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Mike Gonzalez

The poisoned embrace

Plan Colombia and the expansion of imperial power

(Winter 2001)

From International Socialism 2:93, Winter 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Colombia (so often misspelt and so rarely understood) has hit the headlines in Britain just twice in 2001 – once when a British oil company employee was kidnapped by the ELN (Colombia’s National Liberation Army), and again when three alleged members of the IRA were arrested as they left the territories under the control of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla organisation). Despite the many column inches devoted to these incidents for the day or two that media interest lasted, little was done to dispel the stereotypical image of a Latin America populated almost entirely by guerrillas, drug dealers and generals in dark glasses. Certainly there was no attempt to take the opportunity to explain why the US government has thus far given over $1 billion in aid under the auspices of Plan Colombia, nor why the vast bulk of that money has been spent on military training and weapons, despite the repeated assertions from US State Department sources that the central purpose of the aid programme is to eliminate drug production. [1] Mo Mowlam was one politician recruited for the campaign to reassure the world of the high moral purposes of Plan Colombia. She briefly graced the front pages of the British press kneeling beside a dead coca plant – living proof that the Blair government’s support for Plan Colombia was one more component of its ethical foreign policy.

The reality, of course, is far more sinister and more far reaching. Equally clear is the fact that even a successful outcome of Plan Colombia will have virtually no effect on the rising graph of drug use in the US. Whether the British government is just deeply disingenuous, or a willing accomplice in the concealment of the realities of a new period of expansion and militarisation whose horizons lie far beyond Colombia, is unproven. [2] The evidence, however, is accumulating relentlessly, as human rights groups, NGOs, guerrilla organisations, striking trade unionists and social movements give notice to the world of what is happening to Colombia, and as hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees fleeing from areas of conflict and destruction offer poignant witness to the real objectives of Plan Colombia.

The genesis of Plan Colombia

Plan Colombia was presented to the Colombian Congress by its current president, Andres Pastrana, in 1999. It was strongly rumoured that the Spanish version he offered them was a translation of a version originally written in English and discussed during a visit to President Clinton in Washington. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that ‘Plan Colombia is both a continuation and an escalation of US politico-military policy...adapted to new global realities’. [3] That was not how it was represented. Pastrana’s justification for the plan was that it offered a strategy for restoring stability and peace to Colombia, a country whose modern history has been characterised by violence and conflict. The centrepiece of the policy, ostensibly at least, was a drugs eradication programme. The relationship between the two was that Clinton would thus be able to argue at home that the plan was not a military intervention in Latin America but rather an extension of domestic drugs containment policies. Pastrana for his part could argue that the plan identified the drug producers as the central obstacle to democracy in the country. The $1 billion of aid that Clinton sought from Congress was overwhelmingly devoted to arms and military spending. The only other measure was a large-scale programme of defoliant spraying intended, it was alleged, to eliminate coca and poppy production while leaving other crops unscathed.

It certainly seems that the British government, among others, has bought the drugs eradication story-accepting without demur the suggestion that the large guerrilla organisations and their continuing confrontation with the Colombian state were no more than extensions of the drug war. A new term – ‘narcoguerrillas’ – was coined to make the elision easier. Thus the US State Department was able to report on 30 June 2001 that ‘the US Congress gave final passage June 30 to an $11,200 million spending bill that includes $1,300 million in emergency aid designed to help the government of Colombia battle the illegal drug trade’. [4]

It became immediately clear, however, that the US government was fully aware that the likely effect on drug trafficking into America’s cities would be negligible – previous eradication programmes had demonstrated that beyond question. Public statements from the Colombian government seemed entirely concerned with defeating the guerrillas, while the spokespersons for the US government were clearly preoccupied with matters of ‘regional security’.

The net effect of this eradication programme has been the increasing militarisation of Colombian society, the displacement of up to 2 million people, and the creation of a deepening economic crisis whose victims include the small farmers, oil and transport workers, and urban refugees who have repeatedly demonstrated their concerns in the streets of Colombia’s cities in recent months.

The claim of the plan’s US sponsors to be concerned with the restoration of human rights and the consolidation of democracy was a veil that covered completely different purposes. The direct consequence of that aid package has been to legitimise a whole range of assaults on all democratic rights, to militarise all aspects of civil society and to subordinate the interests of the majority of Colombians to the geopolitical concerns of global capitalism.

Drugs – myth and reality

The Colombian drugs boom began in the 1960s when the northern regions around Santa Marta provided marijuana, much prized in the booming US market. The result was a kind of gold rush along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, when the infamous Cherokee Chieftains with smoked glass windows signalled the arrival of a newly rich class. When US authorities began to control that trade, the weed was replaced by cocaine which was much more profitable and less bulky. [5] The raw material was the coca plant, grown by peasants and small farmers in Bolivia and Peru, then collected in unmarked planes and taken to small laboratories and processing plants in the Amazon regions before export to the US and, in smaller quantities, to Europe. The profits were unimaginable, even when they had to be shared with the ruling elites of a number of Latin American countries. In Bolivia, for example, the military regimes of the 1970s were deeply involved in this continental drug trade. [6] The involvement of US-based agencies, and the CIA in particular, is murkier, though arms for drugs exchanges were to emerge into the public arena in the following decade, with the testimonies of Oliver North and others.

