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A new kind of intervention for Colombia
About the author


The author of the following analysis, commenting on an article by U. S. Ambassador Robert E. White in an issue of American Diplomacy entitled "The Wrong War," is a Colombian journalist specializing in political and government affairs. He invites comment by e-mail at gvaldivieso@hotmail.com. —Ed.

AMBASSADOR ROBERT WHITE´S recent article on Colombia considered that the United States´s 1.3 billion dollars assistance "amounts to intervention in another country´s civil war."

He remarks that "Americans have always been skeptical about the wisdom of intervening," and that what supporters of the military component of the U.S military aid to this country do is "reduce complex political, economic and social forces to one manageable target and attack it with military force."

Ambassador White is deeply skeptical about what we call Plan Colombia, thinking that spraying with herbicides can do nothing "but to drive the campesino cultivators deeper into the jungle." In a word, he considers U.S intervention will be, in the best case, useless, but it has a high possibility of ending in an El Salvador—or Viet Nam—type situation, with Americans financing an army unable to win the war—and an awful human rights situation.

Ambassador White is right about the lack of wisdom in reducing Colombian problems to situations that can be managed just with guns. He may be right about Plan Colombia as we know it. But he´s tragically wrong if his conclusion is that Colombia should be left "free" to solve "its own problems." As the director general of the second most important newspaper in Colombia put it, the worst thing that could happen to Colombia now would be the world turning eyes away from it (El Espectador, 30/03/2001). The Colombian conflict needs the intervention not only of the United States, but of the whole international community—not just to help one of the sides win the war, but to end it in the best possible way.

What should be happening now?

The worst fact about the Colombian war is not that the helicopters will make it worse or that the peace process can be frozen. The real problem is that the peace process has not even started yet.

Jesús Antonio Bejarano, an economist who became one of the best informed Colombians on political conflicts negotiation—and who was assassinated in September 1999—used to teach his students that a real peace process starts when the discussion about basic differences begins. Those contradictions are the reasons that allegedly justify one side to be killing the other. That discussion is exactly what is not happening. And, if the Colombian chaos is left to be managed with our expertise alone, who knows when it will begin.

There are three dimensions we must consider when evaluating a military conflict: Intensity, balance of power (that includes military, political, and social forces), and strategic objectives of the sides. A negotiation with an enemy who doesn´t feel defeated begins when the intensity of the conflict and the balance of power make it attractive for both parties, and when those parties are ready to consider changing their strategic goals.1

What are the strategic goals of the players in Colombia? At least one of the guerrilla groups (the FARC) says it wants, if not the government of the country, at least the fall of the current form of government, forcing radical changes in the distribution of power and resources, and bringing the country close to a socialist system. In an interview with the BBC World Service´s Spanish correspondent in Colombia, FARC´s ideologist Alfonso Cano talked about mixed state-private property in the "strategic" sectors of the economy, eliminating latifundia—properties of more than 2500 hectares—and new forms of democracy as the key tasks for a transition government, but making clear that "what we want is power." The government´s sole objective, so far, seems to be having the subversion cease.

As for intensity, the growing levels of disturbance the conflict is generating in economic activity and in the capacity of politic elites to rule have made negotiation more attractive for recent administrations—and for the people in general. We must not forget the ten million votes that backed a "Mandate for Peace" in October 1997.

The power balance remains in a status quo, none of the sides being able to inflict decisive damage on the other, and insurgency´s efforts for broadening its political support having possibilities of success only in the very long term.

The FARC reached a very high profile between 1996 and 1998, taking some military forts in remote places, but they seem to have lost that capacity after the beginning of the army´s reorganization sustained upon increased troop mobility and the constant backing of air power. However, the army, which seems to measure its results in terms of "number of guerrilla men dead," has not been able to inflict casualties of more than five percent of its armed enemies in any of the last three years, the most intense of the war. The capacity to secure territories is also low, for at the same time the Sumapaz paramo near Bogota is "recovered" from a guerrilla rule that lasted for decades, the FARC returns to the wealthy banana region of Uraba, "recovered" three years ago.

What a successful process needs

There are three kinds of negotiation processes for these conflicts. The first is an "inclusive" one like those carried out with all the reinserted guerrilla groups in Colombia so far, in which minimal reforms or concessions are negotiated in exchange for demobilization. The second is "distributive"—each side receives a portion of power—and the third is the "win-win" approach in which the Establishment arrives at the certainty that negotiation is the opportunity to change what must be changed in the system.

In Colombia, where the stronger guerrilla group has clearly stated it doesn´t want more reforms or slices of power, but power itself, only the third kind of negotiation has any hope in the foreseeable future.2

Bejarano taught his students that, once started, four conditions are needed for a peace process to be successful in a country like Colombia.

