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Review of America's Other War: Terrorizing Colombia

International Affairs Volume 81, Issue 3, Pages 635-667

Studies that seek to provide an all-encompassing explanation for the protracted internal conflict that has afflicted Colombia since the 1940s, if not earlier, have been fairly rare. In his Systems of violence: the political economy of war and peace in Colombia, political scientist Nazih Richani put forward an integral explanatory model which posited the development over time of a 'war system', one whose dynamics were largely determined by endogenous factors. The 'comfortable impasse' that had developed between the Colombian military and the guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) between the 1980s and the mid-1990s, he argued, was upset both by the rise of the right-wing paramilitaries as independent actors with an agenda different from their erstwhile military sponsors and by the dramatic increase in US military aid in the late 1990s, the only (belated) exogenous variable he allows. By contrast, Doug Stokes proffers an explanation that focuses primarily on the dominant role played by the United States in Colombian affairs over the last four decades, thereby downplaying the autonomy of indigenous political actors.

Stokes contends that there has been an underlying continuity in US foreign policy goals in Colombia from the 1960s to the present day, despite the change in official discourse in Washington from an avowed concern with the containment of communist insurgency during the Cold War to a post-Cold War rhetorical emphasis on drugs interdiction in the 1990s and on counter- terrorism following the September 11 attacks. Despite the shifting rationale, US policy has been impelled throughout the postwar period by concerns more to do with Colombia's strategic location near the Panama Canal, a desire to maintain a favourable trade and investment climate and a growing concern over continued access to the country's oil reserves. 'The US imperial state', he somewhat grandiloquently proclaims in an argument that has been popularized by Noam Chomsky, 'acted to protect the interests of capital through the maintenance of an international system open to capital penetration while destroying social forces that threatened the process of global capital accumulation' (p. 25). Colombia is, thus, another instance, following Guatemala in the 1950s, Cuba after the revolution, Chile under Allende and Nicaragua in the 1980s, that offered, at least potentially, a nationalist challenge to US economic and strategic hegemony in the western hemisphere.

It was through the diffusion of its counter-insurgency doctrine, beginning in the 1960s, that the US was able to inculcate in the Colombian military the requisite will to prosecute the war against the various guerrilla movements and their purported civilian auxiliaries. US-sponsored counter-insurgency discourse was 'directly responsible for the ideological legitimation of wide-spread state terror directed specifically at civil society in the name of anti-communism', since it 'served to delegitimate particular social identities' (p. 59). This accounts for the high incidence of murder of trade unionists and human rights workers by the paramilitaries, so intimately linked to the counter-insurgent state yet distanced enough to allow plausible deniability. The end of the Cold War represented no hiatus for, according to Stokes, the US 'has continued to fund and support a pervasive strategy of [counter-insurgency] in Colombia that has been reliant on the principal Colombian drug traffickers and terrorists' (p. 84).

Stokes offers a detailed and convincing analysis of the reality behind the ostensible 'war on drugs' in the 1990s. From its inception in 1989, the US 'Andean Initiative' sought to link the FARC with drug trafficking; the author cites reports by the CIA and DEA that acknowledge that the guerrillas were not the primary drug traffickers. He argues that the decertification of Colombia during the presidency of Ernesto Samper on account of credible charges of links to the drug cartels and the placing of the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia on a list of terrorist organizations in 2001 were essentially public relations exercises; US military aid to Colombia continued to flow through other channels throughout the period of decertification. He contests too the claim that 'Plan Colombia' was designed to promote alternative development; it bears the hallmarks of standard counter-insurgency doctrine by 'displacing target populations con- sidered potentially pro-insurgency, and concentrating them in controllable (often urban) areas' (p. 95). The US militarization of 'Plan Colombia' resulted in over 80 per cent going in military aid, rather than the 55 per cent originally envisaged by President Andrés Pastrana. Stokes charges the US with turning a blind eye to the paramilitaries' involvement in drugs, just as the Reagan administration had done with the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, 'as long as they cooperate with the wider US objective of [counter-insurgency]' (p.104).

This is, as the author forthrightly declares, a work of 'revisionist' scholarship. Some of the criticisms that have been levelled at other authors who tilt against the academic mainstream are applicable here too. The picture he presents of a US aligned with a deeply elitist and reactionary Colombian state against a popular sector opposition appears too Manichaean. How to account for the (abortive) peace process launched by conservative President Belisario Betancur in the 1980s and revived by conservative President Pastrana in the late 1990s? How to account also for the willingness to consider a negotiated settlement with the FARC by the economic conglomerates (at 'the forefront of globalizing agents in Colombia', according to Richani) in the face of opposition from the landowning elite, who had the most to lose from land reform (a minimum guerrilla demand in any settlement)? The dominant classes in Colombia at the present conjuncture are more fractured than Stokes seems willing to concede. The portrayal of the FARC as well is rather one-dimensional.

His conclusions sometimes tend to outstrip the documentary evidence that he marshals to buttress his overall thesis. For example, he implies, but fails to demonstrate, that US counter-insurgency doctrine (rather than the much vaguer word 'discourse' that he employs so often) explicitly condoned the murder of trade unionists and human rights workers. More discussion too might have been devoted to detailing the growing US economic stake in Colombia and the ramifications of neo-liberalism for the Colombian economy.

This, then, is a rather provocative book. There is certainly a case to answer about the US role in Colombia. Doug Stokes has mounted a vigorous opening case for the prosecution, yet has stopped short of ensuring a unanimous verdict.
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