Colombia’s geography lent itself well to the creation of hidden jungle laboratories and the trade routes had already been laid out during the marijuana years. Now Medell’n became the centre of this new drug trade – dominated first by Carlos Lehder and later by Pablo Escobar. [7] This group had emerged from the poorer urban sectors, and they ensured their loyalty by generous acts of charity. But the scale of profits involved in the trade gave the drug cartels the ability to buy and sell politicians, lawyers, judges and generals – and to murder those who refused to comply. In 1990 the Medell’n cartel murdered three presidential candidates. Escobar was boasting that he could pay off the national debt, or take on the Colombian army and win. As was to be expected, the Colombian ruling classes found this challenge intolerable. While it was always true that Colombian society was deeply divided and cross-hatched by regional power bases, [8] and that the state was a point of negotiation between them, in the final analysis Escobar was challenging the power of the ruling classes as a whole. And even if, as subsequent years would demonstrate, those classes had been corrupted and controlled by the drug cartels, they could not tolerate an alternative power within the nation state. The grandfather of the cartel, Lehrer, was now in prison in the US. Washington was demanding the extradition of the current cartel leaders too. Escobar therefore reached an agreement with the government to turn himself in, in exchange for a guarantee that he would not be extradited. A special jail was built for him – but it quickly became clear that it was effectively a fortified hotel with state protection, since he quite openly continued to conduct his business from there. In any event, he walked out in 1992 and remained in hiding until his assassination at the hands of Colombian anti-drugs agencies a year later. Power then moved to the competing Cali cartel, which explicitly spurned any aspirations to power. In 1995 its leader, Rodriguez Orijuela, was also arrested, just as the extent of its involvement in and control of the government of Ernesto Samper – the very government that had proclaimed its resolve to crush the cartels – began to emerge with mounting supporting evidence.

The effect of this and other anti-drug measures promoted by the US government was negligible. In the 1980s major interventions in Bolivia and Peru – the chief source of the coca leaf – had simply resulted in a shift in the areas of primary production towards southern Colombia. The traffic found different routes and expanded onto a worldwide terrain that embraced Turkey, Albania, Central America and Mexico as the chief portals to the European and US markets respectively. The long and short of it was that the spectacular assaults on coca and poppy growing areas only affected the smallest cog in the system – the peasant growers. Since the coca plant gives a crop in 60 days, it took very little time for new crops to be grown elsewhere:

According to a 1999 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, ‘Despite two years of extensive herbicide spraying [in Colombia], US estimates show [that] net coca cultivation actually increased by 50 percent’. [9]

In fact:

Even if ‘successful’ eradication were actually achieved in Colombia, there are 1.6 billion acres in the rest of the biophysically hospitable Amazon. That is more than 2,000 times the 740,000 acres needed to fulfil the complete international demand for cocaine. In the entire history of the use of force against illicit crops, not one effort has succeeded in reducing the supply of natural drugs needed to fully supply the world market. [10]

The reality, then, is that the fundamental issue is the demand, not the supply – and the US government, while willing to disburse tens of millions in spectacular interventions in the affairs of supplier countries, refuses to address the issue of why drugs are used to the extent that they are in the US. While there seems in recent times to have been a slight decline in middle class use of drugs as their harmful effects have been documented and publicised, the inner city poor have no alternative. They are criminalised and the small-scale dealers are added to the millions in America’s prisons. Meanwhile, an estimated 50 percent of the half a trillion dollars of profit that drugs yield every year remains within the financial system of the US itself, reinvested and manipulated by some 500 or so economic actors. [11]

Within Colombia itself the Medellín and Cali cartels have been successfully broken, but this has not meant even a momentary break in the flow of drugs. Local production is now in the hands of several hundred middle size refiners and distributors whose task it is to pass it on to the major actors in the traffic.

The US, meanwhile, continues with its policy of spraying crops across southern Colombia. There has been a sinister change, however, under the aegis of Plan Colombia, the effects of which are likely to be profound and destructive in both social and economic terms. For nearly two decades the use of the herbicide glyphosate, it is claimed, has eliminated some 150,000 acres of land devoted to the cultivation of coca and poppy plants. Yet, as we have seen, the effects on overall production were relatively small. In recent times the fields have been sprayed with a different agent – the myoherbicide Fusarium oxysporum – whose effects are far reaching and indiscriminate. It kills a wide range of plants, and will almost certainly have catastrophic effects on the fragile ecology of the region. [12] Even more curious, and a point to which I shall return, is that, while 40 percent of Colombia’s coca is currently grown in the north of the country, spraying is concentrated in the south.

