Two, Three, Many Colombias

The following is the expanded version of an article posted by Foreign Policy in Focus on December 29, 2010

This past September, US Secretary of State Clinton drew criticism for comparing Mexico today to “Colombia twenty years ago” and calling for heightened efforts to combat Mexican drug trafficking. Most of that criticism questioned whether the analogy was appropriate or whether the statement was an unnecessary affront to a close US ally, the Mexican government of Felipe Calderón. But the more significant part of Clinton’s comments was her enthusiastic praise for Plan Colombia—the massive military aid package started by her husband in 1999—and her insistence on the need “to figure out what are the equivalents” for other regions, particularly Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean [1].

The idea that Plan Colombia should be emulated anywhere is appalling to those acquainted with Colombia’s human rights record, which has been the worst in Latin America for the past twenty years. Ché Guevara once famously called for “two, three, many Vietnams” in order to overthrow capitalist imperialism in the Third World. Clinton’s call for the replication of the Colombia model elsewhere is some ways no less bold, for she too was calling for a kind of international transformation. On the other hand, that prescription appears less surprising when grounded in the broader context of recent US policy toward Latin America. 

The Colombia Model: For Whom Did It “Work”?

In her September 8th remarks Hillary Clinton also commented that “there were problems and there were mistakes” with Plan Colombia, “but it worked.” As with any policy, it is essential to ask how, and for whom, did it “work”? And if the Colombia model—referring to the US policy toward Colombia over the past several decades—reflects the Obama administration’s vision for the rest of Latin America, an understanding of the model’s priorities and consequences is vital to assessing broader regional prospects.

Plan Colombia was initiated under Bill Clinton in 1999, and billed as an anti-narcotics program. Since then the primary stated justification for over $5 billion in US military and police aid to Colombia has been the “war on drugs.” The first problem with this justification is that there has never been any reason to believe that the program is motivated by a sincere concern for public health on the part of US policymakers. Far more substantial threats to public health exist but elicit little concern. Cancer, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments each kill far more people each year than cocaine or heroine, and are well known to be linked to tobacco use, industrial food production, corporate pollution, and the US government’s encouragement of many of these practices through subsidies, foreign trade agreements, and lax regulations. Tobacco alone kills more people than illegal drugs, alcohol, car accidents, murders, and suicides combined. A recent study by the medical journal The Lancet found that alcohol harms far more people than crack and heroin [2]. As of this writing, the US government has yet to launch an indignant War on Tobacco or a War on Alcohol, complete with mandatory prison sentences for producers, users, and distributors.

The second problem with the stated justification of the “War on Drugs” is that over a decade of Plan Colombia has had little effect on narcotics flows into the US. In 2007 Colombian economist and human rights activist Héctor Mondragón noted that “[n]ever before have drug traffickers had so much power in Colombia” [3].Colombian coca production has fluctuated—for example, rising by 27 percent in 2007 and declining by 18 percent the next year. Despite the much-publicized recent drop in Colombian production, though, at the regional level very little has changed, in part because the periods of decline in Colombian production have coincided with increases elsewhere and vice versa, demonstrating an (easily-foreseeable) “balloon effect.” Most recently, many producers and traffickers have relocated from Colombia to Peru, and to a lesser extent Bolivia, increasing coca production in those countries. Even so, Colombia remains the world’s leading cocaine producer [4]. Former Colombian President César Gaviria, who co-chairs the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, summarized the commission’s extensive 2009 report by saying that “[w]e consider the war on drugs a failure because the objectives have never been achieved…Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization have not yielded the expected results. We are today farther than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs” [5]. Similar conclusions apply for Mexico, which in the 1990s replaced Florida and the Caribbean as the primary narcotics transport hub as a result of anti-drug campaigns elsewhere. As analyst Laura Carlsen noted recently, since the Mexican government began a US-funded, $1.4-billion anti-drug program in 2008, “Drug-related violence has exploded…with nearly 30,000 dead since the launch of the drug war in late 2006. Human rights violations charged against the army had gone up sixfold by [2009], and just in the past months [of mid-2010] Army forces have shot and killed several civilians” [6].

