This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Colombia has not become a model of success

Two articles on Colombia — “Whom to Thank for Hope?” by Levi Miller (Feb. 29) and “Co­lombia’s Turnaround” by How­ard LaFranchi (April 11) — left me deeply disturbed. I want to address three points: the myth of military success, the myth of Plan Colombia’s success and the myth of a strong central government and judicial system.

The subtitle of Miller’s article is “Movement toward peace in Colombia shows not all conflict can be resolved through nonviolence and negotiation.” The rationale for using military force is that you can force your enemy to surrender. This has not happened in Colombia.

Peace talks are the result of President Santos admitting that military strategies were not ending what began as a socio-economic conflict in the 1960s. The rebels have come to the same conclusion. This has infuriated former President Uribe and his backers, who have formed a political party aimed at stopping the negotiations. These talks are fraught with distrust and risks. They may fail. If they move forward, there remains the question of how to reincorporate militants and dissenters into social life without creating a group of second-class citizens. The upside is that nonviolent failures have smaller body counts and are far cheaper than military failures.

Was Plan Colombia a success? Coca plantings are five times larger than in the mid-1980s but an improvement over 2001. The murder rate has dropped by half but remains the second highest in South America. Colombia leads the world in the number of human rights workers and labor organizers killed each year. Of its 6 million internally displaced refugees, more than 4 million were displaced after Plan Colombia began in 1999. Last year the number was down to 200,000 or so. Colombia has the world’s 11th largest income disparity.

Plan Colombia’s positive numbers usually omit its negative effects, like the physical, mental and emotional repercussions of years of aerial fumigation using U.S.-supplied herbicide applied by U.S. pilots in U.S. planes. Campesinos understand that the programs of alternative crops will never include things like rice or corn, because they will not be able to compete with subsidized crops from the U.S.

Miller and LaFranchi commend Colombia’s strong central government and improved judicial system. While guerrilla groups have been negotiating with the government, they still control much of the territory they have for decades. A new paramilitary group has risen in the northeast, controlling mining and drug trafficking.

In 2008 President Uribe improved police training and the commitment of personnel to local communities. But our experience in Christian Peacemaker Teams has been that the national police are controlled by local governments who themselves are often controlled by business interests and paramilitary strongmen. I am baffled as to how Colombia can be seen as a model of success.

Philip Hart
Columbus, Ohio

Hart has served a month or more for eight years as a CPT reserve corps member in Colombia.

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