While Colombia is not a neighbour it is a neighbour of our neighbours, Venezuela and Brazil. Colombia established an Embassy here some thirty years ago, perhaps because Colombia is likewise subject to a territorial claim by Venezuela. Moreover it has been closely associated with key regional institutions. It is a non-borrowing member of the Caribbean Development Bank, in short it helps to provide by contributions or guarantee the funds to which Guyana and other borrowing members have access. There is a Caricom-Colombia Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Moreover, Colombia is a foundation member of the Association of Caribbean States which still holds the potential of becoming a significant economic and political entity.
In some inexplicable way Colombia continues to function in a limited area as a democracy although it is embroiled in what is almost certainly the gravest political crisis in South America, a crisis which is now being internationalised as part of the global war against terrorism.
Let the facts speak for themselves. The Colombian government no longer has control of half of its territory, such control is now in the hands of three insurgent movements. This is the outcome of civil conflict which began some 55 years ago. The prestigious journal "Foreign Affairs" (September/October 2002) has recently summarised the tragic facts as follows:
"Colombia is now the world's homicide capital. Annual non-combatant deaths from the fighting reached more than 4,000 last year and have exceeded 30,000 in the last ten years. Colombia has the third highest number of internal refugees in the world (after Angola and Sudan) and bristles with weapons imported from all over the globe. More than 3,000 Colombians and foreigners were kidnapped in the country in 200l".
In terms of death toll, the killings in Colombia are on an altogether greater scale than the casualties in the Palestinian and Israeli conflict yet it seldom gets sustained major coverage in the media.
There are three insurgent movements. Of the three the best known and most powerful is the Revolutionary Armed Forces (l8,000 strong) of Colombia (FARC). Then there is the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) numbering about 5,000 which in recent times acts in cooperation with FARC. Finally, there are the rightist paramilitaries, the AUC (l2,000 strong) who act usually in support of the army.
To understand what the struggle is about one must greatly simplify history but as far as possible without distorting it. The powerful ruling groups consisting of coffee barons and large scale agricultural and cattle farmers apparently, so as to control the peasantry, prevented outside of the few cities the development of the social and economic infrastructure and institutions of government over the vast areas of the country which they controlled. Consequently, the FARC and ELN demand major social, economic and political reforms and institutional development projects. On the other hand the AUC paramiliaries support the existing order.
Alas there are no angels among the three movements. ELN levies taxes on mining enterprises in the areas which it controls but has reportedly resorted to abduction for ransom as is more often the case with FARC and the AUC, these latter two also rely heavily on funding from the cocaine trade. Although terrorist acts are being committed, the situation is clearly not one which can be solved by waging a war against terrorism, as is now envisaged.
"Foreign Affairs" quotes a CIA team report in l958 which after drawing attention to the predilection for violence, the absence of state authority in rural areas, inequitable land distribution and widespread lawlessness and poverty, recommended to the US government a comprehensive nation-building package which would include strengthening the judiciary and the implementation of land reform. Apparently nothing came of the recommendations.
Coming to more recent times, Andres Pastrana, Colombia's last president but one , won office on the commitment to negotiate peace with FARC. Pastrana took the risky political step of providing FARC with a large area of territory in which they would be immune from attack. But it did not work. FARC was apparently not ready for negotiations and the talks collapsed, with the Colombian army trying to take back, with limited success, the safe haven area.
The new President Alvaro Uribe who has just taken office is a hard liner who sees the future in terms of a military solution in which citizens will be pressed into providing support for the army through information and in other ways.
Uribe's views have evoked a strong response in the Bush administration who have been led to believe (almost certainly incorrectly) that an Afghan type campaign can work elsewhere; (it remains to be seen whether there has in fact been a solution in Afghanistan!). President Uribe was in the White House a fortnight ago where according to a Reuters report which appeared in Stabroek News (September 26) President Bush is quoted as saying "Terrorists attacked our country and hurt us, they attack Colombia and hurt them, they're still equally as guilty as far as we're concerned". One must note that this is as profound a misreading of the Colombian situation as there could be. However Congressional leaders had apparently a deeper understanding of the problems. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy stated "We discussed his (Uribe's) plans and I let him know of my concerns, especially about the failure of the Colombian justice system to prosecute high level military and para-military leaders responsible for human rights violations".
Hitherto US assistance has been limited to curbing coca cultivation and the narcotics trade. Now US military assistance will be available for all out war against the guerrilla movements. However given the terrain and the hostility of the peasantry including the coca farmers it is unlikely that the Colombian army can succeed. In that event will there be resort to US carpet bombing as in Afghanistan?
Already the scale of US assistance to Colombia (estimated at l.6 billion) makes it the third largest recipient after Israel and Egypt.
Conflicts deriving from age-old structural problems, the resolution of which is only susceptible to social, economic and political reforms, are now almost next door being militarised on a large scale. The region seems headed for a repeat of the protracted bloody struggles of not so long ago, in Central America.
Colombia is pivotally located between Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Panama. One side opens up into the Pacific ocean, while another opens up to the Caribbean sea, making Colombia in part a Caribbean State.
The evolving situation in Colombia threatens the recent commitments of the OAS to the promotion and support for democracy in the hemisphere. The far reaching implications of the situation need to be deeply pondered, in particular by Caricom Foreign Ministers at their next meeting.