Colombia’s peace process has entered its final phase. Agreements have been reached on land reform, political participation, and the rights of victims. The discussions are now focused on ending the conflict and implementation and verification of the accords. The deadline for a final agreement is March 23, and it might be met.
In this last phase of negotiations, Colombia’s president reached out to the US for aid. On Feb. 4, a new initiative was unveiled in Washington by presidents Santos and Obama: the new version of Plan Colombia, which they called “Paz Colombia.” Obama began by commemorating the success of Plan Colombia, a plan that brought military helicopters and escalated aerial fumigation to the country. “We were proud to support Colombia and its people as you strengthened your security forces, as you reformed land laws, and bolstered democratic institutions,” he said. “And after 15 years of sacrifice and determination, a tipping point has been reached. The tide has turned.”
Santos elaborated on the successes since Plan Colombia was rolled out in 2000: “Today we can say without a doubt that the goals that we had in 2000 — such as fighting the drug war, strengthening institutions, and imposing the rule of law, and to take social programs to great parts of remote Colombian territory — those objectives have been met.”
The history of Plan Colombia is slightly different than that presented by Obama and Santos. As lawyer Dan Kovalik outlined in this article for teleSUR English, the problems the president’s claim Plan Colombia solved were mostly made worse by it.
Take Santos’s objectives, which Plan Colombia supposedly met: The drug war? There may be a peace agreement between the government and FARC, but the drug war promises to go on and on. The rule of law and the strengthening of institutions? These were certainly areas of struggle over the past 15 years, but any gains made there were fought for by the people, not flown in by the military helicopters of Plan Colombia. Social programs and protections? Many have been lost under neoliberalism – some have been preserved by struggle by Colombia’s movements.
What about Obama’s list? Security forces were strengthened, to be sure. New equipment was introduced and soldiers were trained in its use. But the Plan Colombia years were years of collaboration between the military and the paramilitaries, who were responsible for the most horrific violence. Reformed land laws? The 15 years of Plan Colombia were a time of losses of land and of rights to land. Colombia’s 1991 Constitution was one of the most progressive in Latin America when it came into force. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian territorial rights were enshrined. Paramilitary violence escalated after this constitution, as elites deployed their forces to create facts on the ground: specifically, to use terror and massacre to force people to flee the territories they had just won legal rights to. Millions of people were displaced from their lands in this way. Legal changes under the 15 years of Plan Colombia, the “reformed land laws”, attempted to retroactively legalize this loss of land. As for the bolstering of democratic institutions, it was in the Plan Colombia years that the “para-politica” or “para-Uribe” scandal occurred – evidence of signed contracts between politicians and paramilitaries to kill and displace local people.
There were other scandals too, during the Plan Colombia years. The Colombian security services wiretapping politicians involved in the peace process. The Colombian military entrapping and murdering completely innocent peasants, dressing them up as guerrillas, and using the deaths to inflate the numbers of casualties their units were inflicting (“false positives”).
At the announcement of the Paz Colombia plan, Obama said that the U.S. would support the peace the same way it had supported the war. If this is the plan, it is frightening. When Plan Colombia started in 2000, there was actually a peace process underway between the FARC and the government. It had begun just a year before, in 1999. There is little question that Plan Colombia helped to derail it, steering the Colombian government towards a military solution.
At US$450 million, the scale of Paz Colombia was reportedly disappointing to President Santos. The original Plan Colombia was announced at US$1.3 billion, most of which paid for U.S.-manufactured attack helicopters. Colombia paid several times that amount out of its own budget for Plan Colombia. Colombians paid for Plan Colombia, and they will be paying for Paz Colombia.
Those were not the only costs Colombians paid. The environmental and health costs of the spraying are difficult to calculate. In 2008, Ecuador took Colombia to court over the ecological and health damage caused by aerial fumigation on the Colombia-Ecuador border. In 2013, the lawsuit was settled for US$15 million, which environmentalists argued was an extreme undervaluation of the damage. The true damages might be in the billions.
Many problems remain. Neither the peace accords nor Paz Colombia deal with the bigger cause of violence over the decades: the paramilitaries. Implementation will be fraught with difficulties. When previous guerrilla groups disarmed and joined politics (Union Patriotica and M-19), they were devastated by state-backed paramilitary assassination campaigns. Unarmed social movements have struggled during the talks, as they did during the war, to get their voices heard and their sacrifices recognized.
But a negotiated end to the armed conflict has long been a demand of these movements, and its realization is to be celebrated. The movements will be the ones fighting to prevent Colombia’s post-war reality from being “mired in structural poverty and violence and endemic corruption”, as Hector Perla wrote in teleSUR last week.
It is not accurate to say that the U.S. is standing with Colombia in peace as it did in war. It might be more accurate to say that the U.S. is trying to control the peace as it controlled the war. If the history of Plan Colombia is a guide, an independent path might yield a better peace.