This issue is complex and its ramifications need to be considered in more detail elsewhere. But at another level, the irresistible conclusion is quite a simple one. The drug eradication programme which ostensibly lies at the heart of Plan Colombia is incapable of realising its own goals – as all previous drug eradication programmes pursued in the last two decades have repeatedly demonstrated. This is well known in State Department circles and reiterated in every debate on the issue. We must therefore assume that the ‘war on drugs’ is the veil behind which hides a very different strategy.

Strategies in the backyard

Plan Colombia, as Petras emphasises, is the latest chapter in a long narrative of counter-insurgency – the succession of policies and strategies whereby the US protects the economic interests of its home-based capital. [13] Thus the military intervention in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua at the turn of the century both provided a bridgehead to guard its ‘backyard’ and ensured a security fence to protect the activities of the United Fruit Company among others. Its surrogates and representatives were on hand to crush Chile’s 100-day republic in 1930, the 1932 insurrection in El Salvador, the 1933 rising in Cuba and so on.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 ushered in a new period of counter-insurgency, which combined military, economic and ideological interventions under the twin banners of the Alliance for Progress and the Inter American Security Treaty. The objective was to isolate Cuba, provide alternative routes to reform within the imperial context and impede any growth in the development of guerrilla warfare across the continent. The iron fist emerged from the velvet glove of reform in September 1973, when Chile’s experiment in radical transformation through parliament was destroyed by a US-supported military coup led, among others, by Augusto Pinochet, who eventually emerged as its undisputed head. The Chilean coup was not just a local matter, but a strategy of militarisation and enforced economic integration. The ‘Chilean miracle’, proclaimed by Thatcher and others, effectively subjected workers to the laws of the market in their most brutal form while destroying their organisations of self defence. It is ironic to hear the mock horror expressed by Western leaders when the co-ordination of repression by the military regimes of the southern cone (Plan Condor) emerged into full public view during the Pinochet trial. That regionalisation of the conflict and the co-ordination of strategies between the new military governments was the hallmark of US thinking throughout this period.

The Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 turned the arrow around – suddenly it was pointing at the heart of the beast. The Central American region was in turmoil, and a mass movement in El Salvador made the possibility of a regional revolutionary process a real one. In the event, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua chose to disengage the fate of its revolution from the intensifying struggle in the rest of the region. [14] It did not save it, of course, from systematic assault – military, economic and ideological – from the north, the destruction of its economy, the death of some 60,000 of its citizens and the wounding of twice that number. It is one of the many tragic ironies of Latin America’s recent past that the consequence of US policy in the region through the 1980s was to systematically destroy the Sandinista attempt to develop an independent social economy and return both Nicaragua and its neighbours to a servile dependence on the very drug trade the US now denounces.

US strategy in Central America in the 1980s was characterised by ‘low intensity operations’ – a misnomer if ever there was one:

Through the application of a flexible mix of aid blockades, trade sanctions, economic sabotage, political and psychological pressures, civic action ‘pacification’ programs, military warfare and electoral intervention, Reagan-Bush policy has attempted to consolidate or install in power in Central America elected governments willing to accommodate White House objectives – not least in the economic sphere. [15]

Petras’s definition hardly captures the human costs of the policy – the tens of thousands dead, the destruction of economies, the displacement of millions towards the slums around the capital cities, the creation of monstrous corps of murderers like the Nicaraguan Contras with their specialities in the dismemberment of living bodies, the creation of a kind of counter-reform in the countryside where large swathes of land are restored to the landowners, often through the actions of peasant militias. The militarisation of society, the implantation of terror in the countryside, renders any and all forms of self-organisation or self-defence impossible. The role of the US lay in supporting internal counter-revolutionary forces, reinforcing the military through direct military aid and the provision of trainers, using international financial and other agencies to isolate and undermine the local economy, and mobilising a massive propaganda apparatus across the world.

