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From Coffee to Cocaine: U.S. Pours Gasoline on Colombia's Flames

Colombia's chaos is rooted in a long history of exploitation, inequality and instability, not from cocaine. Far from improving the situation, the U.S.'s war on drugs can only make it worse.
 
 
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Colombia, as newspaper headlines and TV sound bites remind us daily, is in chaos. The government formally cedes control of major parts of the national territory -- one piece is bigger than Switzerland -- to guerrilla groups. Paramilitary armies control other areas and slaughter civilians suspected of collaboration with the guerrillas. Two million people have been displaced from their homes, while nearly a million have fled the country. Entire villages of men, women and children, are hacked to death with machetes.

Yet there has been no outcry for the U.N. Security Council to intervene. No one has been brought before an international tribunal to be charged with crimes against humanity.

I am no longer surprised by anything I read or hear about Colombia. I have been observing the country for more than 50 years, and it all follows its own ghoulish logic. This is a place where one quickly learns to live dangerously.

I first looked down on Bogotá from the window of a DC-3. Before boarding, we had been weighed -- not just our bags but ourselves. The weight-to-power ratio was critical, as we were testing the DC-3's ability to clear the mountain. The pilot had an oxygen mask. The rest of us held our breath.

The year was 1946. Within days of our safe landing, the Colombian Senate, in formal session, declared me an honorary citizen of Colombia, along with several dozen other journalists from North, Central, and South America, who were participating in a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association.

The Colombian Senate could be relied on to do that type of thing. It was a perfect example of how the oligarchy has traditionally run the country. We were wined and dined at country clubs more luxurious than any club I know of in London or New York. The Senate hoped that when we returned home, we would write about Colombia’s modern cities and booming coffee economy, ignoring the steadily expanding slums and the misery in which the coffee workers lived -- and especially the violence.

We wrote little at that time about the violence. There seems to be a pathological condition that causes Colombians to kill each other savagely and for no obvious reason. It had begun sporadically more than a decade earlier -- today it is institutionalized.

Of course it is not irrational, but a gut response to a social system that has for centuries concentrated power, wealth and status in a small ruling class, while leaving the mass of citizens not only in poverty but without recourse against the capricious impositions of the patrón.

A population explosion in the 20th century, without corresponding economic growth, made this system unworkable. Colombia’s population was fewer than 4 million people in 1900. In 1950 it was 11 million, and today, 40 million people live there. The population distribution has changed from 75 percent rural to 75 percent urban.

Unable to divide their tiny family plots any further, many young peasants chose to climb higher in the mountains to join bands of desperadoes. There, they could count on a brief moment of local glory before falling to the bullets of the military. The bandits would occupy a village or an isolated homestead or ambush a bus. Before fleeing with their loot, they would slaughter all inhabitants, mutilating bodies and chopping off heads.

In 1947, the year after the press association meeting, the violence reached Bogotá. Jorge Gaitan, a popular reformer, was assassinated in broad daylight. It was never determined who was behind the killing. Onlookers had seized the gunman and beat him to death. Official inquiries led nowhere.

The assassination unleashed pent-up resentments in Bogotá. An outburst of pillage and burning swept the city for days and spread across the country, giving the Spanish language a new word -- bogotazo. In the ‘50s, the violence claimed an estimated 200,000 victims. It was out of hand.

The oligarchs had a solution. In 1958, a pact signed by the Conservative and Liberal leaders spelled the end of the pseudodemocracy that had existed for a 150 years. The two parties would rotate the presidency every four years, and each party would be equally represented in all executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government and also in the diplomatic service. The oligarchs could control (they hoped) the rate, scope and character of change. As a bonus, they were eliminating the possibility of any other party challenging their monopoly of power. What the people thought no longer mattered.

I had an insider's view of what followed, because I had just received the dubious honor of becoming an honorary member of the oligarchy. I had become the director of public relations for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia. With coffee as the major source of the country's foreign exchange, the Federation was the real source of power. We made the decisions. We were the government.

I was, of course, a small cog in this big machine, but I played a part. I developed the philosophy that underlay the International Coffee Agreement. It was simple: The number of cents we got for a pound of coffee was irrelevant. What was important was the number of pounds of coffee needed to buy a tractor, or what economists called the terms of trade. If they were to modernize their economies, the poor countries had to get a price for their raw materials that paid for the inputs.

Castro had marched triumphantly into Havana on New Year's Day 1959, and his ascension to power changed everything. It became necessary to save Latin America from the bad example. U.S. military aid poured into hitherto neglected Colombia, as into its neighbors. In October 1960, President John F. Kennedy announced the establishment of the Peace Corps. The following March, picking up on a suggestion made three years earlier by the president of Brazil, Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress. Led by the United States, the major coffee-consuming countries signed the International Coffee Agreement at the United Nations.

