Published on Tuesday, February 26, 2002 in the Miami Herald
Go Into Colombia Fully Aware
by Max Castro
|Looking at Colombia, it is hard to escape the sense that the United States is about to cross a significant threshold. Responding to persistent provocation by the guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and prodding from hard-liners at home and abroad, President Andres Pastrana has declared the peace process dead and resumed the war against the insurgents.
The administration in Washington, with the apparent support of key opinion makers, including the editorial boards of the most liberal newspapers in America, seems poised to move from backer of a now-defunct peace process to a major supporter of one side in an armed conflict.
At this moment of decision, one wonders what Americans understand about Colombia and the potential implications of deepening U.S. involvement in that country, or in any country. For in the wake of Sept. 11, it is clear that getting involved in wars abroad, even if only as supplier of equipment, training and resources, can have devastating, if indirect and unintended, consequences for the American people.
Meddling in other people's affairs, taking sides in other people's struggles, even with good intentions, carries risks. Perhaps getting more deeply involved in Colombia now is the right thing to do. But, if so, we should do it with our eyes wide open. We should know what kind of fight we are getting into, whom we are fighting and with whom we are getting into bed.
The Colombian conflict goes back over half a century to at least 1948 and the beginning of La Violencia. The word quagmire, used so often in the past in relation to Vietnam, doesn't even cover it. It is a conflict that has eluded resolution even as other seemingly intractable bloody conflagrations in countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala were settled through negotiations.
Colombians have tried and failed to end the violence through both force and diplomacy. Such a longstanding conflict has deep and complex political, social and economic roots. It is not subject to the kind of quick, technical fixes we Americans like so much. It is not a sprint, the kind of race that Americans dominate, but a marathon, a race at which we stink. Will we stay the course this time, or pull out after an apparent victory, as we did in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew, leaving behind a bigger mess?
We can take some comfort in the fact that the main enemy is dastardly. There is no way to see the FARC as romantic revolutionaries. They murder innocents. They practice kidnapping on a mass scale. They hijack planes. They protect drug traffickers. They tried and exceeded Colombian President Andres Pastrana's considerable patience, even after he ceded them a major chunk of land as a safe zone to facilitate negotiations. They deserve no sympathy.
But can we take equal comfort in our allies? The answer is a resounding ''No.'' As recently as Feb. 1, several human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International, stated that the Colombian government had not complied with the human-rights conditions that U.S law requires before security assistance can be provided.
The human-rights groups cited, among other areas of noncompliance, Colombian army complicity with or tolerance of massacres perpetrated by right-wing paramilitary forces, whose unspeakable cruelty exceeds even the horrendous FARC crimes. According to a 1998 Colombian government study of human-rights violations, 70 percent of these are committed by paramilitary groups, 25 percent by guerrillas and 5 percent by the police and military. So by the Colombian government's own accounting, 75 percent of the human-rights violations are committed not by the guerrillas but by forces fighting against them.
Is this our fight? Do we want to get in the middle of these nasty folks? Whatever the answer, at least let's not rush into it without first giving the American people the chance to know more about the course we are embarking on and its risks and implications.
Copyright © 2002 Miami Herald