Director of Missions
United States Embassy
Dear Mr. Drucker:
We in the Colombia Support Network’s New York chapters thank you for meeting with us at the Embassy in Bogota last August. We know that your schedule is busy and we appreciate your taking the time to elaborate for us some of your impressions regarding Colombia’s current situation.
Personally, however, I wish to take this opportunity to return to some of the items from our conversation on that day, because I do not feel that they were sufficiently addressed within the parameters either of time, or of subject matter, that were established at the meeting.
At the outset you expressed your belief that it would be ineffective for the U.S. to merely give Colombia funds for aid. Instead, you suggested that we need to lend Colombia our presence along with those funds, and that our oversight is essential to insure that the democratization process proceeds under the guidance of development professionals who possess the requisite specialized knowledge.
When I was certain that everyone in attendance had a chance to respond to this position or add points of their own, I offered my observation that over the course of our mutual exchange we had contained our analysis of U.S. involvement in Colombia’s democratic process as necessary because of two on-going concerns: curtailing illegal narcotics and terrorist activity. In elaborating on this dualism, we had avoided mention of the economic intentionality that enabled Colombia to facilitate rounds of privatizations and to establish export platforms as recommended by the WTO and the IMF, the process familiarized as “apertura economica” within business communities.
Even before I spoke I suspected, and rightly so it turns out, that you might object, or at least question the validity of, this expansion of the discussion. When I quoted Alberto Carrasquilla, Uribe’s finance minister, from a July article in the Financial Times as saying that Colombia expects to sell $10 billion worth of stakes in state-owned companies during the next few years, you dismissed his assessment. You said that you didn’t know where the $10 billion figure came from. You said that the push to privatize had already been completed under Pastrana, and that at present there remains only a “couple of banks” to be offered up for bidding late-comers. Conversely, Mr. Carrasquilla told the Financial Times that Colombia’s privatization plans over the next few years are perhaps “the most ambitious in Latin America.” He said that in addition to banks, stakes in a power transmission company and a natural gas distributor are among the prime offerings, and that there is even a serious consideration of selling shares in the state-owned oil-corporation Ecopetrol.
Whether we take your position or that of Carrasquilla’s as true, neither one addresses the point I was in the middle of making before I was interrupted and forced to stop. The specifics of economic restructuring after the 1991 revision of Colombia’s constitution or the specific reforms that occurred under the watch of Pastrana or of Uribe, cannot by themselves address the full spectrum of our historic involvement in Colombia’s affairs.
To address that history, I offered a sampling of quotes that raise questions on the disinterestedness of our involvement. For the sake of memory and accuracy, I repeat the quotes in the order which I gave them during the meeting.
The first was a statement from early 20th century U.S. President William Howard Taft, whose speculations on the future were prompted by what he obviously viewed were incremental successes of the past:
“The day is not far distant . . . when the whole hemisphere will be ours in fact, as by virtue of our superiority of race, it already is ours morally.”
It appears that other inhabitants of our hemisphere did not agree with his assessment of our ethnic rank. Along with other military actions in South America, the U.S. deployed troops to Colombia on three separate occasions before year 1925. To illuminate Taft’s interpretation of the possessive pronoun “ours,” which refers to whom the whole hemisphere would soon belong, the Congressional Record of 1960 provides historic hindsight. It states that the deployments following Taft’s remark were for “protecting American interests,” a statement, let us suppose, that might have been intended to convey an aggregate sense, that the America referred to in the Congressional Record is the sum of all the countries of the continent with their sovereignties and integrities intact. [This contextual use of the word "America" is a theme we discussed at the meeting, and it is a theme to which I will return.] The second purpose of the incursions as noted in the Congressional Record was one of “restoring order,” a statement that prompts questions such as: Whose order? What kind of order? By what means was this order secured and maintained? should anyone have the interest to explore them.
By 1945, C.I.A. historian Gerald Haines wrote that the U.S. superceded
“French, British, and Canadian rivals in order to maintain the area . . . for surplus industrial production and private investments,” and “to exploit the vast reserves of raw materials . . .”
This provides another indicator for the usage and meaning of the word “ours.” For the sake of argument, one might be tempted to claim that the U.S. superceded rivals not exclusively its own, but rivals of all who comprise the “Americas,” in protection of our collective, aggregate interests. Another might go further, and say that Latin American countries wished to privately invest in themselves, under mantles of their specific sovereignties, and that the U.S. role was one of providing the necessary assistance. The argument could follow that these countries wished to exploit their vast reserves of raw material for their own economic viability, in a balance of fair trade with countries directly neighboring their own, and rid themselves of interlopers from another hemisphere or excluded territory.
