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Colombia: The Dove Tailing of Strategies
Gearoid O Loingsigh
27th June 2003
When Plan Colombia was first announced there were different versions put into circulation each of which had a slightly different emphasis depending on the audiences to which they were being presented. Thus, the version presented to the EU rearranged the chapters so that social spending came to the fore of the document and not the afterthought that it seemed to be in the US. However, all three versions had one thing in common and it was that they described themselves quite clearly as an anti-narcotics strategy for the region. Many critics at the time claimed that it was really a counter insurgency plan designed to increase the US’s role in the region and went on to point out that the anti-narcotics strategy that was being championed had failed everywhere else.
No sooner was the ink dry on the document(s) than a subtle "shift" began to manifest itself. The US began to talk of not being able to separate the "War on Drugs" from the needs of counter insurgency operations. Some of the pressure in this direction came from within the Colombian elites and also the Colombian armed forces which wanted to be able to openly use the military hardware that they were being offered. The "change in direction" that signified allowing the Colombian military to employ Plan Colombia hardware in the fight against the guerrillas was already well underway before the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York. Nobody in the US lost a second to take advantage of George Bush’s declared "window of opportunity". Colin Powell had to cut short his own visit to Latin America because of the attacks but before leaving declared ominously that both the ELN and the FARC had the capacity to represent an international threat to US interests.
These sentiments were echoed in Colombia itself with the regime seeing the opportunity to circumvent the debate on its commitment to democracy and the bloody dirty war waged by it and its paramilitary protégés through pushing a debate on the need to take part in the international war on terrorism. The FARC and the ELN were already listed as terrorist organisations by the US State Department but in the wake of September 11th the EU followed up by also declaring the FARC to be a terrorist organisation (leaving the ELN out for the moment).
So the regime was given a free hand to use the hardware it got for whatever purposes it saw fit and Plan Colombia was renamed as the Andean Regional Initiative (ARI). Under this renamed initiative not only did the US get the right to arm the Colombian military but this has been extended to other Andean countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Even sections of the Venezuelan police receive military aid under the initiative. Plan Colombia and "War and Drugs" saw the US establish a number of military bases and radar stations throughout Latin America (commonly called FOLs) and now, under ARI, the US aims to change the uses to which those bases can be put.
The election of the extreme right wing candidate Alvaro Uribe was the icing on the cake for the US. Not only had they managed to convince the US congress that they should actively back a counter insurgency strategy in Colombia, but the country was now run by a president whose electoral programme stated that he would, to put it colloquially, stuff it to the FARC. Uribe capitalised on the breakdown in the peace process with the FARC by saying that the government had gone soft on the "terrorists" and that if elected he would be implacable and would take the fight to them. It struck a popular chord amongst Colombia’s middle class who had long believed the war to be far away in the countryside and now feared its increasing spread into urban areas. It also struck a popular chord with the US whose ambassador Anne Patterson, publicly congratulated Uribe before the opposition had conceded defeat.
Since his election Uribe has set about increasing the size of the military through the extension of military service to sectors that were previously exempt and through an increased professionalisation of the armed forces. Alongside this tactic, financed to a large degree by an increase in taxes, Uribe has set about legalising his old pals in the paramilitaries. When he was Governor of the department of Antioquia in the mid 1990s he set up a series of rural security cooperatives called Convivir (a play on words which literally means to cohabit). These security co-ops spread throughout the department at the same rate as the paramilitaries. They were the legal cover through which the paramilitaries could be armed and through which they could publicly gain access to the military bases as well as being the perfect justification for their open presence in any town. The number of trade unionists, farmers and human rights workers murdered increased as the did the number of disappeared and internally displaced. Uribe’s wings were eventually clipped by the Constitutional Court which declared the Convivir illegal.