The first three are

  • a) the clear identification of basic differences to be negotiated,
  • b) the systematic pressure of civil society over all of the actors to speed the process in the definition of the agenda and in controlling the scope and fulfillment of the agreements, and
  • c) pressure of the International community, also over all the sides, that makes it a guarantor of the agreements and of the process itself.

The fourth condition is that the perceptions each party has about its own forces and the enemy´s are similar, and that equilibrium won´t be changed in a way that makes the process lose attraction. Guarantees improve when each side, avoiding the appearance of weakness, acts in a way that strengthens the more moderate party within the enemy field.

In Colombia, more than two years after the Government withdrew its troops from an area fifty percent bigger than the Netherlands to initiate talks with the FARC, and more than a year after a "common agenda" with over 100 items was defined, not even the first of those items has been discussed. The identification of basic differences has not yet started.

Colombian civil society and the international community are the alternatives to push the key armed players harder toward the beginning of a real negotiation. But they are still playing a role too timid, working more as "facilitators" than as forces able to influence the behavior of the government or the insurgency. Attempts in the second direction are still infrequent and rather weak.3

Countries where the guerrilla forces have representatives (Europe and Mexico) seem to be very enthusiastic about the International Humanitarian Law, but none of them seems to have made any real pressure for the observation of that law by the Colombian guerrillas as a condition for maintaining that representation.

The Profits of Silence

The obvious reason for the discussion of differences to be neglected is that none of the sides has an interest in it. Nobody in Colombia has heard the Government or the FARC acknowledging responsibility for the sluggishness of the process of substantive negotiation, although those claims are frequent for secondary topics (such as the exchange of prisoners). Any attempt to explain these attitudes would be speculation, but there are some factors that may help to understand them.

The first possibility would be the government´s insecurity before the need of discussing an agenda for which the government itself doesn´t have a consensus, and can hardly be considered the voice of the "democratic people", or even of the businessmen, politicians, and other supposed beneficiaries of the current rules of the game.

Theorists of negotiation emphasize the importance of negotiation within each of opposing sides as necessary to legitimate and give decisive character to the agreements with the other side. In the Colombian case, the government is either acting in a smart way, articulating basic consensus in its own field before discussing the topics with the insurgency, or is completely clueless on how to initiate that process. There is no sign so far that the first is the case.

Among the insurgents the need for consensus is even higher, for it is a top priority to avoid internal conflict and the possible separation of disaffected sectors. The result is that only the concessions that the hawks´ party is ready to make are made.

There are other factors playing a role, although their impact is yet to be determined. The first is the belief both of the two main players have that their negotiating positions can change for better in the relatively short term. The government bets on military reorganization and the U.S support that enhance its combat capacities, and the guerrillas on their ability to make these new military efforts fail. That would surely precipitate the demoralization in the other field. The insurgency will also exploit every opportunity to give the conflict the profile of an independence war.

The second factor is the very concept of "balance of power" the guerrilla uses to make decisions, a concept that explicitly includes social and politic trends. High unemployment and a social crisis that the establishment doesn´t solve promise more popular support in the future, while the FARC works on getting rid of its "communist" image to consolidate a "Bolivarian" one. (This last step also strengthens its links with a Venezuelan Government that can be very important in the future balance.) Multiplying its militias and the presence of the "Movimiento Bolivariano" will also help to push social pressure more effectively in the future and to negotiate with higher possibilities of deep concessions. And the massive spraying is very likely to be the way to new sympathies for guerrilla.4

If there´s room for an additional problem, that will be the role of those paramilitary organizations that, fighting the guerrillas on their own terms, are reducing the legitimacy and representation of the army to its minimum. Diminishing the "need" for paramilitaries was supposed to be an outcome of the military reorganization, but it doesn't seem to be the case. Today, Colombia seems pretty much closer to chaos than to the end of the war.

The new intervention

The real problem about the Colombian conflict is that, left to its own internal dynamics, it could take a decade or more—and thousands of civilian deaths—before it will be ready for an agreement (whatever the nature of the agreement). An active international community, supporting an active civil society, are necessary to shorten the time and to change the dynamics of the confrontation.

Plan Colombia has so far been a missed opportunity for changing those dynamics. If the first need for a real process is a "win-win" negotiation, focused from the beginning on basic differences, Plan Colombia´s true failure was not in including helicopters or not having a social component big enough, but in neglecting the opportunity for driving the resources—and the attention—of the international community to the very areas where basic divisions are concentrated, beginning with the more obvious: improving the life conditions and increasing the power of people in the rural areas, and helping to make the Colombian Government responsible for at least the life of its citizens, whatever their beliefs, their past, and the size of their bank accounts.

Few social changes in Colombia have at the same time been big enough and fast enough as to produce a sensible change in the way society is perceived by the population. And that is exactly what is required when this war ends: The sensation of a new, more promising beginning.

