Chris Harman


A dependency problem

(October 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.245, October 2000.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Clinton’s Plan Colombia is hailed as a war on drugs. But, says Chris Harman, different issues are at stake

What Plan Colombia means

  • It includes a programme of $1.3 billion of US ‘aid’. Most of it goes straight to the Colombian armed forces for weapons and military operations, including training from US ‘advisers’.
  • The New Labour government is in the vanguard of enthusiasm for this. It sent Mo Mowlam to Colombia to rustle up support for the plan the very week she announced she would be retiring from politics after the next election.


‘That’s how Vietnam began,’ the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez told the media following the news that the US had delivered 60 Black Hawk helicopters to Colombia. In every South American country there are mainstream politicians expressing similar fears.

In the summer the Clinton administration in the US finally got its Plan Colombia through the US Congress. It makes Colombia the world’s biggest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt. The official justification for the plan is the ‘war on drugs’ – Colombia has replaced Bolivia and Peru as the major source of the world’s cocaine in the last decade. But even commentators sympathetic to the plan cannot avoid admitting that there is a bigger objective at stake.

Colombia is the biggest and most populous of the Andean countries. Its neighbours are all showing increased signs of political instability. US officials describe the area as ‘an arc of crisis’. And in Colombia itself guerrilla movements are enjoying successes beyond their dreams only a few years back, with control of possibly 40 percent of the land area.

Apologists for the Plan Colombia use the term ‘narcoterrorism’. The guerrilla organisations, they claim, are responsible for cocaine production and therefore for addiction worldwide, so an attack on one is an attack on the other. The claim does not hold water. The origins of the guerrilla movements go back many decades to a time when cocaine was something rarely used outside dental surgeries.

Guerrilla organisations first grew out of Colombia’s bitter 20-year civil war, ‘La Violencia’, between the mid-1940s and mid-1960, with its thousands of tit for tat killings. This began as a clash between political forces still stuck in the 19th century as a result of the country’s economic stagnation – the old landed oligarchy and its Conservative Party, and would-be bourgeois liberals organised through the Liberal Party.

The leaders of the rival upper class parties reached an agreement to alternate in office in the late 1950s, rigging ballots when necessary. Left out in the cold were peasant self defence groups, formed during the civil war, often under varying degrees of Communist influence. These continued to control certain remote regions and were rejuvenated by a new generation of young activists in the early 1970s. It was then that the two main present-day organisations, Farc and the ELN, were formed.

From the mid-1970s to the 1990s the modern world began to impinge on Colombia through what has been called ‘wild capitalism’. Companies set up new industries unconstrained by laws to protect either workers or the environment. Landowners and ranchers shot down peasant activists, and industrialists disposed of trade union militants in the same way. When the Farc guerrillas agreed a truce and established a legal party in the late 1980s, 3,500 activists were murdered.

It was in this period that the drugs industry took off in Medellin, and bolstered the growth of wild capitalism. Men like Pablo Escobar flew in raw or semi-processed coca leaves from Peru and Bolivia, extracted cocaine from them, and then flew it on to the US to be sold – including by CIA agents who used the funds to finance the Contras in Nicaragua.

It was at this time too that the first right wing paramilitary groups began to hunt down guerrillas and peasants who sympathised with them – getting finance both from the new rich who had made money from the drugs trade, and the old landowners. Most of the media attention, however, was on the drug cartels as they blasted each other and any agency that got in their way, and began systematically to bribe their way into sections of the state, the major parties and even the presidential palace. Drugs money enabled the country’s rulers to preside over one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies through the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Neo-liberal onslaught


Clinton visits Colombia, the latest troublespot for
the US

Things changed in the mid-1990s for two reasons. First, ‘neo-liberal’ government policies meant there was increasing impoverishment in the Colombian countryside despite the growth of the economy. This led to an upsurge in support for the guerrilla organisations, particularly the Farc. Second, there was the very success of the US in persuading the rulers of Bolivia and Peru to destroy most of the coca crops there. This caused the cartels to put lots of money into developing new strains of coca plants that would grow in remote forest regions of Colombia – the provinces of Putumayo and Caqueta along the Ecuadorian border. But these were among the areas where the guerrillas were strongest.

The logic of neo-liberalism was working itself out. It was increasingly difficult for peasants to survive by growing food crops. But there was a seemingly insatiable demand for cocaine in the advanced countries – especially the US, where ‘snow’ was prized as much on Wall Street as ‘crack’ was in the ghettos. The only way the market allowed the peasants to make a livelihood was by growing the coca plant from which it was made.

The Farc guerrillas were already de facto rulers of the southern forest areas when the upsurge in coca growing began. Their strength was based on their ability to protect the peasants from attacks by big landowners, or from being defrauded by those who bought their crops. They could only maintain that support if they also protected the peasants who took to growing the new crop, coca. The peasants paid a portion of their enhanced incomes as ‘taxes’ in return. So too did the representatives of the cartels who wanted to trade in the region.