However, Uribe created a social wasteland in Antioquia and also forced the guerrillas to drawback further. As president he is now set to repeat the experiment on a national scale borrowing from a model first implemented in Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s. He has set up what are euphemistically called "Peasant Soldiers" and called for 20,000 volunteers, a number strangely equivalent to the number of paramilitaries said to form the AUC. The peasant soldiers will theoretically be local peasants who will be called upon or press ganged into taking on the role of the military in areas where the State currently does not have absolute domination of the terrain. However, Uribe unlike his Guatemalan colleagues plans to militarise all aspects of Colombian society and has declared repeatedly that there can be no neutral figures, something the paramilitaries themselves have always claimed. In fact the ideological discourse of the paramilitaries and Uribe are so alike that it came as no surprise that the head of the AUC declared the election of Uribe as a "victory for democracy". Uribe shows a similar intolerance towards those who do not wish to participate in his fight against the guerrillas. A range of laws has been introduced forcing civilians to collaborate with the police and army or face the consequences.
The president is on record as saying that there can be no neutrality in the conflict and one supposes that still less can there be opposition; as evidenced by the 201 trade unionists murdered in Colombia in 2002 (a figure which should be compared to the world total of murdered trade unionists which was 235). The total dead runs into the thousands each year.
However, it would be wrong to think of US and even of the Colombian State’s strategy in purely military terms. After all, what is the point of a military victory if you cannot reap the rewards? It has now become a cliché to talk in terms of the mineral wealth and natural resources of countries that are in the sights of the US and Colombia is not an exception. It is an enormously wealthy country, with large oil reserves, some of the largest gold deposits in the world, and a major producer of coal, emeralds, bananas and coffee. However, the strategy being applied is a slight bit more subtle than that which the Iraqi’s have recently faced.
It is no secret, that for a long time the US has been pushing countries to liberalise their economies and allow US companies unfettered access to markets and resources. Colombia began this process in the early 1990s, really taking off under the Samper regime (1994 – 1998). By the time Pastrana (1998 – 2002) signed up to Plan Colombia the opening up of the economy was a consummated fact. However, Plan Colombia did not just contain military and police measures in the "War on Drugs" it also contained economic proposals around privatization and trade. Some of the proposals were quite general but others were very specific. Specific demands were made to privatize those state industries engaged in the generation and supply of electricity. The privatised companies ISA and ISAGEN have now expanded throughout Latin America and have already bought up the electricity grid of Peru and Bolivia.
All of this is in preparation for that other grand plan of the US, Plan Puebla-Panama. Under this plan the US aimed to create an electricity supply network that would generate electricity in the area between Puebla, Mexico in the north and Panama in the south with the aim of exporting it all the way to the US Mexican border and beyond. With the privatization and expansion of ISA and ISAGEN the US will further down the line be in a position to export electricity from Bolivia to the US.
Plan Puebla Panama is not a stand alone plan either. It is essentially the infrastructural plan for the Free Trade Area of the Americas to which most Latin American countries will eventually sign up to.
Alongside the military component of Plan Colombia and ARI the US has developed a whole range of social programmes to be administered by USAID. The EU has also developed a range of social programmes for Colombia which it is claimed do not form part of the military campaign being led by the US. However, a closer inspection of these social plans shows that whilst the may be non military in nature, in the sense that they are not arms programmes, they are nevertheless strategic plans that fit into the overall aim of Plan Colombia i.e the destruction of any opposition to the expansion and domination of foreign capital in the region.
Essentially farmers who have had their crops destroyed by aerial fumigation or have been threatened with it are offered "alternatives". However, the alternatives form part of US agricultural policy in relation to Third World countries. It has been a long standing policy of the US to encourage farmers outside the US to specialise in those products in which they have the one comparative advantage the US cannot overcome i.e climate. So farmers are encouraged to crow those crops which cannot be grown in the US.
This is not new. At the height of the conflict in El Salvador the Santa Fe think tank produced a document that pointed the way forward for El Salvador through the cultivation of melons and strawberries for the US market. The fall in production of staple food stuffs like grains, rice, beans etc would be made up for with the receipt of cheap US imports which would be bought with the dollars earned from the sale of melons etc. Thus the US gets a cheap supply of tropical fruits and off loads a significant part of its grain reserves and the dollars still end up in the US.
