There’s Only One Valid Way Out of the War in Colombia
Colombia, so close to Central America, is deep in war. The armies of Nicaragua and the rest of the region have been put on alert by the United States. This brief article by a Colombian journalist offers basic but useful elements for understanding
the Colombian crisis and, through that, our role in it.
Declaring a war and winning it are two different things, just as winning it is not the same as obtaining peace. Our collective memory is so short that we Colombians only recall the three years of Andrés Pastrana’s frustrating "peace process" and see its failure. We have already forgotten the failure of the 47 years of war that came before.
Pastrana is not Colombia’s first President to declare open war on subversion. All his predecessors have done it, bar none, since Guillermo León Valencia, or even earlier. When the government of Mariano Ospina’s unleashed its official violence in 1947, Laureano Gómez explained the ultimate reason for it with his "basilisk theory," according to which Liberalism was an immense monster’s body directed by international communism’s tiny but perverse head. It should come as no surprise that this theory fit hand in glove with Truman’s "containment doctrine"—the contention by force of communist expansion anywhere in the world—which was the opening shot for the Cold War. Thus it was that 13 Presidents declared our local war against subversion one after another—14 including Pastrana and 18 if we count the military junta quadruplets. And not one of them has won it. On the contrary, subversion has grown in war and largely thanks to war.
It is now fashionable among both local and imperial politicians to attribute the existence of subversion to the illegal drug trade. It is true that it feeds subversion, but it also feeds a hundred other things, including the counter-subversion of the paramilitary "self-defense" groups. Drug trafficking is neither the cause nor the seed of subversion. Or does someone really believe that Tirofijo and his peasants from Marquetalia who took up arms against the persecution of the government "birds" were prosperous drug traffickers when the army went in and dropped napalm on their pigs and chickens? At the time they were fifty men, holed up in a little chunk of forest. Now the FARC has a hundred fronts across the country, plus urban militias. And there are other guerilla organizations as well.
They haven’t multiplied thanks to the illegal and thus profitable drug economy, but thanks to war. The recipe of fighting subversion with military repression is wrong on two counts: it is both insufficient and counterproductive. It is insufficient because 50 years of almost uninterrupted use of both legal and extra-legal force by the Colombian army has been unable to defeat subversion. Now they are telling us that the army is better armed and better prepared, just as they have told us twenty times before, but it is no more plausible this time than the others. A month ago, when the first diversionary offensive was launched against the cleared zone, this better-prepared army could not prevent the blowing up of the strategic bridge over the Río Ariari, which was the entryway for its troops into Caguán.
Presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe proposes to double the troop strength, but to serve any purpose it would have to be increased at least fivefold, with the attending costs not only in money but also in democracy. To have an army that effectively fights subversion, all public investment would have to be exclusively dedicated to the military budget, all pretension of respect for human rights would have to be abandoned and even the fiction of a civil government would have to be forgotten. Where generals are in command, presidents are not.
The recipe has been counterproductive because every time in these 50 years that the army has been given resources and a free rein, its contra-guerrilla offensives have simply strengthened the guerrilla. The persecution by the state, its armed branch and its "dark" allies" has pushed more and more people—orphans, displaced poor families, survivors of the extermination of the legal Left and the union movement—into the arms of the subversives. That is precisely why the FARC is not afraid of total war; its leaders know that it suits their cause.
It can be assumed that, just as before in the past half-century, fighting subversion with military repression will just strengthen the resolve of the subversives while the worsening violence will feed their ranks. I in fact share the gloomy prognosis of presidential candidate Lucho Garzón: the government and the guerrilla movement will still have to sit down across the table again, after another million people have died.
And, to repeat what I said earlier, victory in war is not equivalent to peace, in this case because if the prescription is wrong it is because the diagnosis is wrong. The Colombian Establishment, represented by successive governments and the economic associations and egged on by the United States, believes that the disease is subversion, when it is in fact only a symptom of the infection.
The organism is thus being debilitated by a preference for fighting the symptom— or else dialoguing with it, which is another error in the same prescription—rather than putting all that energy into fighting the infection. It amounts to trying to break the fever rather than cure the cancer.
Pastrana’s offensive is going to fail even more than Valencia’s did when his bombing of Marquetalia killed only pigs, and far more than Gaviria’s, whose bombing of Uribe killed nothing but a cow. This new failure will cost many useless deaths.
Things will only change when the Establishment finally realizes that its diagnosis of the disease is incorrect, and that its prescription, which appears cheap, is not only off base but also very costly. Meanwhile, the solution that the now exterminated Left proposed starting half a century ago and that the guerrilla movement of today, strengthened thanks to that extermination, has continued to prescribe may appear expensive but it is actually less expensive because it just might work. That prescription is social justice. When Colombia’s wealthy buy a pair of shoes or a tie, their guiding principle is that "cheap things cost more because they don’t last." They should apply the same logic to the issue of peace. War costs more. And it doesn’t work.