A billion dollars of Plan Colombia, concentrated in a period of a few years, would be able to finance the fastest, most complete and effective agrarian reform in the history of the country. A bigger quantity, directed to critical infrastructure in those isolated regions, would have made real the opportunities of abandoning coca for thousands of peasants.

International pressure—mainly from the United Stated, the sole military supporter of the government—would have been of great utility to ensure profound politic and economic reforms, like a tax reform ending the attractive of keeping productive land unused by its owners and some guarantees for those not supported for the landowners or the guerrilla in an election. A large part of the establishment (businessmen, intellectuals, politicians) is convinced that those changes are necessary, and the rest will understand in the process.5

So far, the "social" resources of the plan are planned to go to specific projects in specific areas, but won´t have an impact in the overcoming of the conflict.

Emphasis in developing small business and the cooperative sector would also contribute to improve income distribution—and with it power distribution—in Colombian society. Another key change would be to favor public ownership, distributed among as many shareholders as possible, of big enterprises. Democracy needs a minimum of income to sustain the independence of the voters.

The chances are now high that peace processes between Government and at least the biggest of the two main guerrilla groups will take years just to begin talking about what is decisive in the negotiation table, provided that negotiation table remains stable. God knows what kind of solution they will find for paramilitarism if it continues growing amidst chaos. Meanwhile, the intensity and the degradation of the conflict will do nothing but to increase the impoverishment of the country.

Who should lead international pressure to help end the Colombian war? The UN may seem a good candidate for repeating in Colombia the "high intensity mediation" it did in El Salvador, where they were able to modify the demands of the parties and to make them abandon some of those demands. As a matter of fact, the UN has already named a representative of the secretary general, who helps build bridges when the sides are unable to make concessions to the enemy. But the UN is not pushing hard yet—at least not in an open fashion—for the negotiation to abandon secondary topics and move to the substantive.

The Colombian process is not mature for a UN role of the kind in El Salvador. Here at least one of the sides is highly disoriented and both seem more confident in their own future in the war than prepared for peace.

There is a need for a complement to the UN. That complement may have the power of influencing directly and immediately the parties, and that is the power that only Europe and the United States have in Colombia. This country may be viable for its establishment only with American support (in the World Bank, the IDB, the IMF, in trade, in military equipment and training) and both the government and the guerrillas are very accustomed to looking in the direction of Europe, the ones looking for additional financial aid, the others looking for money, refuge, contacts, and nets of support.

It is the international community, but mainly Europe and the United States, that has a real chance of modifying the way this war is fought, and sooner than later end it, by convincing the parties that negotiating now can be better than after. Within that framework, Plan Colombia can change from what it is now to a true strategy for the building of a postwar society, the idea of a Marshall that so irresponsibly has been handled in this country.

Is there a reason for the United States to get involved in pressing the reinvention of a country, when it is likely to jeopardize its links with the ruling class that has been a friend? At the end of the Second World War the United States did help to rebuild Europe, guaranteeing a new beginning for a whole continent. This time, Europe and the United States won´t be able to say they are not aware that the destiny of forty million people depends on the choice their governments and political classes take between "accompanying" and wishing good luck to a disoriented process with very few perspectives, and on the other hand pressing the fighting parties to start working on a new country, a country where those without a gun can finally feel they have a destiny. We hope Ambassador White and many influential men like him agree this cause is worth the effort.


1. Bejarano attempted a comparison between Colombia and El Salvador in his essay "Entre los laberintos de la paz y las anchas avenidas de la democracia. Reflexiones sobre los procesos de paz en Colombia y El Salvador," originally written in 1993 and also included in his book Una Agenda para la Paz (1995).

2. It has been said that in Colombia, the insurgency does not have differences with the establishment, but a diferendo (a fundamentally different vision of the world). That makes integrative negotiation even more necessary.

3. The civil society is very poorly organized, and one of the additional problems for the country is that the rational thinking that Mancur Olson studied so well (The Logic of Collective Action) limits active participation to those organized sectors that are defending very defined interests, or to associations without a real representational character.

4. In the mid-1980s, during a first peace process with the government of president Belisario Betancur, the FARC created a political organization, the Union Patriótica (Patriotic Union). At least one thousand of the UP´s leaders had been murdered by 1989. The Movimiento Bolivariano is therefore a clandestine organization that FARC created to conquer political space, its most importance weakness these days. It can be equally important either for the pursuit of peace or for the deepening of war.

5. Bejarano, among others, was concerned about the mistakes associated with the confusion between peacemaking and peacebuilding, remarking that social changes could perfectly be useless for ending a conflict if they aren´t the outcome of a negotiation. However, we believe that those changes will be necessary to solve the basic incompatibilities in Colombia, and that international pressure will only help ease the path for concessions from the Stablishment, while at the same time reducing the demands from the insurgency.

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