A third indication that a heavily-militarized “war on drugs” might have ulterior objectives is that the Colombian state is closely linked to the people and activities that Plan Colombia alleges to be targeting, a fact that the US Drug Enforcement Administration recognized before Plan Colombia started [7]. The United States is closely implicated in this relationship, for example through USAID’s “alternative development” programs in African palm oil and other non-traditional agricultural products. Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro notes that “Plan Colombia is fighting against drugs militarily at the same time it gives money to support palm, which is used by paramilitary mafias to launder money,” so in effect the US is “subsidizing drug traffickers” [8]. Right-wing paramilitaries continue to enjoy a close, if technically illegal, working relationship with the Colombian military, whose officials have helped them steal tens of thousands of acres of land from rural communities and smallholders in recent years. Evidence suggests that a similar intimacy exists between officials and drug lords in Peru and Mexico, though the details for the latter are a bit murkier [9].

These facts about Plan Colombia-type anti-drug programs—their ineffectiveness from a public health standpoint, the massive human rights abuses they bring, and their fundamental corruption—have been well understood by experts for many years, and the results were easily predictable long before Plan Colombia began. Ex-President Gaviria’s statement about Plan Colombia’s results is accurate, except in that the “expected results” were not drug eradication; independent experts had predicted the program’s “failure” well prior to its implementation, warning that militarization at the site of production is a highly ineffective way of combating illicit drug flows and usage compared to drug treatment programs and alternative economic development. The domestic US “War on Drugs,” which involves incarcerating over half a million people each year for drug-related offenses, is likewise a patently ineffective (as well as profoundly inhumane and hypocritical) way of reducing drug use [10]. The enormous and longstanding discrepancy between experts’ knowledge and policy raises immediate questions about the real motives of the “war” and accompanying militarization, addressed in more detail below.

So what has Plan Colombia achieved? Despite some decline in overall violence levels and improved security for middle-class urban residents, Colombia since 1999 has become even more infamous than it already was for extrajudicial executions, massive internal displacement and land theft, and the close ties between right-wing paramilitary death squads and the country’s right-wing government. Most violence targets workers and the poor, particularly those who pose a threat to the prerogatives of landlords and business elites. Since 2005, 45 peasant farmers have been murdered because they had sought to reclaim land that had been stolen [11]. In 2009 Colombia accounted for almost half of all murders of trade unionists in the world, and it has long been known as the most dangerous country in the world for labor activists; this trend continues under the new president, Juan Manuel Santos [12]. New revelations of horrendous human rights violations and politician connections to paramilitaries surface regularly; in late 2009, a mass grave of over 2,000 corpses was discovered near Bogotá. Although the left-wing guerrilla forces in Colombia have committed significant human rights violations, the large majority of abuses are attributable to the government and right-wing paramilitaries, who enjoy an atmosphere of “generalized impunity” according to a March 2010 UN human rights report [13].

Colombia’s ascendance to the rank of the continent’s worst human rights violator has coincided closely with the increase in US military aid to the country. Since 1990 Colombia has received far more US military and police aid than all other countries in the hemisphere. Plan Colombia has been responsible for much of this aid, totaling over $5 billion since 1999. The connection between US aid and Colombia’s atrocious human rights record is not coincidental. A January 2010 report published by the Center for Global Development found that “collusion between the military and illegal armed groups…means that foreign assistance directly enables illegal groups to perpetuate political violence and undermine democratic institutions, such as electoral participation.” Furthermore, the authors noted “a distinct, asymmetric pattern: when U.S. military aid increases, attacks by paramilitaries, who are known to work with the military, increase more in municipalities with [Colombian military] bases” [14]. Another recent study, by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and US Office on Colombia, tracked the incidence of extrajudicial executions by Colombian military units that received US aid over the past nine years, finding that “areas where Colombian army units received the largest increases in U.S. assistance reported increased extrajudicial killings on average.” As Paola Reyes reports, “The extrajudicial executions reviewed by the FOR/USOC report are mostly cases in which military units have killed civilians in order to inflate the body count of guerrillas they have supposedly killed in action” [15]. These most recent studies confirm a longstanding correlation between US military aid and human rights violations, a pattern that is particularly evident in countries like Colombia but which extends all over the world [16]. (If US law matters, the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 and US Code prohibit the disbursement of military aid to any regime guilty of sustained human rights abuses.)

Washington policymakers have always been aware of Colombian death squads and their connections to government figures, but that knowledge has not dampened their enthusiasm for US military aid to Colombia [17]. During his presidential campaign Obama voiced some mild criticism of the human rights situation in Colombia, but has consolidated a strong alliance with Colombia during his first two years in office. This alliance has included a 2009 deal which, if it overcomes the current legal obstacles within Colombia, will give the United States access to seven military bases in the country. The deal is intended “to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations” according to “senior Colombian military and civilian officials familiar with negotiations,” the Associated Press reported at the time [18]. The actual text of the deal pledges US-Colombian cooperation “to address common threats to peace, stability, freedom, and democracy,” language which is at once vague and bone-chilling for those familiar with the history of US policy in the region [19].

