In the last post, I listed six ways in which our position on U.S. policy toward Colombia is frequently mis-characterized. Even in a new Congress led by those who agree with us, our work will continue to be difficult if these myths continue to propagate. To the extent that these six falsehoods are believed, the political risk increases for those who would undo and replace the current failing policy. We must counter all six by being clearer about what we do believe and propose.
(Another disclaimer: of course I can’t claim to speak for the entire community of NGOs and legislators who oppose the current policy toward Colombia. In fact, most of them will disagree with at least something written here, and some may even convince me to change my own position. When I use the pronoun â€œweâ€ in this posting, then, I use it as shorthand for â€œmost of us, in my estimation.â€)
Myth 1: We want to cut U.S. aid and â€œabandonâ€ Colombia.
Colombia gets between $700 and $750 million every year from the United States. We have no quarrel with this amount. In fact, it should probably be higher. The United States has an interest in helping Colombians to govern their territory better. We have a similar interest in helping improve governance throughout Latin America, where we lament recent cuts in aid to most countries, and applaud congressional Democrats’ attempts to undo them.
Within that $750 million, though, we are critical of the priorities. Since Plan Colombia began in 2000, 80 percent of U.S. assistance has gone to the armed forces and police, most of it for anti-drug programs that haven’t worked, like aerial herbicide fumigation. Meanwhile, programs to assist Colombia’s huge displaced population, develop rural areas where three-quarters live in poverty, reform the judiciary and strengthen the rule of law fall far short of what is needed.
Non-military aid programs have been limited to having a marginal impact on immense problems, and have been forced to ignore vital territories for lack of funds. The current mix of military to non-military assistance is not helping Colombia to become better governed.
While we do not advocate cuts in U.S. aid to Colombia, we note that officials and legislators on both sides of the debate frequently mention â€œColombianization.â€ Arguing that current levels of aid simply cannot be sustained for much longer, they expect to ask Colombia to increase its own contribution while reducing the U.S. contribution. Some â€œColombianizationâ€ is likely after 2009 or 2010 – though the strategy’s poor results, particularly against drugs, may slow any cuts in aid.
Myth 2: We think all military aid is evil.
CIP, along with several NGOs and legislators with whom we work, was strongly influenced by the errors that U.S. foreign policymakers committed in Latin America during the Cold War. In the name of stability, anti-communism, and counter-insurgency, U.S.-aided militaries did horrible things to thousands of people who sought to reform their countries through peaceful means. Our core national values were violated in revolting ways, and the region ended up neither more stable nor more prosperous.
That experience taught us that aid to foreign militaries is a very risky tool, especially in countries with histories of military rule or domination by small elites. Fear of tragic unintended consequences has fed movements to close the ex-School of the Americas and to oppose Plan Colombia, among others.
But for most of us, this trepidation doesn’t automatically translate into a doctrinaire opposition to military aid under all circumstances. Why, for instance, would we oppose aid to protect civilians from an illegal armed group that kills non-combatants? Protecting people from harm and helping an elected government control its territory are noble goals.
Colombia shows, though, that it’s more complicated than that. Certainly, Colombia’s government is elected, and the FARC kill and kidnap hundreds of non-combatants each year. That is a strong argument for aiding Colombia’s military. But unlike too many in the U.S. debate, we don’t think that military aid should be unconditional. Regardless of the country in question, we believe that military aid will do more harm than good if:
- The recipient security forces’ soldiers and police are rarely punished for abusing citizens, or for colluding with another armed group that abuses citizens. (Notice the emphasis on punishment, on justice. Almost every security force abuses citizens sometimes. More important is what happens afterward. Are the responsible â€œbad applesâ€ swiftly and transparently tried and punished? Or is impunity – a symptom of a gravely flawed institution – the rule?)
- The recipient military does not protect all citizens equally. Warning flags go up if the security forces tend to defend the interests of one small, powerful sector (often against non-violent would-be reformers who criticize that sector), while leaving much of the rest of the country unprotected. This has been a common challenge in Latin America; in the world’s most economically unequal region, some have tended to be more secure than others.