But then we encounter a most unsettling quote. By the 1950s, when the newly-formed World Bank sought to bring so-called “developing countries” more tightly into the world market, the U.S. sent world-renowned economist Albert O. Hirschman to Colombia for a number of years to oversee the implementation of economic reforms. Hirschman, hardly a progressive but something of a humanist, was looking forward to helping Colombians embark on what he viewed was their exciting and beneficial frontier. But when he wrote his memoirs years later he confessed that he:
“Wanted to learn as much as possible about the Colombian economy . . . in the hope of contributing marginally to the improvement of policy making. But word soon came from the World Bank headquarters that I was principally expected to take, as soon as possible, the initiative in formulating some ambitious economic development plan that would spell out investment . . . and foreign aid targets over the next two years . . . One aspect of the affair made me particularly uneasy. The task was supposedly crucial for Colombia’s development, yet no Colombian was to be found who had any inkling of how to go about it. That knowledge was held only by a few foreign experts.”
As I offered this quote, which precedes your statement insofar as it too echoes the belief that Colombians cannot manage their own affairs, I suggested this concept has its genesis in a racist profile. You, however, interrupted me in mid-sentence and said, “Nobody here believes they have any moral superiority.” I begged to be allowed to complete my point, reminding you that I had waited patiently until you, and everyone else at the table, had satisfactorily completed their thoughts before I spoke. When I attempted to go on, you interrupted me serially in the space of my next two sentences. Finally you said, “I don’t want anyone here at the Embassy to be called a racist. Let’s just get that one off the table.” You excused yourself then for another appointment, leaving us in the hands of Craig Conway, Director of Human Rights and Labor, who had been present throughout. The conversation and its direction, however, were aborted.
I am establishing for the record that at no time did I refer to any individual as a racist. Indeed, were the case so simple a matter as identifying and then ferreting out over an entire historical trajectory the occasional spoilers. The point of my comments, had I been allowed to finish them, is that the racism in U.S. policy is not the result of a single person’s skewed vision of the world he or she lives in, but was and remains an entrenched historical practice. The philosopher Charles Taylor describes this practice:
“â€¦ the thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.”
In this way, racism refers not only to ethnic strain, but encompasses a secondary dictionary reference to any people united by characteristics or traditions.
Taft’s sentiment, far from being a relic from a darker past as you seemed to suggest, is riddled throughout our history to the present. I offer this blatant example, which is easily accessed online as I write today. Legion numbers of Colombia’s campesinos filed claims with the government about the damaging effects of U.S. manufactured chemical defoliants used for coca eradication. These defoliants not only caused skin rashes, nausea, and respiratory problems, but decimated legal and subsistence crops, displacing persons and production but doing little to thwart the hearty coca plant, whose leaves sprout anew in three months time. The U.S. State Department not only mirrors back to the claimants, but disseminates its reflection to the rest of the world via their website:
“Since their illegal livelihoods have been affected by the spraying, these people do not offer objective information about the program.”
It is hard to fathom a more confining, demeaning, or contemptible picture than one of criminals either lying or unable to determine the truth. It is hard to fathom a more reduced mode of being than one of not meriting status as a viable constituent on even the lowest chain of grievance.
The quotes that reflect this racist profile are not limited to the studied pronouncements in official records. I offer a few from personal witness.
At the National Administrative Center in Bogota, our CSN delegation met with General Alfonso Ordonez, Subdirector of the Air Force. We asked him if he could explain why it was that the aid portion of Plan Colombia was not funneling down to the appropriate recipients, the communities in need. The general replied:
“The government cannot give money to the campesinos for development assistance because the campesinos would just drink the money away.”
At an Embassy meeting in July of 2001, we asked then U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson about the epidemic of skin rashes appearing on the flesh of those persons who live in areas that have been sprayed by the U.S. manufactured “Roundup Ultra.” Ms. Patterson and her assistants assured us their research proves that the chemical is safe even though it contains additives not in the commercial brand “Roundup” and Monsanto, the manufacturer, was forced to remove the terms “environmentally friendly” and “biodegradable” from their labels. Ms. Patterson said, “Drug producers discard the empty cans of the chemicals used in the conversion process in the fields. The children could have gotten rashes from playing with the cans of those.”
