What do Facebook, cocaine and Hugo Chavez all have in common? They only share one thing that I’m aware of- the five decade-long Colombian civil war. This week, following impressive use of Facebook by one average Colombian, Oscar Morales, in order to mobilize the Colombian population, protestors marched within the country and in nearly 100 cities abroad. They demanded an end to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) guerilla movement, an end to the violence and kidnapping. And though the United States did not cause this conflict and is not actively participating, the case of Colombia clearly shows the influence that Americans, from the average person to policy makers have on the world around them.
Colombia has one of the most tragic political histories of any Latin American country. Following bloody partisan conflict, known as “La Violencia” in the mid-20th century, the Marxist-inspired FARC began a revolutionary campaign. Later on, the National Liberation Army (ELN) also began an insurgent campaign against the government. The continued weakness of the Colombian government has made it impossible for it to suppress the conflict and neither guerilla group has ever gained enough strength to take over the country. With the rise of cocaine in the 1970’s and 1980’s, drug cartels and drug-violence further weakened the government and gave guerilla groups a convenient new source of funds. Due to the government’s continued inability to maintain security, landowners and other conservative elements formed paramilitary groups, most notably the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which also tapped into the growing drug trade and escalated the violence. Both the guerillas and paramilitaries have relied on kidnappings and extortion, as well as drugs, to fund their operations. Human rights abuses have been endemic among all parties, from the guerillas, to the paramilitaries, to the military itself.
Under President Clinton, the United States supported the efforts of the Colombian government to root out drug producers through “Plan Colombia.” Through this, the U.S .vastly increased military aid to the Colombian government, in addition to stationing U.S. military advisors and personnel in the country. Investment in “Plan Colombia” has not brought the conflict closer to conclusion and neither has it significantly decreased the flow of cocaine into the United States. Instead, it has magnified the destruction for already poor peasants in the countryside. In 2006, the paramilitary groups demobilized, while the FARC and ELN continued their insurgencies.
United States policy in Colombia has been a failure. The continuing demand for drugs in the United States, as well as the lure of a steady income in a desperately poor environment, makes it nearly impossible to wipe out supply. Instead, American policy makers should focus on our drug problem and help Americans realize that what they do has an impact on the world around them. Military aid in the form of Plan Columbia is also a symptom of a wider problem in U.S. foreign policy- seeing military intervention as a cure-all for the problems of instability across the world. Rather than jumping to intervention as a solution, American foreign policy makers should encourage an investment in the development of a sustainable Colombian economy and, maybe more importantly, strong institutions to consolidate a Colombian state that can provide both stability and justice to its people, not justweapons and training to a semi-institutionalized military.
In January of this year, Colombia made the news for the successful release of two hostages by the FARC. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the neo-conservative hawks’ favorite Latin American target, negotiated the release. Though Chavez is alleged to have given aid to the guerillas, his pressure encouraged the guerillas to release the hostages, who had been held for over six years. And though such a hostage release might show a change of heart on the part of the guerillas, it is estimated they still hold over 750 hostages, including one of the 2002 Presidential candidates.
The situation in Colombia exemplifies the failures of our foreign policy, focusing on military intervention and aid, rather than the construction of stable and effective civil societies. If we truly want to bring democracy and development to the developing world, specifically Colombia; we need to focus on enabling the Colombian people to control their own destiny. An important part of this is security- but it is not the security that more helicopter gun ships and military advisors brings, it is the stability of functioning and uncorrupt courts, responsible politicians, and an effectively developing economy. Certainly the drug trade contributes to the ineffective institutions and serves to finance the guerillas, but the fault is with American drug consumers, rather than poor farmers looking to eek a living out of the land. Illicit drug use is a problem that we need to face as a country, and no amount of defoliation and military campaigns in Latin America will ever make the poor farmer think that it is worth his while to grow coffee rather than coca. We, as Americans, need to realize our impact on the world, and our impact on foreign societies. Colombia is such a case, from American patterns of consumption to our obsession with military spending; it shows our impact on the world around us. The sooner we realize our impact beyond our borders, the better off we, and everyone else will be.
This brings us to now. And it brings us to a time when Colombians are actively demanding an end to the violence. The creation of a popular movement through Facebook is something novel and encouraging for the future since it allows people to participate and make demands. Given the dysfunctional nature of the Colombian state, networking sites and the Internet may provide a way for the Colombian people to organize a virtual civil society, safe from violence that can then be translated into action in the real world. Who could have imagined that a networking site for college students could be translated into a mass movement in a country a world away from Mark Zuckerberg’s privileged Harvard? Where does it go from here, and where do we as Americans go from here?
Time will tell.