the paramilitaries are a creation of the Army: a couple of years ago the Farc, which has no sense of humour, complained that they were ‘illegal’. Strong Government measures against the paramilitaries have been a Farc condition for peace talks from the start of the current round, and a meeting between the Minister of the Interior and the paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño, arranged for ‘humanitarian’ reasons and the release of some rather too conveniently kidnapped politicians, was the Farc’s reason for suspending negotiations in mid-November (they were resumed in mid-February).

Which brings me to the Colombian Army – and the question whether it has any regard for human rights. There has inevitably been collusion between a number of Army units and paramilitaries, a collusion encouraged by the lack of any clear civilian-led strategy, two decades of vacillation, on-and-off peacemaking and mediocre civil-military relations. Guerrilla propaganda, particularly that meant for consumption abroad, has laid much emphasis on these Army-paramilit-ary connections and they are one of the main reasons why there is opposition to providing military aid for Colombia in the US, where the Leahy Law prohibits aid to foreign military units with questionable human rights records. Nonetheless, the paramilitaries have a life of their own, and their leader, Castaño, gives the best television interviews. (Practically everyone in Colombia gives interviews, in and out of town, in and out of jail: there is no Thatcher to insist on voice-overs and no censorship.) The conventional statistics, produced by the Government and by NGOs, attribute human rights abuses to the paramilitaries, the guerrillas and the Armed Forces and police in that order.

Colombia has never been a militarist society. The boast that in 170 years of independent existence it has had less than a decade of military rule is true. The Army traditionally defends the Constitution; the soldiers’ dislike of the present Government’s peace negotiations often expresses itself as criticism of the President for not abiding by the Constitution and the law in allowing the guerillas virtual control of parts of the country – Colombia is legalistic as well as frequently lawless. Army resistance to Government policy is more likely to be expressed in a go-slow or in threats of resignation than in conspiracy, let alone a coup. The military career offers more servitude than grandeur, and one can admire senior soldiers, including the current Commander-in-Chief General Fernando Tapias, for their ability to maintain a moderate tone in extremely trying circumstances. The same can be said of the police, the easiest front-line target for assassination or attempts at corruption, the ‘target of choice’, as the phrase goes, for the guerrillas.

Neither the Army nor the police are strong or efficient enough to deal with the problems with which they are now faced. Colombia is traditionally a lightly governed country and can’t overcome its current difficulties without a stronger state apparatus. There is no ‘civil society’ or NGO alternative, and no conceivable deal that can be done between the parties in conflict will much reduce the need for that stronger state. Colombians understand ‘civil society’, a phrase they have worn to shreds, as made up of organisations and institutions that at least in their origins have nothing to do with government or officialdom; this is too easily made into a claim to superior virtue and lucidity. They are less prone to recognise that an effective ‘civil society’ depends on the existence of a strong state, which alone can provide an effective judicial system and the necessary forces of order. These last might not guarantee any greater respect for human rights, but with them there is some prospect for improvement and without them there is not much hope. Ultimately, what deters paramilitaries and guerrillas is military force.

Which brings me to one of the dilemmas of the current American policy: should the United States support the Colombian Government with military aid? Should it send helicopters and wage outright war on coca?

Criticising US policy in Latin America is as European as tarte tatin. The common reaction to Plan Colombia, into which Pastrana’s original idea of a Marshall Plan to help his country out of its present difficulties has evolved, is to favour a meagre sum of humanitarian aid – no chance of a brave Euroforce rapidly deploying over there – while expressing varying degrees of scepticism and disapproval about the military element, which makes up the more substantial part of the $1.3 billion the United States has committed. (Honour where honour is due: Colombia’s best friend in Europe was Mrs Thatcher, who provided effective assistance to President Virgilio Barco at the time of the confrontation with the drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar, and, perhaps alone of British prime ministers, actually read the despatches from Bogotá.)

The Plan also has many critics in the United States. Their arguments were summed up recently in the New York Review of Books by Mark Danner, who itemised: the exaggerations and failures of the ‘war on drugs’, a lack of frankness echoing previous policy-making in Vietnam and Central America (Congress would never, he argued, approve support for the Colombian Government simply against guerrillas), the inadequacy of the US domestic anti-drug effort. In addition to which, Colombia was once again described as the third largest recipient of US military aid after Israel and Egypt.

That last argument is a weak one. The world today does not contain very many recipients of US military aid, and what is offered to Colombia is not much in military terms. The cost, British readers may calculate, is rather less than that of the Millennium Dome, not a large sum to spend on a military as opposed to a civilian folly, if military folly it be. Aid on this level is certainly far from providing even the illusion of a military solution to Colombia’s problems. Military helicopters, for example, are very expensive: a Blackhawk, and only 15 are promised, costs ten or fifteen million dollars, depending on extras. One has already been shot down by the Farc.