We asked her about the Colombian law that mandates that those responsible for spraying notify a community before it is sprayed. She answered,
“We cannot notify a community before it is sprayed because the campesinos would shoot at the airplanes and helicopters.”
A year later, we asked Mari Tolliver, an employee of the Embassy at the time, what she thought was the likelihood that campesinos possessed powerful enough arms to shoot into the air at aircraft flying at a great altitude. She confounded the issue, apparently to “correct” Ms. Patterson. She replied that, “It is not the campesinos who would shoot, but the guerillas.”
We also asked Ms. Patterson if she ever traveled to the rural areas to witness the damaging effects of Plan Colombia, a plan written in the U.S. before the majority of Colombian’s had a chance to vote on it. In this way Plan Colombia is a very large mirror, as it recognizes, or misrecognizes, whose opinions matter and whose do not. She said she does not travel to these areas herself, but that the people from those areas are welcome to visit the Embassy anytime to voice their concerns. We voiced a concern that with the majority living below the poverty rate traveling to the capital might be prohibitive. She then reassured us that:
“Just the other week, a bunch of Indians came and wanted to talk about Christopher Columbus.”
This statement was punctuated by a facial expression known as “rolling the eyes” before the ambassador continued:
“I had to explain to them that what happened 1500 years ago [sic] was not germane to the issues we are working on today.”
At the Presidential Palace, we met with Gonzalo de Francisco, President’s Director of Citizen Security. We asked about the 38,000 families of Putumayo who had signed contracts with the government for assistance but had received nothing. The government was mandated to begin the delivery of assistance within six months of the contract signing.
De Francisco admitted, “Yes, there has been mismanagement,” and immediately following that remark he continued with a non sequitur so stark that I thought I’d misheard. “But the future of Putumayo lies in eco-tourism.”
Being no labor expert, I asked him how he envisaged 38,000 families competing within a single industry. He answered:
“They can build small huts with which to lodge tourists.”
The words we choose are important, and each important word we choose has a silent half. Together, words and their silent halves tell stories. At times, more is revealed in the words we withhold, by intention or not, than in the words we put forth. To complicate the process further, the same word issued from one person’s lips may represent a vision entirely different when the word is issued from another’s.
The literary critic Harold Bloom speaks of the difficulty of interpreting another without, first, benefit of identical experience, and second, without a defense mechanism to protect who we are and who we wish to be. He cautions that in a certain way, or at least by a certain degree, “Every read is a misread,” or that every read is an interested read, because we read what we want “into” what we read. A philosopher of science once offered a parable on the challenge of exercising humility within the discipline. When scientists first discovered black octagonal glasses they claimed: “We now know how a fly sees.” Alas, the philosopher of science said, all that is known is how a human being sees while wearing black octagonal glasses.
In the same historical period that Taft espoused speculation as to whom the whole hemisphere would soon belong, in the House of Commons Sessional Papers of 1912, Roger Casement illumined the silent half of Taft’s words.
“The number of Indians killed either by starvation-often purposely brought about by the destruction of crops over whole districts or inflicted as a form of death penalty on individuals who failed to bring in their quota of rubber-or by deliberate murder by bullet, fire, beheading, or flogging to death, and accompanied by a variety of atrocious tortures, during the course of these 12 years, in order to extort these 4,000 tons of rubber, cannot have been less than 30,000, and possibly came to many more.”
By mid-century, when Gerald Haines wrote that the U.S. had superceded French, British, and Canadian rivals in the area, when Albert O. Hirschman expressed unease that no Colombian could be found who had any inkling of how to go about the ambitious development plan that would spell investment and foreign aid targets, and when the World Bank sought to bring so-called “developing countries” more tightly into the world market, a capuchin monk described the practice of whipping in Putumayo:
“You’ve got to understand that the pain has a mysterious efficacy making people want it. I myself have noted that the Indians become very tranquil, even joyful and festive, after a whipping. It is obligatory that after the whipping the person whipped says “Dios le pague” (God pays you, God be praised). If that is not said then the governor (who is an Indian, agreeable to the Capuchins) orders three lashes more, and so on, until the punished person loses anger and displays gratitude. Flogging thus maintains the principle of authority, docility, and the purity of customs.”