- The military-aid money gets wasted on efforts that actually increase citizens’ anger, distrust, and resentment of the state. This includes mass arrests and sweeps, as well as aerial fumigation and forced eradication without access to alternatives. (And, of course, unpunished violations of the population’s basic human rights.)
- The recipient military operates alone: it occupies territory, but no effort is made to bring in the rest of the state. A strategy of military offensives alone, without coordinated, well-funded governance and development efforts, is a waste of time, lives and resources. This brings us to the next myth.
Myth 3: We naÃ¯vely think that security can be achieved through economic aid and poverty programs alone.
Insecurity has strong roots in poverty and social and economic injustice. But that doesn’t mean U.S. aid money would be well-spent if, for instance, alternative-development programs get set up in areas where the government is unable to protect them.
Conversely, it makes no sense to send troops into an ungoverned zone if there is no plan to bring in the rest of the government to stay behind after the troops inevitably leave. That, unfortunately, seems to be what has happened with the U.S.-backed â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ military offensive in southern Colombia, begun in early 2004 and drawing to a close now. Citizens living in long-neglected zones that this offensive â€œtookâ€ from the guerrillas have, for the most part, seen little or no improvement in their security or livelihoods.
The goal of U.S. aid should not be to assist a military occupation of territory. It should be to assist governance of territory. More than killing guerrillas, the goal should be helping Colombia to expand the amount of territory that is well-governed – where citizens feel safe from attack by all sides (including the state itself), and where the state fairly enforces the basic rules that underpin democracy and a prosperous legal economy. In a well-governed territory, institutions function well enough to enforce the law, resources are marshaled to provide basic services, and people are able to hold their leaders accountable. Organized crime figures – including â€œformerâ€ paramilitary leaders – are unable to â€œcaptureâ€ these institutions because the justice system is able to punish corruption swiftly, transparently and effectively.
Without these conditions, you can’t say that real â€œsecurityâ€ exists.
Achieving governance doesn’t mean no role for militaries and police forces: they are part of the state, and security is a basic public good that a state is supposed to provide. The security forces especially have a role to play when armed and criminal groups regularly threaten people. But it is a much smaller than the predominant role that current U.S. and Colombian policies give it.
Only security forces can make a territory inhospitable to illegal armed groups – at first. But sequence is important. Once basic security conditions are established in that territory, the real challenge begins, and real investment is needed. So far, the U.S. and Colombian governments have not proven to be up to this challenge. There has been very little investment in the presence of civilian government institutions and services in so-called â€œrecoveredâ€ territories. This is a major strategic error.
Myth 4: We want a negotiated peace at any price.
We do not seek, in the immortal words of Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), â€œto sing ‘Kumbayah’ with the terrorists and the leftists.â€ Nor can we offer enthusiastic support to the deeply flawed process between the Colombian government and paramilitary groups. Peace at any price is not our motto.
We do believe, however, that Colombia’s conflict will end at the negotiating table. Most observers of Colombia agree with that statement, though many argue that negotiations will only be viable after the guerrillas have been all but defeated on the battlefield. We hope that they are wrong, since we don’t see that outcome as likely for many years – years in which thousands of Colombians will die violently.
This trauma is not inevitable. In the name of avoiding it, the policy of the U.S. and Colombian governments should be to keep the door to negotiations open. The lines of communication should always be connected.
Even if a peace process remains a far-off possibility, as is the case today with the FARC, it makes sense to promote good offices, mediation and other ways to keep lines of communication open – even in secret. Behind public saber-rattling, there should be a way to exchange messages in private, with the hope of building at least a minimum foundation of confidence and trust that could hasten a more serious dialogue. Breaking off all contact with the enemy may be emotionally satisfying, but because it increases the likelihood of missed opportunities, it is ultimately a bad idea.
Once peace talks do begin, peace at any price is still not the rule. Instead, a process only deserves support if it:
- Promises to verifiably dismantle the armed group’s violent or criminal networks, and gives the state and/or international observers the tools to do so.
- Includes an impartial mechanism to reveal the truth about what happened – including the truth about other individuals or institutions who willingly helped the armed group’s cause.
- Includes restitution and reparations for victims.
- Does not allow demobilizing armed-group leaders to keep illegally obtained assets.
