Supply and Demand In These Times June 9, 2003
CULTURE; Pg. 25
By Ana Carrigan; Ana Carrigan frequently reports from Colombia for In These Times. Among other books, she is the author of The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy.
More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America's War in Colombia By Robin Kirk PublicAffairs 336 pages, $ 27.50
Robin Kirk's thoughtful and provocative book about Colombia, More Terrible Than Death, raises long overdue questions about America's shared responsibility for that country's descent into chaos. Kirk, who has spent 10 years documenting Colombia's catastrophic human rights situation for Human Rights Watch, does not argue that the United States is responsible for all Colombia's ills. But her assertion that Washington's "single-minded focus on eliminating drugs at the source" has fueled, expanded and exacerbated Colombia's spiraling brutality is based on factual observations on the ground and intimate knowledge of the ways both governments -- in Washington and Bogota -- give the runaround to human rights rules intended to protect civilians.
We know the facts about Colombia's tragedy -- or we think we do. We've been exposed to numbingly repetitive horror stories, inundated by statistics, debates and official statements that use words to say the opposite of what they mean. (How many times have we heard that the billions of dollars in U.S. military aid for the Colombian army are necessary to "preserve that country's democracy and support human rights"?) By now, we believe we know who is responsible for Colombia's mayhem: All the havoc is the fault of the FARC guerrillas; or the paramilitaries; or the elites; or the army; or the drug traffickers. It has nothing to do with us.
Yet the big picture, the beauty of the country, the diversity and richness of its culture, the intelligence of its people and their extraordinary capacity for recuperation, these elude us. It is hard to care about a place we don't understand, particularly when our only images are the interminably familiar ones of destruction and death. Faced with a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale hitherto unknown on this continent, we retreat into catch-all myths: Colombia, we say, suffers from a "culture of violence; "Colombians are incapable, or unwilling, to staunch the blood-letting"; Colombian history, it seems, has been marooned interminably in a cyclical, tropical bloodbath. Unable to find any good guys to root for, we have long ago told ourselves that the complexities and contradictions of Colombia's overlapping wars are too difficult to decipher. Convinced that Colombia is hopeless, we have ceased to care.
But Robin Kirk has mapped the connections that link Americans' $ 46 billion-a-year spending spree on cocaine and heroin to the monumental fraud of Washington's 20-year-old war on drugs, and to the cash that flows straight into guns and paychecks for the killers in Colombia. She challenges us to wake up and acknowledge our responsibility. "The point of this book," she writes, "is to lay bare the context of what lies behind and within America's war on drugs in Colombia and show how the United States, through its consumer habits and official policies, has provoked Colombia's home-grown demons. . . . What looms in Colombia is more than a familiar tale of Latin corruption and savagery. . . . We watch as if it had nothing, really, to do with us. Yet it does, intimately. Our failed policy -- dramatically failed, epically failed, and failing with a numbing, annual frequency -- is largely responsible."
Colombians, in other words, have not made the long journey into today's bloody morass on their own. Tracing the origins of U.S. intervention in Colombia, she resurrects the history of Washington's first involvement, triggered when an enraged Bogota mob torched official buildings in the aftermath of the 1948 assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. All it took to draw Washington into the middle of the local rivalry between those whom Kirk describes as the "Capulets and Montagues of the Andes," was for the Conservative president of the day to charge that "a movement of communist inspiration and practices" had inspired the rioters. Overnight, a chaotic and leaderless insurrection in Bogota had morphed, in American eyes, into the latest sinister example of Russian ambitions to export world revolution. In the days that followed, the pattern of American military support for compliant Colombian leaders took shape.( Read more...Collapse )