Did it not occur to the Capuchin monk that his “interpretation” was perhaps a “misrecognition?” That the efficacy he saw in pain giving was really not so mysterious, that the corporal infliction of pain that is celebrated and honed as art in our special forces and intelligence handbooks quite often achieves the desired effects and that the joyous and festive aftermath of the tortured may be nothing more than a gratitude that the administrator of the corporal pain has decided to stop, and that the tortured feels relief that he or she has sustained the abuse with his or her life and senses intact?
There is a story behind the articulated words of the Capuchin just as there is a story behind the articulated words you put forth during our meeting. There is a story as to why Ms. Patterson interprets her indigenous guests as a “bunch,” just as there is a story within my circle of acquaintance that not one person polled “interpreted” her interpretation, or her recognition, as inoffensive. There is a story in that if it were she who was the guest of the indigenous, the indigenous would know her name, they would know her title, and they would know the names and the titles of everyone else who traveled with her. There is a story behind the words we shared with Mr. Conway concerning who owns the appellation “American” without any qualifying prefix. Mr. Conway assures us that even Latin (the prefix again) Americans use this appellation to designate persons who hail from the U.S., and I do not doubt that Mr. Conway reflects his circle of acquaintance accurately. But if we imagine that appellation exclusively bestowed without a prefix qualification on our neighbors from the south, and it were we who stood unmoored in some nebulous and ill-defined relation with our hemisphere, a mood of surreality would seep into the silent spaces. That it commands no remark that the dominant language of all the words given and all the words received within the vast American continent can be traced to the mother tongues of small, bounded patches of land with appellations “Spain” and “England,” has behind it oceanic stories.
It is a privilege in the extreme to enter into an intimacy of words with another human being. Because true intimacy can be achieved only in equality that is absolute, that intimacy, that privilege in the extreme, is not available to those who depend on an economy of controlled listening. It is not available to those whose stakes are on a static picture, who cannot risk viewing something off kilter and being challenged by something new in the balance. It is said that captives know more about the mental landscapes of their captors, that slaves know more about their masters, that the oppressed in general know more about their oppressors than is true of the obverse. Yet how can this be when the controlling parties, the speculators, own instruments and technologies and intelligence and means to encode history the speculated-on are without? The bifurcation of language between the speculators and the speculated-on functions through a combination of ignorance and selected knowledge on the part of the speculators. Each time a word is selectively applied, that word contributes to an artificial construct, an ignorance, that grows exponentially in reverse. The construct consigns the speculated-on to mirrors that over time become more and more narrow, until in the process the speculators lose sight of the fact that the mirror is two-sided.
It is not my intention to embarrass or to pillory any single person with this letter, just as it was not my intention to identify any single person as a racist during our meeting. The actors above are behaving more or less appropriately, given their duties in an entrenched historical practice. It is the practice that begs critique. The words of the poet Muriel Rukeyser,
” . . .who will be the throat of these hours.
Of those hours.
Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?”
have convinced me that I have harbored these words, these quotes, in silence for too long. Those who do not write are written, those who do not speak are spoken for. As Ordonez, Patterson, and de Francisco attempted to write Colombia’s indigenous and campesinos in the controlled absence of their words, so have you attempted to write me through a forced silence of words. But the indigenous and campesinos have greater knowledge of this historical practice, a practice entrenched through distant words of Columbus, silenced by Ms. Paterson, and in the words of Taft, silenced by you.
The anthropologist Stacy Leigh Pigg writes of experience in Nepal, when she was solicited by members of the World Bank to assist its agenda:
“I was rather shocked, in fact, to see how much money goes into trying to get these folks not to reproduce. And all this seems so incongruous in relation to the joy and delight Nepalis find in children . . . Which goes back to show how pathetically narrow the World Bank’s vision is . . .Thus I learned something very important about the World Bank in Nepal. To work there you cannot set foot in the real Nepal. Literally, being in the World Bank’s office assumes you live in a house with running water and that you have a driver to take you from door to door.”
To set foot in the real Colombia takes more than just traveling to certain rural areas, although that would be a step in the right direction, as Mr. Conway now demonstrates. It is largely through listening and entering a true intimacy. It takes releasing stakes in the static picture that Colombia’s indigenous and campesinos will forever refuse to be the props for. Whatever the humbling task of interpreting another, an equal, that lies before us all, taking responsibility for the words we hear, the words we speak, and the silent interstices behind them both, can reduce the degrees to which our read will be a misread. Otherwise, we use words like the actors above and like the scientists, who in the act of donning black octagonal glasses, believe the world they gaze upon is facile, static, and certain.
Colombia Support Network
New York City