After nearly a decade of struggle and resistance the peace accords of 1989 in El Salvador and the fall of the Sandinista government in 1990 [16] were to usher in a new era. We now know what that new era looks like. In southern Honduras, which had provided the base for anti-Sandinista operations through the 1980s, the economy was destroyed and the population corrupted and prostituted by the Contras and their US advisers. Agricultural production in the whole frontier region virtually ceased as the population fled the Contra war. Drugs regularly supplied to US military personnel and their allies turned the area into a boom zone for some and an important transition route for the drug trade. In El Salvador the economy is now wholly reintegrated into the world market, most food is imported and unemployment is endemic. Nicaragua’s economy collapsed through the period of the Contra war, but unsurprisingly the promised post-election aid never arrived. Now Nicaragua too has all the familiar characteristics of an impoverished economy open to the ravages of a world system – unemployment rates hovering around 60 percent, a horrific drug problem, a collapsing infrastructure, an agricultural sector where living standards are unimaginably low, and a tiny middle class living comfortable lives under siege conditions. In every case the leaders of the guerrilla organisations of the 1980s led the peace negotiations and were absorbed into the new governments. In El Salvador and Nicaragua many of the ex-guerrillas entered the army and the police. They then found themselves to be functionaries of the neo-liberal or ‘structural adjustment’ policies whose net effect was to subject those in whose name they had so recently been fighting to the laws of a confident and barbaric world market. [17] Most brutally paradoxical of all, perhaps, was that the ex-guerrillas found themselves co-operating with those who had been guilty of the most appalling human rights atrocities and in many cases negotiating their immunity as a condition of the ‘peace’ process. It is particularly poignant to travel through Nicaragua today, and see the living conditions of those who fought the Contra war compared with the luxurious lifestyle and ostentatious wealth of many of those who led that war.

That, then, is the background to Plan Colombia. The strategic priorities of US policy – the destruction of resistance in order to create an open terrain for international capital, and US-based capital in particular – have been consistently pursued through the countries of the southern cone in the 1970s and Central America in the 1980s. It is those same geopolitical imperatives that impel US policy in Colombia today, though the scale of things has changed. Clinton’s legacy to Latin America – Plan Colombia – both continues and develops that policy, adding significant new resources, reinvoking a right to intervention by redefining the issue as a domestic US matter (the campaign against drugs), and emphasising its international and regional nature. To that must be added, however, the reality of a world entering the 21st century in an era of globalisation on the one hand, and mounting resistance to globalisation on the other.

The outlays envisaged by Plan Colombia amount to $1.3 billion. The distribution of that finance is revealing – 82 percent of it will go to directly military purposes, divided between helicopters for the anti-drugs battalion of the Colombian army (47 percent), sea and river operations (27 percent) and 7 percent to the national police. Of the remainder just over 11 percent will be dedicated to alternative development projects and 7 percent towards the defence of human rights! [18] This leaves very little room for doubt as to the repressive purposes of Plan Colombia. It is a military project whose objective is control over the southern regions of Colombia. Furthermore it is not limited to Colombia itself. The six-year projection within the plan assumed the progressive involvement of what are described there as ‘partner nations’. The real significance of the term is already emerging, as the Ecuadorean government has been ‘persuaded’ to cede the Manta air base and its hinterland near the Colombian border to the US.

But even were the distribution of the total package to be altered – were alternative development to be given more, for example – nothing would be changed. For the allocation to human rights and alternative crops is determined within the wider context of the plan – that is within the framework of a geopolitics whose strategic purposes involve the ‘rooting out’ of coca and poppy production from the area by military and chemical means. As the new more aggressive spraying policy begins to affect other crops, and as the confrontation between the military and the guerrilla forces grows more intense (for what other purpose can the cascade of new military material into the area have?), tens or hundreds of thousands of peasants will join the fleeing columns making for the larger cities. They will not only be escaping the increasingly generalised violence – they will also be moving because their very livelihood has been destroyed. Others, however, will swell the ranks of the guerrillas for identical reasons (I will return to the issue in greater detail in the final sections below) and provide legitimacy for a mounting and costly military campaign. It is already the case that Colombian society is becoming increasingly militarised as a result of Plan Colombia – not only because the armed forces now have enormous logistical and ideological support from the powerful northern neighbour, but also because the priorities of the Colombian government are increasingly military. As the tide of refugees grows and the availability of basic foods declines, so the repression currently focused on the areas under guerrilla domination will generalise and intensify. This is not an imagined outcome – it is already a reality. The public sector and transport strikes of July this year were testimony to the social effects of Plan Colombia.

It is perfectly clear that for some time the Colombian state has been unable to control or contain the strains and contradictions within the society. Shot through with corruption, nepotism and conflicts between regional and sectoral interests, the state has – it seems to me – effectively crumbled into warring factions squabbling over the booty. Each new president – Pastrana, the current incumbent, among them – has set out to impose human rights and developmental priorities, yet in each case revelations of complicity, corruption and the exchange of favours have rendered those promises meaningless. Those public servants, and there have been many, who have attempted to act democratically have been cut down in their hundreds and thousands.

In the latter half of the 1980s it did appear that a political space was opening in parallel with the settlements reached between the leaderships of the armed struggle and the state in Central America. But as elements in the Colombian state opened dialogue with the M-19 and the FARC guerrillas, many within the military establishment were demanding a military solution. Those who came in from the cold to negotiate and became candidates in the elections of 1990 were almost all murdered, while trade union leaders and militants in social movements were assassinated in growing numbers. The assault on the cocaine barons, by contrast, yielded almost nothing. Some were captured and some killed, but the structures of their invisible order remained intact.