The burgeoning coca production in Colombia has meant a huge growth in Farc funds. On top of this, the various guerrilla groups are also able to ‘tax’ oil and mining companies who operate within their regions, until their total estimated revenues have risen to $600-700 million a year. Just as the untrammelled market is driving growing numbers of peasants to support them, so it is also providing them with the income needed to arm the most energetic. Farc alone is said to have 18,000 combatants who operate on 50 or 60 fronts. Six years ago it had only 8,000 combatants.

But the bulk of the drugs profits certainly have not gone to the guerrillas but into the pockets of the country’s ruling class. From there a chunk has been passed on to the right wing paramilitary organisation the AUC. The Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio estimates that the paramilitaries’ operations cost $300-400 million, ‘mostly from landowners and drug traffickers’.

Army out of control

The paramilitaries receive support from wide sections of the officer corps in the armed forces who are happy for the paramilitaries to move into an area and kill everyone sympathetic to the guerrillas. There are even reports of officers buying bodies off the paramilitaries, dressing them in combat fatigues and then claiming them as ‘guerrilla kills’. Such actions contradict the official posture of the government, which is involved in long, drawn-out peace negotiations with Farc and the ELN, and claims it wants to protect ‘human rights’. But this only shows how little control over the armed forces there is by politicians who want to be re-elected and know they have to appeal to the wide popular feeling for peace.

In fact, the extermination approach of the paramilitaries and officer corps is not incompatible with a strategy for defeating popular opposition that includes negotiation. After all, this is what happened in Central America in the 1980s. Paramilitary death squads backed by the US so weakened the guerrilla organisations that they agreed to a ‘peace’ package that allowed them into the mainstream political arena – and left the ruling class proper untouched, neo-liberal policies in place, and mass poverty to grow even worse. The problem for politicians who would follow such a strategy in Colombia is the sheer popular support, financial strength and therefore military fighting power of Farc and the ELN.

This is where Plan Colombia comes in. Re-equipping the Colombian military to take over the southern border provinces, defeat the guerrillas there and destroy the coca plantations would weaken the guerrillas elsewhere and open the path to a near-surrender. And it can all be done under the cover of fighting the drugs trade.

This is certainly the stance that appeals to the US State Department. It believes that by pumping in enough money it can train elite battalions of Colombian troops to destroy the guerrillas without needing to commit US combat troops or running the risk of getting bogged down in the country Vietnam-style. It also appeals to mining and oil interests, which see potentially huge profits in the Andean region.

But the peasants know that the ‘market’ is not going to allow them to get even a half-bearable livelihood out of any crop other than coca. They are also rightly terrified that the genetically modified fungus used to destroy coca plants will also damage other crops. Their support for the guerrillas will therefore grow.

Ruling classes in the countries bordering Colombia are terrified that the only result of Plan Colombia will be to cause the drug cartels to move their operations to Ecuador or western Brazil. Sections of the Colombian ruling class cannot be all that happy either. Colombia is meant to pay $4 billion of the cost of the plan, and is to be lumbered with servicing a further bank loan of $1.5 billion. They want to see the guerrilla organisations destroyed. But they do not see why they should have to pay if the aim is to get rid of a drugs industry which makes them rich.

Hence a lot of comment in the media right across the Andean region to the effect that the drugs problem is a domestic US problem and Latin America should not have to bear the burden of dealing with it. It is not certain that the US will be able to build up solid support behind Plan Colombia, let alone defeat the guerrillas.

The plan has one factor operating in its favour. This lies in the politics of the guerrilla organisations themselves. They are based on the mixture of Stalinist and national liberation ideology that characterised guerrilla movements right across the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s. They stress a national rather than class approach, and tell workers and peasants to rely on the strength of the guerrillas rather than on their own struggles. Their fight to control parts of the countryside can lead to clashes with each other as well as the state. And once in control they act as a government ruling over the peasants in the ‘national interest’, even if in a supposedly benevolent way, rather than as a government of the peasants.

There were a few exceptional occasions in the 20th century when top-down authoritarian movements of this sort managed to take power – in China, Vietnam, Cuba and, for a few years, Nicaragua. But the more common pattern was what happened in Venezuela and Bolivia in the 1960s, in Argentina in the 1970s, in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, and in Peru in the early 1990s. Despite differing degrees of heroism, the guerrillas provoked a vicious and bloody onslaught from the state while at the same time downplaying the active participation of workers and peasants in the struggle that alone could beat back such an onslaught. The outcome was a series of unnecessary defeats.

That does not have to be the outcome in Colombia. The country has a relatively big working class which has shown – for instance, in a general strike last year – an enormous capacity to fight on its own behalf. But to tap that fighting spirit needs a different politics to the Farc or the ELN. Meanwhile, it is up to anti-capitalists elsewhere in the world to oppose without hesitation the war for neo-liberalism that the US government is waging under the guise of a war on drugs.

Last updated on 22 December 2009