(Some would add, â€œincludes proportional punishment for those who committed crimes against humanity.â€ I do not add this requirement to the list because the promise of a long prison term would give armed-group leaders a strong incentive to continue fighting. While it is revolting to see paramilitary leaders spending only 6-8 years in jail, a still more serious critique of the current process is that it does not appear to do enough to break up their powerful criminal-political networks.)
If a process appears to be moving toward including these elements, it deserves U.S. government support. If it does not, then the U.S. government should support those who are working to push the process in that direction. In the case of the paramilitary talks, such â€œpushingâ€ became more difficult after the â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law was approved in mid-2005. Talks with the FARC and ELN, for their part, have never progressed to the stage at which these questions have come into play.
Myth 5: We ignore guerrilla human-rights abuses.
I don’t understand why this accusation still surfaces. We have condemned and criticized the guerrillas’ shameful record of abuse in all of our publications about Colombia’s conflict, and we call them on specific abuses as well. So do our colleagues in the United States and Colombia. How can one ignore attacks like BojayÃ¡, La Machuca, or ToribÃo, the thousands of guerrilla kidnappings, or the many attacks on poor, defenseless Colombians whom one would normally expect to be the natural allies of leftist insurgents?
It is probably true, though, that abuses by Colombia’s government and its supporters get more of our attention. There are several reasons why this may be.
- The Colombian government is a state, complete with a constitution, institutions, diplomatic representation worldwide and a seat at the UN. As a member of the community of nations, it must be accountable for its actions, and it must protect – not abuse – its citizens.
- The Colombian government gets $600 million per year in military and police assistance from the U.S. government. As U.S. citizens, we are especially outraged by abuses committed by a military that we are aiding so generously.
- The guerrillas’ actions, by contrast, can only be condemned from afar. With their leaders in undisclosed jungle locations, there is no recourse, no interlocution, and almost never any response. We are reduced to letting the guerrillas know of our disapproval by making it clear before the world, which may make us feel righteous but almost never gets a result.
- While the Colombian government has long deserved criticism for failing to act against paramilitary abuses, it seems nonsensical to call on the Colombian government to do its utmost against guerrilla abuses. Is that government not presumably doing all it can about guerrilla abuses? Its strategy may be flawed, but total war against guerrilla groups is already a cornerstone of the Uribe government’s policies.
- While guerrillas commit the majority of kidnappings, their share of responsibility for extrajudicial executions, disappearances and massacres is usually in the 20 to 25 percent range. (Paramilitaries are about 70 to 80, and the security forces are 5 to 10.) Paramilitary killings (and military collusion) may receive more attention simply because they are more frequent.
Myth 6: We want to legalize drugs.
I don’t hear this accusation very often, though it surfaces occasionally. I also don’t hear many critics of Plan Colombia calling for full legalization.
Everybody recognizes that drug abuse carries a huge social cost: lost lives, destroyed families, frayed communities and social fabric, crime and violence, lost productivity. The question is whether the current approach, which relies heavily on incarceration at home and forced eradication abroad, is effectively lowering that cost. Legalization of drugs might lower this cost more than the status quo, since it would reduce the astronomical profitability and related violence associated with a prohibition economy. But making drugs totally legal would carry its own set of costs, and is almost certainly not the least costly of all the alternatives. The option with the lowest social cost lies elsewhere on the spectrum of policy choices.
While opponents of Plan Colombia mostly do not favor legalization, we recognize that:
- The current strategy is not working, and strict zero-tolerance prohibitionism is a factor in that failure.
- Drug abuse is a problem that will always be with us, so we must identify the strategies that have proved most effective, and most cost-effective, in minimizing the harm that it does to our society.
- Studies appear to point in two directions: access to treatment for addicts at home, and a greater emphasis on governance and poverty reduction abroad.
To do well in the new Congress, the last post explained, we have to avoid scaring off â€œmoderate Democrats – and even moderate Republicans – wary of proposals that sound too ‘radical,’ ’soft’ or ‘liberal.’â€ Our positions are none of those things – they’re a common-sense response to a policy that is not yielding satisfactory results.
I hope that the responses to the six myths listed here help make that clear. I also hope that they help guide some of our own discussions as we figure out how to go on the offensive in this very different 110th Congress.