The reality was that the Colombian state was powerless to impose any kind of national solution or to initiate a process of reform. While the army complained bitterly that it was perpetually being restrained in its counter-guerrilla activity, and darkly criticised the political agenda and the concept of peace as essentially the concession of victory to the guerrillas, the political class was so compromised and corrupt that it did not and could not seize the window that had briefly opened for it. [19] The army’s frustration expressed itself in the growth of the paramilitary organisations that terrorised populations and waged a private and undocumented war against the rural population in particular. It is quite clear that these were the irregulars of the Colombian army, and that in many cases their connections with the military were intimate and immediate. [20] On the other hand, they were also directly connected to the drug cartels – or were instruments of rival factions. This did not stop them enjoying the covert support of sections of the army, the political class, and indeed US agencies like the CIA. It is bitterly ironic that one of the principal leaders of the paramilitary gangs, Carlos Castaño, is now offering himself as a broker between the Colombian government, the drug barons and the US government. [21] For any who imagined that Plan Colombia would bring the paramilitaries under control, or limit their activities, this is the most public of replies. The paramilitaries will now become effectively absorbed into a strategy of military containment and control – and their leaders, like Castaño, will be incorporated into the structures of a new, militarised state. Colombia Report (4 June 2001) reported a bill recently passed in the Colombian Senate which, among other things, provided virtual immunity to members of the armed forces who commit human rights abuses while combating ‘supposed’ terrorist groups. In what may be a sign of things to come, 2,500 members of the Colombian army seized towns in Nariño province as part of the ‘anti-drugs’ Operation Tsunami – 110 people were killed, only 18 of whom were guerrillas.

Friends and enemies

What are the perspectives that inform US policy in Latin America? The framework for Plan Colombia is marked by two key dates as far as economic policy is concerned. In January 1994 the long-prepared North America Free Trade Area (NAFTA) was announced, drawing Canada, Mexico and the US into a tariff-free zone of economic activity, which represented the first stage in a new phase of global economic integration. This was not simply a trade agreement, but the creation of a single economic unit dominated by US capital. After all, transnational capital had already found a comfortable home in a Mexican economy which had undergone massive privatisation of state assets under the Salinas presidency (1988–1994) and whose financial markets had already been thrown open to external involvement. This was definitely an announcement of things to come. The next stage of this aggressive process of continental integration was already envisaged, with the extension of NAFTA into Central America and the subsequent creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) which was finally agreed, with sirens and the explosion of teargas canisters as background music, at Quebec City in April 2001.

At the same time, the confidence of the principal actors in the institutions of world capitalism was slightly shaken at the very moment of NAFTA’s inception by a ‘small local difficulty’ whose symbolic impact on the world was far greater than its material effect. The Zapatista rising in Chiapas stole the headlines from the spin doctors of the multinational financial institutions and raised a cry – ‘Ya Basta!’ – which would very soon resonate across a growing worldwide anti-capitalist movement. [22] It would seem that the much vaunted ‘end of history’ was now over (if the paradox may be excused) – resistance was back on the agenda, placed there by sections of the community at the very margins of the global system – yet, as its leader Marcos so eloquently argued, directly suffering the consequences of the structural adjustment of the new neo-liberal economic order.

It was clear that the Andean region had a key role to play in the expansion plans of global capital. Venezuela (now no longer necessarily a ‘partner nation’) was a key supplier of oil in the region, but Colombia possesses major deposits of oil and natural gas, currently exploited by foreign multinationals and distributed through the state oil enterprise Ecopetrol. The scale of deposits means that Colombia will become a powerful player in the world oil trade. To a lesser extent so too will neighbouring Ecuador. Control of these resources – as well as other important export areas like flowers and other commodities – is crucial to the growth and expansion of the regional ‘free trade’ area. Ecuador’s economy has already been ‘dollarised’ – that is, integrated into a global economy. Venezuela, on the other hand, is now run by the nationalist-populist Chavez regime. His rhetoric is clearly rooted in a politics of national liberation and anti-imperialism, and he has followed through by establishing friendly and co-operative arrangements with Cuba, including cut-price oil. Furthermore, OPEC’s new president is a Venezuelan. Chavez’s actual attitude to the US is less easy to measure, and there are hints that he will be prepared to deal with the US. The future of the region, the fulcrum on which a whole geopolitics is balanced, is therefore Colombia: ‘Plan Colombia has to be seen as an attempt to behead the most advanced, radicalised and well organised opposition to US hemispheric hegemony’. [23] Petras’s rather adulatory characterisation of the guerrilla organisations, and particularly FARC, will need some added nuances. But his overall explanation of Plan Colombia’s greater purposes is, I think, undeniable. For Winfred Tate too, the US is ‘gearing up to repeat the mistakes of the past’. [24] That may well be its intention, but as the year 2001 has unfolded it has become increasingly clear that there is a growing resistance to the strategies of globalisation, not only in a burgeoning worldwide anti-capitalist current, but also in a growing Latin American resistance. The implementation of FTAA has been met with rolling strikes in Argentina, while in Bolivia the victory of the mass front in Cochabamba against an attempted water privatisation has been an inspiration. And despite the advancing integration of its economy into global structures, Ecuador has borne witness to an inspiring struggle of indigenous peoples and working class organisations which began in 1990 with the formation of CONAIE, the Ecuadorean Indigenous Peoples Confederation.

