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NO TO PLAN COLOMBIA: Land Reform Essential for Desperate Campesinos

Once again, the first casualty of war has been the truth. Over the last two years, lost somewhere between blaring media headlines of Elian and Napster, elections and the Oscars, miniature paragraphs and news bites on the escalating crisis of Colombia’s civil war have been vainly competing for the attention of a sensation-hungry, otherwise-occupied public. As popular ignorance and indifference regarding foreign affairs is met with eager compliance by news editors and the U.S. government alike, the urgent situation in Colombia has received skillful mis-representation with its short shrift. For over forty years, this ravaged little country in northern South America has been isolated by a sea of violence that with Senate approval of a 1.6 million dollar U.S. aid package called “Plan Colombia”, now threatens to swamp what vestiges of independent federal control still exist there. Since the 1960s, Colombia has been locked in a futile and deadly conflict between numerous guerilla forces, the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies. At stake is a centuries-entrenched socioeconomic and political tradition which supports a wealthy aristocracy of vast land ownership and cattle production, whose privileges are enjoyed at direct expense to an impoverished peasantry, struggling as they do with subsistence farming and lack of both political representation and agricultural resources. In a fresh attempt to halt the violence, initiate peace negotiations with the guerilla forces, and rebuild the state and its fragile economy, Colombian president Pastrana has presented to the political world a program whereby foreign countries can financially aid the process. With the staggering contribution from the United States, however, Plan Colombia has taken on an almost exclusively military nature. Trumpeting the wearisome battle cry of America’s war on drugs, the U.S. package is purportedly aimed at tackling the flourishing Colombian cultivation and traffic of illicit crops by means of military assistance to the Colombian armed forces, which includes spraying agricultural lands with the toxic SPIKE 20 chemical. The implementation of Plan Colombia has gone virtually unnoticed at the public level in the United States, while among the international community, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the provisions and terms of the Plan are under furious criticism. While fully supportive of attempts to facilitate the Colombian peace process, Amnesty is concerned with the human rights violations which will ensue as military aid is poured into the clutching hands of a corrupt government whose army, and its sidekick paramilitary forces, are notorious for their atrocious crimes against Colombian civilians. Quoting the 1997 U.S. Leahy Law, which prohibits giving certain forms of U.S. aid to forces guilty of human rights violations, Amnesty notes the complexity of the Colombian situation wherein the army is able to maintain at least international impunity for such crimes by relying on paramilitary units to fight its “dirty war.”

While Amnesty’s critique of Plan Colombia, like numerous others, is extensive and of extreme importance (see www.amnesty-usa.org on Colombia for details) it is nonetheless a limited and one sided approach to a crisis whose colossal underlying causes, specifically the long standing quest for land reform by campesinos, as well as the more modern interests of U.S. foreign policy with regards to Latin America, are left virtually unaddressed. In condemning Congress for foisting military aid onto an already too violent and volatile country of increasingly desperate measures, Amnesty passes up mention of a seemingly essential element in the military question; namely, the overwhelming representation of the Colombian military (10, 000 graduates in total) in the student body of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning Georgia – more than any other participating country. At SOA, the U.S. trains Latin American soldiers in military operations whose documented techniques of counterintelligence and even torture are responsible for countless human rights violations. While the SOA claims innocence, and the U.S. Army points to a significant decrease in crimes attributed to the Colombian military itself, these denials obscure State Department reports of collaboration between the Colombian army and paramilitary groups with their rising death squad activities, as well as the fact that since 1999, at least seven SOA trained Colombian military officers have been implicated in brutal and prolific crimes against civilians (see www.soawatch.org for details).

Nor is this a recent development. According to Alfredo Vasquez Carrizosa, president of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights, the Kennedy administration during the 1960s “took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads. [These initiatives] ushered in what is known in Latin America as the National Security Doctrine . . . not defense against an external enemy but a way to make the military establishment the masters of the game.” Given such an intimate and long-standing connection between the U.S. Army, (with its desires to maintain, at no personal cost, foreign conditions conducive to capitalist interests), and the Colombian military, while not strong, but trained to act in those interests, as well as the latter’s own connections with paramilitary groups for the identical purpose of avoiding punitive repercussions on its reputation, this writer questions the realism of any protest of U.S. military involvement in Colombia which maintains the attitude that our government is promoting human rights violations there unwittingly. Perhaps the anticipation of protests such as those which occurred during the Vietnam War has encouraged the use of mercenaries in the Plan Colombia rather than U. S. troops.

The guerilla groups in Colombia criticize the paramilitaries, the government and the wealthy for a situation in which an enormous percentage of the people of the country live in extreme poverty. The violence of the guerillas, however, and their involvement in so many kidnappings, even at Catholic churches, and the more recent destruction of a church, has brought justified criticism upon their heads from the Catholic hierarchy. Some who have participated in these guerilla tactics have been excommunicated.

It is helpful to understand, however, that it is at the level of protecting economics of neoconservative interest in Colombia (a policy known throughout the world as neoliberal economics-and a wolf whose masquerade as lamblike First World compassion which was condemned by Pope John Paul II in Ecclesia in America) that the real motives of Plan Colombia lie. This in mind, it is to the question of land reform, the concurring concern over environmental destruction, and finally, the tragedy of multinational agribusiness policies which, according to IMF policies, prohibit local farmers from growing crops for intra-national consumption, to which we turn now.

