by Miguel Posada
The author is director of Colombia’s Centro de Análisis Sociopolítico in Bogota. Here he registers a plea for international support of the government and the professional military. The interested reader may wish to consult, as well, the opposing views of U. S. Ambassador Robert E. White in the Summer 2000 issue of American Diplomacy [click here].—Ed.
The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of Marxism or of the methods it used for a century to achieve and hold on to power. It must also be added that Marxism remains an enemy of the United States and any other country where liberalism and free enterprise are the law of the land.
In our continent, Marxism has held on to power in Cuba for four decades, and Marxist guerrillas still hope to gain power in Colombia. The fact that the Marxist insurgency is still very much alive in Colombia can be explained by its success in obtaining funds. The Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)have not only organized a highly efficient kidnapping and extortion industry, they have also established a flourishing drug business. Colombian guerrillas have become the richest criminal organizations in the world.
Many in the U. S. see this as a strictly Colombian problem, or at most a drug control problem. Why, many ask, some more innocently than others, should the U. S. become involved in Colombia’s fight against the subversion?
The conflict in Colombia is of course about terrorism. The guerrillas seldom attack army units lately. For a short period (1996-1998), they had a few successes in attacks against isolated Army posts or units in the field, but only once against a unit of battalion size. Since 1998, they have suffered serious losses when they have attempted such attacks. Their activity now is mostly against civilians. The guerrillas attack small villages, assassinate thousands, lay land mines on paths and roads that maim hundreds, and kidnap more than 3000 Colombians and foreigners each year. They recruit children to fill their ranks and abuse young female conscripts.
They also control the cultivation of coca leaves and poppies, process a sizable portion of drugs and have established export routes. They destroy power lines and blow up oil pipelines regularly. The National Planning Department estimates that guerrilla activity costs between three or four percentage points in yearly economic growth. Help against the Marxist terrorists is the best development aid that advanced countries could give Colombia.
A review of the arguments for and against U. S. involvement is in order. Many of the arguments against involvement are deftly manipulated half-truths or outright disinformation. It is said that the guerrillas are idealists that only attack an entrenched economic elite, supported by a brutal army. Surveys by internationally qualified polling services destroy the argument. Ninety-eight percent of Colombians reject the guerrillas while the armed forces have an approval rating almost as high as that of the Catholic Church. The oft-heard allegation of a “dismal” human rights record on the part of the Colombian Army breaks down under close examination. The record is remarkably good. The surveys reflect just that.
A second argument is that the Colombian state is weak and the armed forces incompetent, and therefore any effort to help is doomed to failure. The armed forces have shown that, when properly led and equipped, they are quite competent. Therefore American ground troops would be unnecessary.
However, the Colombian state is in fact weak in many other respects. The laws in place are not adequate to face the subversive threat. They have been weakened by decades of trying to appease the guerrillas in the search for a peaceful settlement. Weak laws and an infiltrated judiciary allow the military to be subjected to endless investigations by biased prosecutors, while captured guerrillas most often go free or escape from prison. This is something that can and must be corrected.
Government finances are also weak. After a severe recession, there is a large budget deficit. Although some progress has been made in reducing the size of the bureaucracy, strong Marxist-controlled government employee unions have limited the necessary cuts. Despite the budget problems, defense spending has been increased. It is still insufficient, however, and far below the level required to bring security to citizens in rural areas.
One of the many mistakes made in the past was to proscribe legal self-defense organizations in rural areas. Many NGOs [nongovernment organizations] and governments, including the U. S., many European governments, and the UN have held that only the government should have weapons and use force. This is fine in theory, and would be practical if the Colombian state had the necessary funds, but that is not the case. This has encouraged the rural population, given no alternative, to support illegal self-defense forces that commit many of the same crimes the subversion commits. A legal and well-controlled citizen’s self-defense must be allowed.
The Pastrana government has failed in its badly managed peace initiative with the FARC. The worst mistake was to give the FARC a safe haven the size of Switzerland as an enticement to negotiate peace. After three years of talks, nothing has been achieved. There is growing awareness in Colombia that peace must be achieved from strength, not from weakness. The necessary changes will have ample public support.
There are really no sound arguments against helping the Colombian state. The question then is whether it is in the U. S. national interest to help. The events of September 11 have shown the world that terrorism is a global affair. A week before the events, FARC leader Jorge Briceno, a.k.a. Mono Jojoy, stated that American citizens and interests would be attacked within Colombia and even in the United States. The links between FARC and terrorists of the IRA and ETA are well documented, as well as links to Cuba, Libya, and Iran. It is also a fact that the Chavez government in Venezuela has aided and protected the Colombian guerrillas.
The stage is thus set for the establishment of a Cuba-Caracas-FARC axis that would be a threat to Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, Colombia’s neighbors—as well as the U. S. itself. The problem is no longer just an internal conflict in Colombia with a few idealist guerrillas wanting to share power. They have clearly stated that they don’t want a share in government, they want it all. With a safe haven in Venezuela, with a 2,000 km border with Colombia, and great riches from drugs, a Colombian state with very limited resources will have a hard time meeting the threat. The democratic state may not fall, but the conflict will drag on for years.
In the meantime, President Chavez is moving Venezuela rapidly towards Marxism. If the argument could be made that Colombia itself doesn’t matter much, can the same argument be made of the whole Andean region plus Panama? If the answer is negative, the implication is that there should be no delays in helping Colombia fight the terrorists. Colombia’s budget problems will not be solved quickly, and it can not be expected to face the problem with its own resources any time soon.
The U. S. can help Colombia in many ways besides material support for the armed forces. One immediate measure is to ensure that the State Department is not a party to the disinformation campaign against the military. In recent years the State Department report on Human Rights has relied blindly on allegations by human rights NGOs that are sympathetic to the guerrillas. In the past, some U. S. officials in the Bogota embassy actively encouraged officers to accuse their colleagues, and purposely ignored evidence favorable to the officers accused. Pressure from the State Department led to the dismissal of some of the country’s best military leaders. Two simple procedures could be established to correct the bias in the State report: it should be reviewed by U. S. military personnel, and the accused should be heard before their reputations are destroyed.
A second way is to apply pressure on European countries, Canada, Mexico and the United Nations, to cease harboring and aiding the terrorists. Recently the European Union agreed to cancel the visas of FARC terrorists, but this is hardly enough, after years of allowing them to travel and raise funds unhindered. The FARC has an office in Mexico, and guerrilla front organizations collect funds in Canada with the government’s blessing.
On the military side, Colombia badly needs more air mobility, communications systems, surveillance equipment and technical know-how. The armed forces also need ground attack, forward air control and interdiction aircraft, armored vehicles and more coastal and river patrol craft. In the general context of U. S. defense spending, the sums needed are not great. Four billion dollars spread over three years would probably be adequate. Help must not be restricted to counter-narcotics activities. The terrorist organizations must be viewed as a whole, and attacked across the country.
Colombia’s confrontation with the terrorists is not an intractable problem. There are no ethnic or religious differences causing eternal civil conflict. The Marxist subversion, although rich, has negligible popular support. Adequate changes in Colombia’s laws, government and citizen resolve and U. S. aid can control the threat the terrorist organizations pose to the continent’s security.
Republished by permission. Originally published January 21, 2002, in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s “E-Notes,” which is distributed via fax and e-mail. FPRI is located at 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For information, e-mail email@example.com or log on at http://www.fpri.org.
Miguel Posada Samper is a leading figure on the business scene in Colombia