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CIS Hosts Forum on Colombia

Forum Part of Series Addressing U.S. Involvement in World Affairs

By A. S. Wang


Experts on foreign policy from around the country gathered at MIT’s Center for International Studies’ second forum held on Monday, to discuss Colombia’s ongoing civil war and the intervention of the United States government.

The goal of the forum was “not to offer only a pessimistic diagnosis but also to help provide possible solutions to the problem in Colombia,” said Professor of Political Science Chappell Lawson. He and Professor of Political Science Stephen W. Van Evera moderated the two-part event that began with an introduction to Colombia’s history then explored U.S. policy toward the affair.

“This is exactly what we wanted,” said Lawson after the forum. “I think it was a great opportunity to learn about the situation from the leading experts in the field. It was controversial, yet effective,”

“In welcoming its 50th anniversary, the CIS is renewing its goal to be an educational resource for MIT students as well as the greater Boston area to raise awareness on under-covered political issues. I think this series is helping us do that very well,” said event organizer Amy Tarr, director of public programs for the CIS.

“This was a fantastic look into the US policy as well as the current situation regarding Colombia. The distribution of representation was great,” said Angela S. Bassa ’03.

Panelists analyze reasons for war

Panelist Jonathan Hartlyn from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill identified five causes of the Colombian conflict. “Colombia has always been a weak state with little military intervention ... it has a tradition of extreme partisanship of conservatism versus liberalism, with a weak left,” he said. “In the last half of the 20th century, Colombia was frustrated by failed reform attempts, causing dramatic socioeconomic changes. This combined with only moderate economic control caused severe and prolonged recessions in Colombia.” Hartlyn concluded that the influence of powerful guerrilla groups and drug trafficking became catalysts for Colombia’s political instability.

Today, about one in every 37 Colombians is displaced by war, with children constituting about 65 percent of the country’s displaced population. Most vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and trauma, they are also among the chief perpetrators of violence - some have been conscripted to the ranks of guerrillas and paramilitaries as early as the age of nine.

U.S. has interest in Colombia

All panelists agreed that the United States should have an interest in the war.

One of the panelists, Michael Shifter, program director of the Democratic Governance Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, said, “There is a lot at stake and a lot of interest US has on the problems of Colombia.”

Shifter said that “[t]he US needs to have a good partner in fighting drug trafficking. There is a wider security problem of spillover violence into neighboring countries ... The human rights issue is clearly in the US interest as well.” Shifter also cited social and economic reasons for US involvement, like securing coffee, emerald, and other natural resource supplies, as well as the large Colombian-American population.

He said,“Clearly, now, the Colombians have not been able to effectively respond to the current crisis ... [Colombian president] Pastrana has yet to fashion any coherent policy and has not rallied any solid support.”

Panelist Cynthia Arnson, an expert in Latin American Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, stressed that future U.S.-Colombia relations have yet to be molded, depending on the outcome of the upcoming Colombian presidential election. “If [Horacio] Serpa wins the election...the U.S. policy towards Colombia will be determined very much by what he does. It is currently ranked 7th in supplier of oil for the United States, so there is a significant investment in Columbia by U.S. businesses.”

Arnson also said that “Drug trafficking is merely a manifestation of the presence of much deeper problems that exist in Colombia.”

Factions in conflict

The conflict in Columbia has developed three distinct factions. “The narcotics trade has changed the situation from a bipolar war between guerrillas and the state to become a multi-polar war between the guerrillas, the paramilitary and the state,” since the 1980’s, said Mark Chernick, a visiting professor from Georgetown University and a panelist in the discussion.

“The major [propagator] of violence are the guerrilla groups, with the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] being the main player,” Hartlyn said. Originating from peasant self defense initiative, the FARC operates in 40-60% of country’s municipality. “They traffic cocoa and extort wealthy Colombians for funds,” Hartlyn said.

Hartlyn also described the threat of the ELN, another Guerrilla group, which originated as radicalized students inspired by the Cuban revolutionaries. “[They are] now at 3500 strong also relying on kidnapping and extortion for revenue,” Hartlyn said.

To protect themselves from the violence of the guerrillas, wealthy Colombians including drug traffickers and landowners have come to rely on paramilitary forces for protection, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) being the most prominent.

“Unfortunately, these forces are believed to be a form of solution by many wealthy Colombians, since they have been effective against guerrillas despite their horrific human rights record,” Hartlyn said.

Prospects for peace

In evaluating the future U.S. policies, the experts on the panel agreed that the US needs to focus more on peace building in Colombia instead of anti-drug trafficking.

“What will be the cost of peace? The cost of peace is very high but possible,” Hartlyn said. “If the United States were committed, and if we were willing to pay a large down payment now, the results would go a long way.” Hartlyn said that although people tend to be suspicious of U.S. forces, the United States needs to display some credibility.

Lawson was not so optimistic about the possibility for peace. “In the 80’s there was a greater possibility for political reform than today. The paramilitary was less violent, and the guerrilla less powerful. I am also skeptical that the society’s elites are supportive of reforms to move money into the tax and legal systems,” he said. He concluded that with the three major players not enthusiastic to change, a U.S. negotiated peace would be far from likely.

Chernick believes that with international involvement, peace and reform are possible. “The guerrillas can get more out of a negotiation table than the battlefield. They have grown as much as they are going to grow ... Peace is possible, but the international community needs to be involved.”

The third CIS Forum is scheduled to be held in February on the topic of China-U.S. relations. “There will probably be a much greater amount of interest on this topic at MIT,” said Van Evera, ”I think we are getting used to the idea of political forums at MIT, from today’s audience, I have seen some terrific questions and very thoughtful input.”