But the major test of the geopolitical strategies of the US and global capital is undoubtedly Colombia. It occupies a highly strategic location on the continent, bridging the Caribbean and the Pacific, and dominating the northern part of the continent. Its resources are considerable. But the key consideration, in my view, is political. In the era of globalisation the capacity of capital to gain access to all terrain – the absence of any key region outside its control – becomes a central issue. The history of guerrilla warfare in Colombia has been a very particular one. As a result there do exist well defended and well supported guerrilla enclaves where the cost of a military incursion could well be very high. But it is also a test of capital’s resolve and its power, and Vietnam weighs heavy on the memory of the US ruling class. There is not, as some commentators have suggested, a direct parallel to be drawn between Colombia and Vietnam. There is no long history of colonial war, no national liberation struggle as such, no international power struggle reflected in the specific arena. The liberated territories under FARC control do not correspond to the existence of a state (North Vietnam) with its own mass military organs. If, on the other hand, the comparison is with the possibility that the US may find itself compelled to commit large numbers of US troops in the face of the collapse of its local surrogate and the decomposition of the military command (as in South Vietnam), then I think this unlikely too. The Colombian army is numerous and well organised, all the more so with the high level of training and support it has received throughout the 1990s (and not just since the implementation of Plan Colombia) from the US. What Plan Colombia does represent is an escalation of that involvement – and a clear perception on the part of the US that the Colombian state was not able to co-ordinate or impose a political solution across the national territory. Pastrana is only the latest in a series of modernising presidential candidates committed, at least verbally, to processes of reform, who have found themselves unable to create the conditions to make that happen. The ‘peace process’, which brought the guerrilla leaders and the government into dialogue, was destroyed by the paramilitaries with the complicity of both the army command and the drug cartels. Each attempt to renew the process has produced a similar response. The agreement to a demilitarised zone (zona de despeje) in late 1998 and the security guarantees given to the guerrilla forces by the Pastrana government produced an ill concealed fury in the army command – and while the zone still exists, Plan Colombia itself is the guarantee that its existence will be brief.

A catastrophic equilibrium?

Plan Colombia clearly represents, at one level, an attempt by the US to break what it sees as a stalemate in Colombia: a weak state overseeing a divided country with a number of power centres; significant guerrilla armies controlling extensive territories embracing numerous largely peasant populations; combative trade union and human rights organisations exposing the actions of the paramilitaries and the deepening economic crisis; the paramilitaries linked to the armed forces at an earlier stage, yet now acting independently both as a repressive force and as an economic actor; and the multiple participants in a drug economy whose major beneficiaries almost certainly operate outside Colombia but who are themselves wealthy and powerful and able to act independently of state and army.

Who, then, will tip the balance? The US clearly sees itself in that role, reinforcing the interests of the Colombian bourgeoisie, imposing the rule of a strong militarised state and successfully defeating the opposition.

But can the guerrillas be defeated? The major guerrilla organisations the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army) have long but different histories. The FARC, under its legendary leader Manuel Marulanda or Tirofijo, meaning ‘sureshot’, emerged during the years of La Violencia, the 14-year period during which all political life in Colombia was played out in armed conflict. La Violencia began with the assassination in the capital, Bogotá, of a trade unionist and Liberal presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. The violent reaction to his death began in the capital, but set in motion a process in which social struggles ‘degenerated into local party feuds’. [25] That is not to say that there were not issues of class at work – the period prior to La Violencia had seen major trade union struggles on the one hand and battles over land and peasant rights on the other. But in the appalling atmosphere of violence unleashed in 1948, it was local chieftains who organised guerrillas to carry out revenge attacks or to settle scores against peasants or rural communities that had opposed them in the past. In some areas the Communist Party began to organise armed peasant defence and to introduce the land issue into its demands. But the irony was that this was a boom time for the Colombian bourgeoisie. Industrial production rose while wages fell – small wonder when all forms of independent organisation were repressed in both city and countryside. In the second half of the 1950s successive governments tried to negotiate an end to the violence, yet each amnesty or ceasefire produced more violence and death. In any event, the amnesties did not apply to the communist party, which had now grouped several thousand peasant families into areas of the south known as the independent republics, like Marquetalia. In 1963 these were invaded and crushed by the Colombian army. Those who escaped the subsequent repression formed mobile guerrilla groups, which met (for the second time), in 1966 to form the FARC. [26]