An unusually far-reaching examination of the Colombian situation is broached in an October 2000 Commonweal article by former deputy chief of the American embassy in Bogota, Robert E. White. Here, the author, who was previously Ambassador to El Salvador but resigned in protest of U.S. foreign policy there during the war, addresses an important distinction between the independent intentions of Pastrana in formulating the original Plan Colombia and the dramatic alterations to the Plan provisions introduced by President Clinton with the proposed U.S. aid package. The original version of the Plan, White maintains, not only made no mention of aerial spraying of land used for illicit crops, but precluded any sort of military intervention in the peace process – ironically the two pillars upon which the revised Plan Colombia a la Clinton now decidedly rests. Moreover, the original Plan made explicit Pastrana’s intentions to guaranty preservation of the environment in his battle to eradicate drug crops, a concern resoundingly crushed by the deadly rain of herbicides now being dumped by U.S. helicopters on Colombia’s fragile topsoil.

States White: “The Clinton administration has failed to grasp that its response to the initial Plan Colombia was a life-or-death decision for the Pastrana government, and possibly for the country as well. Instead, Washington treated Plan Colombia as a bargaining chip that forced Colombia to abandon the only approach that had any chance of success and replaced it with just another massive counterinsurgency operation that is already driving Colombia closer to the brink of economic and social chaos.” To illustrate just how utterly U.S. policy has undercut the original intentions of Pastrana’s government, one need look no farther than an October 1999 quote from Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, who declared that “the peace process must support and not interfere with narcotics cooperation.”

Corrupt it may be, but the Colombian government recognizes nonetheless that more than a drug war is at stake here. Continues White, “To the authors of the original Plan Colombia, the problem of illicit crops is inextricably bound up with the desperate struggle of campesinos to survive in a region of total government neglect. In their view, a negotiated settlement and the cooperation of the insurgents is a prerequisite for the transformation of rural Colombia through programs of land reform. With this new cooperative relationship between the central government and local authorities, the campesinos’ dependence on illicit drugs will diminish and ultimately disappear.”

The dubious motives of the U.S. government in interfering in a foreign civil war under the pretext of fighting drug traffic is rendered even more problematic by drug war statistics themselves. According to a May 2000 essay on the crisis by author James Bovard, as published by The Future of Freedom Foundation, ten years of U.S. billions in anti-drug aid is doing nothing to halt the flood of heroine and cocaine from Colombia. “U.S. dollars are a magnificent fertilizer,” he writes. “Coca production is skyrocketing – doubling since 1996 and forecast to increase another 50 percent in the next two years . . . Most U.S. anti-drug aid has paid for chemical warfare . . . yet after continual escalation in the amount of spraying, the amount of land in coca production is four times greater than what it was in 1994, and now exceeds 300 square miles.” Add to that the phenomenon that despite SOA’s long touted declaration that their trainees are instrumental in fighting the Latin American drug war, and that given the passing of the Central American civil wars, counternarcotics is the institute’s true mission in the 21st century, only two counternarcotic courses actually exist in SOA’s curriculum. According to a report by the Department of Defense in 1998, only 12% of SOA students actually took those courses. In its defense, the U.S. government blames the magnificent failure of the drug war in Latin America on corrupt officials and local governments, and it does so with such head-shaking consternation that one is tempted to forget the well-known affiliation between drug dealers and paramilitary groups who are backed by the army, which itself is supported by the U.S. Meanwhile, in Colombia, our indiscriminate use of herbicides like SPIKE 20 is devastating the environment in a manner that would be considered criminal in the U.S. Finally, however, the spraying alone, not to mention the entire Plan Colombia, is perhaps irreversibly destroying what may be the one really viable solution to the Colombian crisis – land reform.

The crucial need for land reform which underlies the conflict, and researched propositions for its implementation, are discussed extensively in the June 2000 notes of the 9th National Forum for Human Rights. This convocation, which was held in Bogota for the purpose of addressing the profound political and social corruption underlying and proliferating the civil war, is one of the first to propose a detailed program of reform in response to the civil war. According to the agronomic experts present, there are vast arable lands in south Colombia which, under the traditional latifundia system are not being farmed, forcing a desperate and destitute peasantry into the cultivation of illicit crops. Coupled with this injustice are the harsh IMF policies dictated to Colombia as requisite for her participation in the Global Market, by which multinational agribusiness is fast replacing local agriculture. Peasants are unable to grow certain foods for consumption and equally unable to afford buying imported food. These campesinos, it seems, are told that it is only by means of the food imported under agribusiness policies will there be enough for Colombians to eat. The Forum proposes instead that the inactive latifundia lands in the country be redistributed to farmers as part of Pastrana’s socioeconomic recovery program. The food grown on these parcels would be for internal consumption primarily, grown with a monitored vow prohibiting the cultivation of coca.

An alternative proposal outlines the need for the application of government aid to the development of effective methods of agricultural transportation and marketing in these revitalized areas, along with official surveillance of the project for purposes of security. Without this land reform, thousands of peasants who are even now being forcibly removed from coca-producing areas will be left without legal alternatives for their self support. Already the displaced masses are pushing their way farther and farther into the jungle, into the precariously delicate ecosystem of the Amazon, soon to be destroyed by a retaliating blast of herbicides.

These propositions are backed by abundant business, agricultural and environmental expertise that demonstrates a sophisticated grasp of the multifaceted national crisis at hand. If the last forty years of largely mythical land reform attempts by the Colombian government are any indication, however, one can well believe that it is precisely on this issue that both the U. S. and Colombian governments will dig in their heels.

The urgency of this situation was brought home to us at the Houston Catholic Worker, where a Colombian seminarian who volunteered with us last year reported that already three of his uncles had been killed for their lands. As Archbishop Oscar Romero once said, You can talk about anything in Latin America, propose all means of solutions in the fight for social justice, “but when you touch the land, it calls forth its martyrs.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 3, May-June 2001.