It is not just all economics though, Santa Fe I and II both stress that those countries that have agricultural surpluses, i.e the US, can effect changes in other governments internal policies by simply cutting off the food supply. They made no bones about this. Yet now they and the EU propose as part of the social component of Plan Colombia, or as the EU would claim the social alternative to the plan, the very same strategy. Peasants on the brink of starvation after having their land fumigated by US anti narcotics planes are being offered enticements to grow African Palm, Rubber and Coffee. All of these products have one thing in common, over production and crisis.
The peasants take on large debts which they can never repay and bind themselves through purchase – sale contracts to specific companies to which they are tied for a minimum of 12 years and up to 25 years (after which the Palm tree has to be replaced in any case). The proposals will see peasants default on their contracts due to falling prices and the inability to pay off the loans. The Palm Oil companies meanwhile have in one fell swoop and with a lot of aid from the EU and the US divested themselves of all of the costs of production of the raw material as these costs are now passed onto the peasant farmer who is theoretically an "entrepreneur".
Not content with having divested themselves of costs in the production of the raw material a number of projects have been set up to "help" workers form their own companies. Again the workers pick up all the costs, social security, tools, medical costs etc and they tender for contracts with the lowest priced contract winning. One of the main players in all of this is the Programme for Peace and Development in Middle Magdalena, a church backed body which received over 32 million euros from the EU last year without having a single written proposal on the table. Needless to say this NGO enjoys a healthy relationship with all of the Catholic and Protestant aid agencies in Europe.
The plan is to sow an extra 660,000 hectares of African Palm, most of it concentrated in some of the more conflictive areas of the country. This will completely change the nature of farming in those regions and also any possibility for the guerrillas maintaining a support base in the area. The plans for Colombian agriculture are only one small aspect of what is being implemented. The mining legislation has been changed to facilitate the entry of US mining companies and at the same time puts in a legal limbo the rights of small craft miners sitting on some of the largest deposits in the world.
Dove tailing strategies
The economic aid proposals for Colombia have the same aims as the paramilitaries to destroy local organisations, to change the economic landscape forever creating a dependent class of serfs up to their eyes in debt with the companies that they once freely traded with. Although foreign aid might be seen by some as alleviating the situation for the poorest it actually has the opposite effect and this is quite deliberate. The foreign aid is just one more weapon in a war on peasant organisations. Not for nothing are the paramilitaries obliging people at gunpoint to grow African Palm and in this their methodology is similar to that of the US government’s official aid agency USAID. The paramilitaries also stated that it was their aim to hand over the gold mines to foreign companies that would "make a more rational use of them".
So an anti narcotics strategy paves the
way for US involvement in the conflict and the social aid that goes with
that strategy fits nicely into the FTAA. The paramilitaries enforce
the "aid package" destroying any opposition along the way and the EU and
the aid agencies sign up to it all with their own aid, with nice reports,
charts and conferences. Meanwhile the peasants pay the price for
the dove tailing of strategies and interests and lose their land and livelihood
in the name of development.
1. There are five radar stations within Colombia and one antinarcotics base. There are further radar stations/military bases in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and the islands of Curaçao and Aruba off the coast of Venezuela. All of these bases and radar stations are theoretically for exclusive use in the "War on Drugs".
2. Santa Fe is a right wing think tank that comprises academics and former diplomats amongst whom is Lewis Tambs the former US ambassador to Colombia. It specialises in Latin American issues and is very close to the Republican Party, though various policies it has proposed have been implemented by all US administrations including Clinton.
3. An initial loan would be in the region of 7,000 dollars and would rise to 14,000 dollars after just four years as during the unproductive period for Palm the farmer is not obliged to make payments but the interest accumulates nevertheless and must be paid off once the initial four years is up.
4. Michael Deal of USAID stated in a press conference May 2002 that there had to be a credible threat to make the farmers sign up to their proposals and that in Colombia there was a credible threat that was forcing farmers in signing up to such agreements. Press conference is available at www.ciponline.org
5. As testified by numerous witnesses to first large scale incursion in Southern Bolivar.