The FARC is indelibly marked by the circumstances of its birth. It emerged first as, and has remained in essence, an organisation of peasant self defence. Its association with the Communist Party did not mean that it was ideologically driven. It responded in pragmatic ways to the changing demands of its social base – which might explain its survival and continuity for over 40 years (a record no other armed guerrilla organisation in Latin America can claim). In the anarchic conditions of the Colombian countryside it has in many ways constituted both a form of local administration and, as Jenny Pearce puts it, ‘virtually a rural civil guard’. As a result it has survived through crises that have almost destroyed the other guerrilla groupings. As violence, official and paramilitary, has continued to characterise daily life for most of Colombia’s rural population, organised self defence has increasingly become the major issue, but the base of FARC is among small farmers living in precarious conditions. Many of them grow coca – and FARC has taken a tax from this, as from all other activities in the areas under its control. This has allowed the US and its allies to coin the term ‘narcoguerrillas’ – and to lump FARC together with the drug-producing cartels as if they were two faces of the same phenomenon. Their profits seem to be modest – they have very few of the trappings of the servants of the drug cartels, no AK-47s or Russian secondhand submarines. Most of their weapons are still homemade. [27] They also appear to be highly disciplined and to punish any violation with some ruthlessness. Petras avers that ‘in most of their dealings with the rural population, the FARC represents order, rectitude and social justice’. [28] He goes on to say that ‘the strength of the FARC is based on the interplay of ideological appeals and the resonance of its analysis and political practices with the everyday reality of peasant life’. This sentence seems to me to contain some studied evasions, since their ideology has changed over time. Rooted in a communist Party tradition, the FARC adopted a more pragmatic and nationalist position through the 1970s and won considerable support in the process. This was reflected in the UP, the Unión Patriótica formed in 1984 as an electoral front, and which won a significant number of parliamentary seats in 1986. In anticipation of later developments in Central America, the government’s strategy here was to transform the guerrilla organisation into a political party. But in 1985 the seizure of the Palace of Justice by the guerrilla organisation M-19, and the subsequent killing of over 100 people by the army, initiated a period of renewed repression. M-19’s positions were curious and sometimes contradictory, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s it won widespread support, particularly among the urban poor. One poll conducted in 1985 suggested that, should it stand for election, M-19 would win 36.7 percent of the vote. But its relationship with the FARC (some of its founders had been expelled from FARC in the early 1970s) remained tense. The systematic murder of most of the leading members of M-19 after the Palace of Justice events effectively eliminated it from the scene. But the repression fell on all the other armed organisations too.

The FARC’s rival, the ELN, was founded in the mid-1960s by students, intellectuals and left wing priests, and was based on the Cuban model. It has undergone a series of internal crises and splits, but currently prevails in areas of the north and centre of the country. While FARC entered into a protracted series of negotiations with the government from the mid-1980s, ELN refused to follow it and organised for armed insurgency, seeking to build a common front with some of the mass organisations that were merging in the 1980s. Nevertheless their methods have continued to rest on the perception of the guerrillas as substitutes for the masses. kidnappings, particularly of oil company employees, have gained them the resources for survival. In 1993 the FARC declared a renewed military offensive in the face of stagnation in the peace negotiations, just at the time when ELN for the first time was opening discussions with the government of Ernesto Samper. Under Pastrana the talks with the ELN have remained in suspension, while he has reopened discussions with the FARC.

Behind the painful and tortuous progress of negotiations, however, Plan Colombia resolutely advances in its preparations for the eventual destruction of the guerrilla armies. And while that fundamentally repressive strategy must be exposed and denounced, the reality is that the guerrilla strategy cannot lead to an assault on the power of the Colombian state. As the state becomes increasingly militarised, the space for mass democratic action will certainly become more restricted. But the imposition of the imperatives of globalisation is an absolute priority for the US. It is difficult to see how those imperatives can coexist for long with liberated territories of any kind. The domination of large areas by the paramilitaries, with the complicity of elements of the state, cannot coexist with a strengthened centralised power. The likely solution will be an attempt to incorporate the paramilitaries into the repressive state apparatus, while occasionally invoking human rights legislation against those who resist such incorporation. But elsewhere Colombia’s human rights record will grow worse, since the priorities of Plan Colombia are deeply inconsistent with any regime of protection or defence of the rights of the majority. Defoliation of the coca fields does much more than kill coca bushes. It drives huge populations off the land, presumably also depriving the guerrillas of bases of support and emptying the terrain for easier occupation (and the experience of the 1960s provides the precedent). It may render the land ultimately safe for the oil and gas companies gazing lustfully at these areas. But the coca and the poppy will very soon be growing elsewhere – because the demand is there in the richer nations of the world, and the coca millions directly or indirectly flow into the restless capitals streaming through the international financial institutions.

