The US and Columbia

Laura MacDonald

On March 5 I returned from a two week long Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia. The purpose of the delegation was to see for ourselves the impact of US policies on the people of Colombia by meeting with groups from all sides of the issues, including community groups, labor unions, a Colombian military base, and the US embassy. We also spent 24 hours with an indigenous “peace community” which works to maintain neutrality in the conflict. Witness for Peace is an independent organization that has been sending human rights delegations to Latin America and the Caribbean for 20 years. Our delegation was lead by two local women, Nancy Gwin and Ann Tiffany, and focused on indigenous issues.

Colombia is the third largest recipient of US aid, following Israel and Egypt. The aid primarily supports the military. According to the 2001 statistics of the US Embassy in Colombia, the US sent $1.3 billion to Colombia, of which only $321,000 or 25%, went towards social programs and human rights. Eighty percent was in the form of military aid, police aid, and fumigations, the harmful practice of the aerial spraying of herbicide on suspected illicit crop production sites. This year’s package is even more unbalanced.

Why would the United States government want to send so much money to Colombia? The official answer prior to September 11 and still somewhat today, is to fight the “drug war.” Now we are also told that the aid is necessary for the “war on terrorism.” The situation in Colombia is extremely complex. However, what I witnessed there did not support the justifications given by the US government for their aid package.

One of the major concerns of many of the people we talked to in Colombia is economic globalization, especially the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). This would be a trade agreement similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that would cover all of North, South, and Central America, except for Cuba. Just as NAFTA has done in Mexico, the FTAA would increase the mobility of capital for multinational corporations, allowing them to drive down wages, put small producers out of business, and undermine laws protecting workers and the environment.

In addition, Colombia, like most poor countries, is deeply in debt to global financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). To work towards paying off the debt, the IMF enforces structural adjustment programs – the restructuring of the national budget towards debt repayment and away from social programs. Colombia owes $34 billion in external debt. The Colombian national budget this year is $23 billion, of which 40% is going toward payment of external debt. Most of the rest goes toward administration and the military. In a country where 45% of the population live in absolute poverty, this is a crime against humanity. And US aid, rather than attempting to help those in poverty, instead pours millions into the military.

Colombia is a country at war. It has been for decades. The four key groups in the conflict are the national military, the two types of illegal armed groups – the guerillas and the paramilitaries – and the civilian population of Colombia. Since most of the casualties of this war have been among the latter, the conflict was described by one of the people we met with as “the military against the civilians, the paramilitaries against the civilians, and the guerillas against the civilians.” The problem is that each of the groups and the outside interest they represent (besides US government support for the military, US corporations such as Coca-Cola have been linked to paramilitary atrocities) all want the same thing: control of Colombia’s land and resources.

The civilian people of Colombia (we talked to indigenous, campesino – or small farmer – and Afro-Colombian groups) want the land because the land is key to their physical and cultural survival. They want to grow crops on the land their families and communities have been growing on for generations. They want to be able to raise their children at peace, in their own traditions. They want to be able to exist free from the constant fear that they will be killed, or their crops will be sprayed with poison, or their children will be forced into one of the armed groups. They want the land to be healthy, not poisoned and plundered.

Both the guerillas and the paramilitaries also want control of land and resources. Although their ideologies differ greatly (the paramilitaries are very right-wing, and the guerillas use leftist rhetoric), both groups have been responsible for numerous civilian deaths. However, it should be noted that the paramilitaries are responsible for a much higher percentage of these atrocities.
The interests of US policy makers and corporations (often one and the same) are not these things. They are not interested in Colombia for its agricultural capacity. The price of coffee, which was for generations Colombia’s leading export, has been driven down so low by IMF-induced overproduction in areas like Viet Nam and India, that it is no longer profitable for Colombian farmers. This leads them often to resort to the production of illicit crops. Once an area is known to have these crops (coca and/or poppies), it then becomes the target of the “war on drugs” in the form of (US sponsored) aerial fumigation of crops and (often US funded) increase of military activity. Both of these serve to displace people from their land.

A second approach to freeing Colombian land and resources for exploitation is the same as that being used right now by the US to gain control of Iraqi oil: the “war on terrorism.” The guerillas are portrayed as terrorists, which is not far from the truth, although a far greater number of atrocities have resulted at the hands of the paramilitaries. The problem is, of course, that the guerillas a) cannot easily be distinguished from civilians by appearance, and b) use the rhetoric of agrarian and other social reforms to further their own interests, making it convenient for the military and paramilitaries to target anyone who is genuinely working for these goals as a guerilla “narco-terrorist” and eliminate them. This, too, serves the interests of those who would rather not see land and resources under the control of the people to whom they rightfully belong.

So if the US powers and their Colombian allies are not interested in Colombia’s agricultural capacity, what are they interested in? One interest the US has in Colombia is its strategic location. Colombia shares borders with Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Currently, both Venezuela and Peru have left-leaning governments, a concern of the Bush administration. There is even circumstantial evidence of US involvement in an unsuccessful coup against the president of Venezuela. Alvaro Uribe, the current president of Colombia, rivals our own George W. Bush in his conservative militarism. With Uribe in power, the US can, in effect, use Colombia as a base to attempt to counteract the leftist tendencies of other South American governments.

In addition to these political concerns, there are (surprise!) economic interests at work here. One primary Colombian export is that old culprit, oil. Just as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has concerns over a huge oil pipeline that runs through the country. The US government has designated $98 million and deployed a Colombian military brigade specifically to protect this pipeline, which pumps oil for the US-based multinational Occidental Petroleum. Colombia also has large reserves of natural gas. The Colombian government has given Chevron (also US-based) control over the country’s natural gas reserves. Chevron, with an investment of $40 million, expects a net profit of $1 billion. Incidentally, Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor for the Bush administration, was once on the board of directors of Chevron.

I have only begun to touch on the situation in Colombia and the role of the US government and US corporations. Despite all the confusion and complexity, however, one thing stood out to me: that against all odds, despite death threats and the murders of friends and family, despite the violence and the torture and the displacement, people in Colombia continue to resist, to organize, to practice active and infinitely brave non-violence. They asked of us over and over, that we do our best to do the same.

Laura is an active member of the newly re-formed Caribbean Latin America Committee. For more information or to get involved, call 478-4571.