Danner also provided ‘outlines of a wiser policy’. This would involve ‘building up the institutions of Colombia’s Government with the help of foreign aid; bolstering Colombia’s legitimate economy by encouraging foreign investment and lowering barriers that keep its products out of US markets; launching a serious, sustained diplomatic campaign (like American efforts in the Middle East and Ireland) to bring Colombia’s “civil war” to a negotiated solution; and greatly increasing money spent in the United States to reduce consumption of illegal drugs’: all of which reads more like an attitude than a policy. The institutions to be built up do not presumably include the Armed Forces: Danner’s argument fails to recognise the decades of Army and police effort that helped produce the current peace in Ulster. His proposals also ignore the degree to which investment, and the economy generally, depend on public order, rather than any ‘encouragement’ or ‘bolstering’; lack of access to the US market is not a critical problem. The nature of the ‘serious and sustained’ diplomatic campaign that is to repeat the successes of Northern Ireland and the Middle East is meanwhile left a complete blank. Danner simply doesn’t fill the bill.

Colombia needs military aid: why should a beleaguered democratic government not receive US support? The question may look unsophisticated, but sophistication is not always the best response; as Disraeli said, ‘When your house is on fire … you send for the parish engine.’ The aid needed may not be exactly that contained in Plan Colombia, but it is not possible or desirable that the democratically elected Colombian Government should do nothing about guerrillas or paramilitaries or coca or amapola. Its enemies are not sitting on their hands, and there are obvious, old-fashioned reasons why the Farc should denounce military assistance as an imperialist intervention threatening peace; they are not neutral spectators, and they have no intention of giving up their weapons in return for programmes of alternative development or humanitarian aid. Colombia also has a moral claim to assistance from Europe as well as the United States, for Europe, too, is a major drug consumer. Though Colombians repeat it rather too often, it’s true that their country has suffered more than any other from the drug trade. It more than anything else is responsible for the notoriously high level of homicide and for corruption; and whatever doubtful economic gains it once brought – the drug trade has always had many negative economic effects – are now eroding.

So, should we, in Epdward Luttwak’s phrase, now ‘give war a chance’? This need not imply some final military solution, but rather holding the line, itself a demanding enough job, and increasing the pressure on the guerrillas to take a more realistic view of their prospects, and come to terms.

There are many risks in this policy. A strategy conceived with the aim of attacking the source of drugs in the Putumayo and the south-east of the country runs the risk of driving the population there – much of it migrant: these are not your traditional coca-producing peasants – into the arms of the Farc. The Army is still without the capacity needed to hold the ground, and such a plan will be open to the criticism that it is dominated by US and not Colombian concerns. Most Colombians are not anti-American: Clinton was received as warmly in Cartagena last summer as he ever was in Belfast, and achieved a 79 per cent popularity rating in the inevitable opinion poll; but attitudes can change. The political necessity in the US of presenting the aid as being anti-narcotics, not anti-guerrilla, and directed to the creation of three special battalions, committed to observing human rights in accordance with the Leahy Law, risks creating a two-class army and distorting the Colombian military effort. Nor does the assistance come free: it requires matching funds from the Government.

Alfredo Rangel, the country’s leading military commentator, has recently said that Colombians have yet to recognise the size of the problems they face and what their solution is going to cost; and no external aid is going to provide the solution without such recognition and without an improved national strategy. Aid can be addictive and enfeebling. Then there’s the human rights issue. Paradoxically, the best chance of improvement there may lie in the combination of US military aid and US domestic opposition to it. The Clinton Administration brought pressure on Bogotá to dismantle culpable Army units and put on trial, or at least dismiss, the officers and soldiers involved. This has had its effects, even under the Samper Presidency, when US policy for a time professed scepticism about ‘narcoguerrillas’ and ignored the Army’s needs. The Pastrana Government has recently purged some four hundred officers and other ranks. But this alone will not improve matters as a whole: it could even make them worse – some of those four hundred have by now probably joined the paramilitaries. The Government will have to take carefully planned further action against these organisations.

Perhaps sensing a shift in the breeze and even a slight chill in the air, the paramilitary leader Castaño has now been demanding recognition for his movement, a share in the negotiations, and equal treatment from the Government with the guerrillas. His discussions with the Minister of the Interior led the Farc to suspend their own negotiations – a predictable consequence. Their suspension communiqué denounced Pastrana’s weakness, the traditional political parties, US imperialism, the Pentagon, the Catholic hierarchy, the latifundia, the Congress, the Fiscal, the Procurador, the Defensor del Pueblo, the High Courts, neoliberalism, the IMF, the Armed Forces, the producers’ organisations and the media. Trust is thin on the ground.

But they do not want an end to the generous neutral zone, the ‘zona de despeje’. It is all going to take a long time.