Prediction in this situation is a dangerous procedure. One thing is sure, however. The deepening involvement of the US, through Plan Colombia, will not produce a modernisation that will in any way benefit the millions of displaced, exiled or terrorised Colombians who have expressed their resistance or despair in support for the guerrilla organisations (with possibly some 20,000 people under arms) or in their active involvement in a range of organisations of protest and resistance. In Ecuador, in very recent times, the combined forces of workers’ unions and indigenous organisations brought dramatic change and a real challenge to power. In Argentina the provisions of FTAA have met with furious and sustained resistance. The strategies of the revolutionary organisations must build on these successes – for if Latin America’s political history has taught us anything, it is that no free territories will be allowed to exist in isolation for very long. They are crushed or they are absorbed by economic or military means. That is much harder to do when there are multiple fronts to fight on, and when the massed demonstrators of Genoa or Seattle seek the means of building active solidarity with all those who resist across the world.


1. US State Department website, www.state.gov/internatl.

2. Foreign Office website, www.fco.gov.uk. [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

3. J. Petras, The geopolitics of Plan Colombia, in Monthly Review, vol. 53, no. 1 (May 2001), p. 31.

4. US State Department website, op. cit., International Information Programs, 30 June 2001. My emphasis.

5. See C. Harding, Colombia: a guide to the people, politics and culture (London 1996), pp. 28–36. For a general discussion see J. Pearce, Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth (London 1990), ch. 2.1, Colombia’s Two economies, and in particular pp. 103–115.

6. This was particularly true during the first period of government of Hugo Banzer, who became a millionaire several times over at this time. In his second manifestation, at the very end of the 1990s, Banzer became – in a twilight of life conversion – a vigorous advocate of suppressing the cultivation of coca. A grateful US government rewarded him with large amounts of aid and investment.

7. Escobar’s story is most powerfully told by Gabriel García Márquez in his News of a kidnapping (London 1997).

8. This tension between regional and central power is a key to understanding Colombia’s violent history.

9. W. Tate, Repeating past mistakes, in NACLA report on the Americas, vol XXXIV, no 2 (September–October 2000), p. 17.

10. R. Vargas Meza, Biowarfare in Colombia?, in NACLA Report on the Americas, op. cit., p. 21. My emphasis.

11. This conclusion of an OECD report is quoted in the document Plan Colombia: Máscaras y Artificios by Belén Vásconez of the Comisión Ecuménica de Derechos Humanos of Ecuador, published on the web at www.pulsar.org.ec by the Pulsar Agency (27 November 2000).

12. Documented in convincing detail by R. Vargas Meza, op. cit..

13. For a general picture of that relationship Eduardo Galeano’s classic The Open veins of Latin America (New York 1967) remains unsurpassed.

14. For a discussion of the moment of the revolution and its subsequent unfolding through the 1980s, see M. Gonzalez, Nicaragua: what went wrong? (London 1990).

15. J. Petras and M. Morley, Latin America in a time of cholera (London/New York 1992), p. 63.

16. The Guatemalan peace accords would not finally be signed for another eight years.

17. Duncan Green’s The Silent Revolution (London 1995) is a painstaking and passionate account of the realities of that process.

18. These figures are quoted by R. Vargas Meza in a fine piece called Plan Colombia: Construcción de Paz o sobredosis de Guerra? on the Equipo Nizkor website: www.derechos.org/nizkor/colombia/doc/vargas.html.

19. It is interesting now to return to Jenny Pearce’s characteristically thorough and insightful study, Colombia: Inside the labyrinth, completed in 1989 and published the following year. She ends her book with this perspicacious question: ‘Can an economy that has created only 500,000 jobs in manufacturing, which a leaked World Bank Report (July 1989) describes as closed and meeting the needs only of a minority, provide the majority of its population with a humane existence and the means to a livelihood? The archaic political order that has kept that minority in power has proved incapable of taking on this responsibility. The bomb will carry on ticking until it does, or until the left proves itself able to unite the people around an alternative social and political project’ (p. 287).

20. See N. Richani, The paramilitary connection, in NACLA Report on the Americas, op. cit., pp. 38–41.

21. See G.M. Leech, The Drug War: an exercise in futility, in Colombia Report (16 April 2001), www.colombiareport.org.

22. See M. Gonzalez, The Zapatistas: the challenges of revolution in the new Millennium, in International Socialism 89 (Winter 2000), pp. 59–80; and J. Ross, The war against oblivion: the Zapatista chronicles (Monroe, Maine 2000).

23. J. Petras, The geopolitics of Plan Colombia, op. cit., p. 35.

24. Repeating past mistakes: aiding counterinsurgency in Colombia, NACLA Report, op. cit., p. 17.

25. J. Pearce, Colombia: inside the labyrinth (London 1990), p. 47.

26. Ibid., pp. 49–68.

27. A fact reinforced by the recent capture of IRA members alleged to have gone to Colombia to train members of the FARC in the manufacture of bombs.

28. J. Petras, op. cit., p. 45. I suspect he is idealising somewhat here.

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