Colombia: Old Wars, New Guns

September 25, 2007

"This is not Vietnam, neither is it Yankee Imperialism." President Clinton spoke these words while in Colombia recently to deliver $862 million in aid to that country, most of which will be used to train, advise and supply its military forces. In response, students and trade unionists there torched U.S. flags. And throughout the United States—from New York City to Helena, Montana—hundreds protested the aid package. One organizer called the demonstrations "the first step toward building a national anti-war movement against U.S. intervention in Colombia."

She wasn't overstating things. As this NACLA Report makes clear, the United States is treating Colombia like Vietnam, in ways that risk deepening the country's 40-year civil war, and aggravating its reputation as one of the world's most violent nations and worst human rights violators.

As Winifred Tate notes in these pages, Washington justifies the intervention as a "drug war" tactic to destroy the Colombian coca and poppy fields that supply cocaine and heroin to the United States. But that rationale is belied by several facts. Among them: The area where most narcotraffickers are located, northern Colombia, will hardly be touched by the U.S. eradication effort. The region that will be hit, the south, is governed largely by guerrillas. The United States seems less interested in dealing with its drug problem than in attacking leftist insurgents thousands of miles away.

The real reasons for the intervention, Tate argues, are political, economic and electoral. In the wake of the Cold War, the military-industrial complex still seeks power and business. The Defense Department wants to maintain ties to Latin American militaries. Weapons firms such as Sikorsky, maker of the Blackhawk helicopter, need new markets. And in this election year, voters are concerned about drug abuse, so Democrats and Republicans compete with "drug war" talk. Colombia fits the bill for all these interests—but at a terrible price for that country's people.

Some of the costs are still speculative, as described by Ricardo Vargas Meza, who discusses plans to introduce an herbicidal fungus into Colombia. The biowarfare agent is supposed to attack drug crops. But it is banned in parts of the United States because of fears that it may also damage other organisms—including humans.

Humans are already being grotesquely harmed by violence that the U.S. aid package will only exacerbate. María Carrión introduces us to some of the 1.8 million Colombians who are refugees in their own country as a result of the carnage. Guerrillas are responsible for some of it. But the vast majority of political murders are committed by right-wing paramilitary groups against hapless peasants and other civilians who often did nothing more than support labor rights or feed guerrillas who entered a village demanding a meal. As Nazih Richani notes, paramilitary groups have a long history in Colombia. They are intimately tied to narcotraffickers, exploitative mining mafias and landowners—and to the Colombian military, which will be getting the Washington money and no doubt sharing it with its paramilitary cronies.

Colombia's guerrilla groups, meanwhile, will continue to be targets of the military and paramilitaries, and as the aid package takes effect, U.S. taxpayers can expect steady Washington descriptions of the rebels as profit-driven narcotraffickers. But Alfredo Molano traces the history of the biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and reveals that its roots are sunk deep in generations-old peasant struggles against latifundistas and other elites who for long have monopolized Colombia's wealth and political power.

Marc Chernick notes that the guerrillas have turned from older, Soviet- and Cuban-influenced ideology to reformism as they negotiate for peace. He and Daniel García-Peña describe the ongoing peace process as tedious and delicate, but as something that all parties—the government, military, guerrillas and paramilitaries—must come to see as the sole alternative to endless war. Yet that understanding will be undermined as the "aid package" pumps up the military and paramilitaries, and boxes the guerrillas into a reactive position. U.S. "aid" will thus make things worse in Colombia even as it diverts resources from this country's social needs.

This issue of NACLA Report ends with a list of organizations and resources useful for anyone interested in working for peace and justice in Colombia. [Please visit our links section to see the organizations that were listed in the resource guide.] Hopefully, that work will spread, both here and abroad.


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