Chesa Boudin on Colombia’s Civil War
Posted on Dec 26, 2008
By Chesa Boudin
Leech investigates a peasant massacre and finds that “U.S. military aid was being used as much to wage a war of terror as to fight a war against terror. At best, it appeared to be funding a selective war on terror—one that targeted civilians seen as suspected leftist terrorists, yet supported a military responsible for perpetrating state terrorism and maintaining close ties to right-wing terrorists.”
Moreover, according to Leech, the U.S.-led aerial fumigations of coca crops throughout Colombia have backfired; there is now a “super herbicide-resistant strain” of coca that is capable of yielding four times as many leaves from the same acreage. Thus, “although the U.S. and Colombian governments claimed that Plan Colombia was working because the fumigations were reducing the number of acres under cultivation … in reality coca production had remained relatively stable.” Meanwhile, Leech tells us, “Not only do coca farmers earn the least amount of profit among all those engaged in the production, trafficking, and sale of cocaine, but they are also the most vulnerable link in the chain because of their poverty and lack of mobility. Even with the widespread cultivation of coca, 85 percent of rural Colombians live in poverty. And at the close of the twentieth century, those poor farmers became the principal target in the U.S. war on drugs.”
President Uribe, a willing partner in the war on drugs, has succeeded in improving Colombia’s image in the international business community and increasing urban security. Yet the government presence in many rural areas is limited to military incursions without meaningful investment in development or economic and social infrastructure. Leech shows us the divide between rural and urban Colombia, narrating multiple political perspectives throughout. In one scene that takes place over a three-hour period, he interacts with pro-FARC rural peasants, then with nonaligned, pro-peace small-town residents, and finally with right-wing pro-Uribe urbanites.
Leech clearly knows Colombia intimately, and this makes the book. One area where “Beyond Bogotá” falls short, however, is that it lacks regional context. Colombia is just one country in a fascinating and rapidly changing region. In many ways Colombia is an outlier among its neighbors: While Colombia is still a close ally of the U.S. and an adherent to the Washington Consensus, Andean neighbors Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, for example, have elected left-wing, anti-neoliberal, populist presidents, including Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales. Uribe appears to represent the old guard of Latin American governments, while Chavez’s 1999 election was the vanguard of a wave of progressive democratic victories across the region. This regional context has shaped U.S. aid to Colombia, as well as Uribe’s domestic policies, but is largely absent from the book. Also missing are recommendations for how Colombia might find its way out of its quagmire, or how the international community can help it do so.
Latin America is a rapidly changing region, and perhaps no country illustrates this better than Colombia. Writers focusing on current events there inevitably face the pitfall that nothing remains current for long. While this book is one of the most recent, most up to date on Colombia available today, crucial developments occurred after “Beyond Bogotá” went to press. Several of the key FARC leaders Leech writes about or interviewed for this book, including Simón Trinidad, Raúl Reyes and Manuel Marulanda, are no longer on the field of battle: Trinidad was caught and extradited to the U.S., where he is currently in prison; Reyes was killed by the Colombian military; and Marulanda died of natural causes. Moreover, the FARC’s most valuable hostages, among them one-time Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and several American civilian contractors, were rescued last summer in a daring raid coordinated by the Colombian military. What implications these developments have for the FARC’s viability as a national rebel army remain to be seen. For those interested, as I am, in Leech’s ongoing analysis of these issues and future developments in Colombia, it should be noted that he is the editor of a regularly updated Web site called Colombia Journal [under construction as this review is published].
As I was finishing reading “Beyond Bogotá”, I received an e-mail from Justicia y Paz, detailing threats and kidnappings of its members working in the communities in Curvarado. A series of anonymous phone calls had preceded the kidnapping of a human rights worker based in one of the formerly displaced communities I visited in 2007. Throughout Colombia, paramilitary groups are engaged in ongoing assaults on poor communities living on resource-rich land. U.S. military aid continues unabated, even as the Colombian military is complicit with these illegal attacks or simply looks the other way. This book is an excellent way to familiarize oneself with a multifaceted conflict that sadly shows no sign of letting up soon.
Chesa Boudin is the author of “Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America,” forthcoming from Scribner. He studied forced migration and public policy in Latin America at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and is currently enrolled in the Yale Law School.
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