To help the U.S. coffee drinkers swallow the additional cost of their favorite drink, we invented Juan Valdez. We found him in Hollywood, a Cuban actor. But when we dressed him up and gave him a mule, he looked like the image of the Colombian campesino we wanted to sell: prosperous, happy, the beneficiary of the higher coffee prices.

We didn't stop there. We grabbed the Alliance for Progress, and Colombia became its showcase. We recruited young men in Colombia to work with the Peace Corps volunteers. We called them promotores. They would develop grassroots initiatives in the villages in which they would work with their U.S. counterparts.

I observed the first Peace Corps volunteers as they trained at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I accompanied them to Bogotá for a three-month course with the promotores, after which they went out two-by-two to the countryside. The promotor would assemble the villagers to discuss the perceived needs of the community: a water well, a school, a bridge, whatever. No problem, said the Peace Corps guy. He could get the materials. The people would volunteer the labor.

"Not so fast," said the villagers. They knew the protocol. "We must first discuss this with Don Jaime." Don Jaime was the local patrón, probably the local representative of the Coffee Federation. Don Jaime listened. "But why hadn't you told me about this? If I had known, I'd have taken care of it long ago. Don't worry. Leave it to me." And Don Jaime paid for the well or the school. The traditional patrón relationship had been reaffirmed.

By the next decade, nothing had changed. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, the violence became institutionalized as never before. Warlords set themselves up in autonomous regions, of which the best known was the self-styled Republic of Marquetalia. Kidnappings became a common method of raising funds. The countryside was no longer safe for the Peace Corps volunteers, and they were moved to desk jobs in government offices.

I spoke several times to Orlando Fals Borda, then dean of the faculty of sociology at the National University of Colombia. His analysis of the Alliance was devastating. "What we actually did was mortgage the country in order to save a ruling class that was headed for disaster. It was already tottering when this stimulation came along to enable it to gasp out a few more breaths, the same kind of artificial breathing as that of a dying man who is fed oxygen, and equally expensive. The sad part is that this ruling class will not have to pay the mortgage it incurred. It will be paid, perhaps with the blood, certainly with the sweat of our children and the working classes, the innocent people who always in the last analysis pay for the broken plates."

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee had looked at the first five years of the Alliance and its conclusion was the same as that of Fals Borda: It had fallen far short of the economic and social goals it had set for itself. Nevertheless, the Committee insisted that the Alliance had justified itself. It had purportedly achieved its objectives, which were to ensure "political stability and maintenance of Colombia's democratic institutions." Thirty years later, as I look at Colombia's "political stability" and "democratic institutions," I shudder at such naiveté. Is that the level of political judgment of the most powerful country in the world? Can we be trusted with nuclear weapons?

The politicians ignored Fals Borda and continued on their traditional path. For my part, I tearlessly said goodbye to the Coffee Federation. Things have changed since then, but only for the worse. There were 19 kidnappings in 1982; now they number thousands each year. In 1999 alone, there were more than 500 massacres. (If Colombia had the same population as the United States, the annual number of violent deaths there would be a quarter of a million.) The war against the guerrillas is responsible for too many of them, but only 15 percent of the total.

According to Human Rights Watch, the paramilitaries, "working with the tacit acquiescence or open support of the Colombian military," carried out most of the four hundred massacres in 1999.

So far, I have not once mentioned drugs or drug lords. The reason is that, while they constitute a new aggravating factor, they did not create the tragedy of Colombia. Get rid of drugs, and the essential issues remain unsolved. Drugs came to Colombia because the insatiable demand in the United States since the Vietnam War forced the production of drugs to expand traditional suppliers in Asia to South America. Peru, traditional home of coca, was the logical place to start; when U.S.-sponsored eradication operations raised the cost of production there, economics forced a shift to other markets.

Colombia was ready and willing. Social chaos provided the climate. It was a perfect match. Wars require money, and drug profits enable all three parties in the Colombian war to buy ever more sophisticated weapons and maintain bigger armies.

Will today's U.S. escalation of the war achieve its objective of destroying the coca crops in Colombia? It is most unlikely. At best, it will take years. And even if it does, production will merely move across the borders into the Amazonian forests of Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, Cayenne, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador. Already drug-processing plants are springing up on the Ecuadorean side of the border with Colombia.

Envision what Colombia will be like if all this comes to pass. What little industrial infrastructure now remains will have been reduced to rubble. The vast areas today under coca production and the additional acres that will be planted as the war goes on will have been sprayed with glyphosate and will lie infertile for generations. The U.S. government says glyphosate is "safe as salt," but that's what we were told about Agent Orange. And what about the land mines and depleted uranium shells?

Will a U.S. Senate Commission decide once again, as happened in its 1969 evaluation of Vietnam, that our decisive role in achieving this outcome has been justified, that we have brought political stability and democratic institutions to Colombia?

Gary MacEoin's Colombia and Venezuela and the Guianas (Time Life Books) can be found in English and Spanish editions in most public libraries.