Within Colombia itself, the big winners have been the overlapping sectors of narcotraffickers, government officials, right-wing paramilitaries, landlords, and business elites. Most other Colombians have not fared so well, however. According to UN figures, “Colombia is one of only 3 Latin American countries where economic inequality increased between 2002 and 2008” (the others were Guatemala and the Dominican Republic). Foreign investment has tripled in recent years, contributing to significant economic growth, but poverty (43 percent) and extreme poverty (23 percent) have changed little. In the countryside, 0.4 percent of landowners hold 61 percent of the land [20]. In a region where powerful social movements and left-leaning governments have challenged the traditional power of the US government and multinational corporations, Colombia remains a staunch supporter of US-style “free trade,” or neoliberalism, characterized by the privatization of services, the liberalization of markets, and a government policy that collaborates with capitalists to suppress the rights of workers, peasants, minorities, and the environment. The World Bank and International Finance Corporation recently lauded Colombia’s strides toward maintaining a “business friendly environment,” designating it, along with Mexico and Peru, as the top three Latin American countries with regard to the “ease of doing business” [21]. Incidentally, these same countries are also the United States’ three closest major allies in the region.

“Against Envious Have-Nots”: The Logic of US Policy

Since 1990, and especially since 2000 when Plan Colombia was initiated, Colombia has become a keystone of US power in Latin America. As US influence has waned across the region, Colombia has become even more crucial as a showcase for US policy. The three basic ingredients of that policy have been economic neoliberalism, a US-friendly government, and increased militarization. If a dismal failure from the standpoint of public health, human rights, and economic well-being, these ingredients accomplish a variety of useful goals. The US preference for a militarized neoliberalism—the model which the Obama administration is now seeking to reproduce in Mexico and Central America—in fact obeys a fairly coherent logic.

If the “war on drugs” is at best an inadequate explanation for the US militarization of Latin America, and at worst simply a pretext, what other ends does that militarization serve from the perspective of US interest groups? As an entry point into answering this question, it can hardly be doubted that the US has long sought to “[m]aintain the United States as the predominant foreign military influence in Latin America,” as a key 1962 State Department guidelines paper urged [22]. Maintaining military dominance in Latin America has been a central US aim for close to a century, and particularly since World War II. The public justification for militarization during the Cold War was the alleged threat of Soviet “penetration” of Latin America [23]. But in private, astute policymakers did not take that threat very literally. In 1958 a National Intelligence Estimate noted that Latin American Communist parties, let alone Soviet agents, “are not likely to come to dominate any government” in the region. Nonetheless, US officials emphasized the need for militarization, not to defend against the Soviet Union but instead in the name of “internal security.” The enemies were inside Latin America itself, not in the Soviet bloc, and the greatest danger was Latin American nationalism, not Soviet-style Communism. The 1959 Cuban Revolution, in which Soviet-allied Communists played only a very minor part, underscored this reality. US-sponsored “internal security” programs involving massive military and police aid thus appeared all over the continent starting with Eisenhower and accelerating under Kennedy [24].

Against what were these programs designed to defend? Declassified State Department correspondence provides clear answers. To take one example, officials worried that the 1952 Bolivian Revolution “might set off a chain reaction in Latin America” if not steered down a “moderate” path. Later, after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, US planners noted with alarm that the continent’s “poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living.” The successful revolt in Cuba had convinced many onlookers “that the Latin American states can be masters of their own destinies” rather than remaining dependent on foreign masters. In 1961 a top Kennedy adviser, Arthur Schlesinger, expressed concern about “the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hand[s].” Rather than acting independently of the US, Latin Americans were supposed to let the US guide them down a constructive path toward a “middle-class revolution,” as opposed to a “workers-and-peasants” one [25]. The imperative of stifling independent nationalism and development, and punishing those who entertained such fantasies, goes far back in US imperial history; such imperatives were prominent, for example, in the correspondence of the nineteenth-century military commanders who sought to exterminate all Native Americans who refused to be confined on concentration-camp-style reservations [26].

The biggest problem with this defiance was the threat it posed to US elites’ control over strategic natural resources and labor and the maintenance of exploitative terms of trade. The dual threats of “statism and nationalism,” about which the 1958 Intelligence Estimate warned, derived from the desire of Latin Americans to have more control over their national economic resources. “Latin Americans,” according to State Department adviser Laurence Duggan, had become “convinced that the first beneficiaries of the development of a country&rs

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