I was invited last week to a round table discussion on Colombia, organized by the United States Institute of Peace in Washington DC. The objective of the round table was to discuss the challenges that the peace process is confronting nationally in Colombia and the position the United States maintains in the process. In this blog I tackle the latter since I have discussed in previous blogs and elsewhere including in the forthcoming second edition of my book Systems of Violence (inadvertent advertisement) the first.
As an imperialist power, the United States has always played a critical role in Colombia through its special links with its military, which is not unique to Colombia since it has similar relations with almost all militaries throughout Latin America. Each of these armed forces fills a role in the U.S. regional security regime within their global strategy. However, this strategy has evolved since the 19th century to the Cold War and now the post-Cold war. Notwithstanding these shifts, in Colombia the military and geostrategic position between both Pacific and Atlantic coasts, proximity to the Panama Canal, and contingencies such as a menacing Marxist insurgency with increasing power in late 1990s, narcotrafficking, and the Chavez factor in Venezuela made the relationship to the United States unique. Combined, these factors prompted the United States to increasingly pay extra attention to the Colombian military, particularly after the implementation of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy coupled with electoral-democracies were completed in most of the region during the 1980s and 1990s.
The $7 billions invested by the United States, overwhelmingly as military aid, between 2000 and 2012 further cemented this relationship, making the Colombian military one of the strongest and most capable in the region and better prepared to play the global role envisioned by the United States. These investments are coupled with boots on the ground. Hundreds of U.S. military personnel and contractors are stationed in different military bases in Arauca, Larandia (Caqueta), Bahia de Malaga, Tolemeida (Tolima), and Flandes (Tolima). This in addition to one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world, with more than 3,500 of employees representing 42 agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) among many others—most of which are invested in the political economy of its war-system.
In effect, the United States has increasingly become a party to this conflict as it was before in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Consequently, the statements of support to the peace talks made by Vice President Biden in his latest tour to the region, and those of President Obama, do not go far enough to reflect the critical role the United States plays in the on-going conflict. Here I attempt to suggest some tentative points to the U.S. policy-makers and activists under the rubric “demilitarizing the U.S.-Colombian relationship” that better reflect the hegemonic role of the United States and how it can help the peace talks come into fruition.
1. The United States policy-makers must consider the potential spoilers to the current peace process and be aware of alignment of interests taking place—chiefly between the Colombian military and the landed elite. This is crucial because the United States has equivalent—and at times greater—influence over the military than that of the President of Colombia. Cases in point—during Samper administration between 1994 and 1998, General Horold Bedoya openly challenged the president with the backing of the United States. During the Pastrana presidency (1998-2002), an incident occurred at the Cazadores military base in which the military refused to vacate in accordance with an agreement with the FARC, and the top brass threatened collective resignation in protest to the way the peace process was then being conducted. This happened within the context of U.S. concern about the concessions that Pastrana gave the FARC, which they saw as too favorable to the rebels. In the two cases of Samper and Pastrana, the U.S. position was not only critical, but also allowed the military to challenge the authority of the president. Keep in mind that seven or more decades of training, indoctrination at the infamous School of the Americas in the United States, and joint military missions and agreements have institutionalized a relationship that circumvents that of the President of Colombia over his military. Moreover, Plan Colombia (2000-present) further strengthened the U.S. influence over Colombia's military institutions. Under this agreement, the United States decides which battalions of the military receive aid, training, and privileges thus vetting the entire command structure from down to the top brass. According to the Department of State 600 military units are reviewed annually and another 35,000 civilians in compliance with the Leahy Law on Human Rights. Therefore, at this critical juncture, if the United States chooses the peace option, it must make it unequivocally clear. And if this happens, it will persuade the military to support the Santos peace effort that will weaken the landed elite and other reactionary forces that are betting on the continuation of the war system.
2. The United States must remove Colombia’s left-wing armed groups—the FARC, ELN, and EPL—from its terrorist list. They must also start a process of rapprochement with the rebel groups and facilitate the release of FARC leader Simon Trinidad, whose conviction in the United States was allegedly politically motivated.
3. Initiate Plan Colombia II: After billions of dollars spent on the war economy, it is time to start preparing a package for post-conflict economic and social development focusing chiefly on the badly needed infrastructure and assistance to the peasant economy and small agricultural production. Helping the small and landless peasants can lessen dependence on coca cultivation or channel it for other uses (although the rational solution would be the legalization and decriminalization of drug consumption and production).
The Obama administration must abide by a coherent peace-mode policy to replace the 50-years long war-mode policy in Colombia. Change will not come easily, particularly from the security-military complex that sees the world through the prism of vested institutional and personal interests in maintaining war and conflict.
It is time to push Colombia’s government from diverting around 6% of its GDP to guns rather than butter and start thinking about a post-conflict situation in which its bloated military of about 450,000 soldiers is reduced. And more importantly, through this restructuring the military must purge the human right violators and those linked with narco-paramilitaries—all the way up through the top command.
4. Redefining the scope and jurisdiction of the military to strictly defense rather public order. This latter must be the function of a reformed police force under the Ministry of Interior and not as part of the Ministry of Defense as it has been for several decades under the U.S.-designed National Security Doctrine. The former members of the rebel groups could form part of newly founded police force that is community based, particularly in their areas of influence. It would be helpful to examine the peace-building experience of Nicaragua, especially their community-based policing, which has been key in mitigating a post-conflict crime surge. Finally, attesting of the very special ties between the Colombian military and the United States, President Santos instructed his Minister of Defense to negotiate its membership in NATO. This also indicates that Plan Colombia was not only designed for a local war but was preparing Colombia’s military for a wider regional and international role under the aegis of the United States’ security system. But it remains to be seen whether the United States can see its strategic interest better served by a peaceful Colombia or not.
Nazih Richani is the Director of Latin American studies at Kean University. He blogs at nacla.org/blog/cuadernos-colombianos.