LBJ School Philanthropy & Non-Profit Organizations

The Militarization of Peace in Colombia Shows A Need for Change in US Foreign Policy

Third and final in a series by Marcelle Cohen (LBJ School student in Master of Global Policy Studies) covering her internship at La Allianza Iniciativa de Mujeres Colombianas por la Paz.

“I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.” George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States

WAR IS PEACE.”– 1984, George Orwell

During the Cold War, the global South became the ideological battleground in which the global North waged war. In this sense, the Cold War was only cold in Europe and North America. The United States and the Soviet Union carried out a power struggle by proxy through abundant military aid to bolster or subvert a respective pole in the conflict, exploiting and escalating internal conflicts to assert geo-political dominance. In short, the superpowers maintained relative peace in the First and Second World through a policy of doling out military aid to “Third World” countries to fight wars on their land, with their people, and their blood. This policy generally exacerbated instability and degraded human rights in areas already lacking in security, subsistence, healthcare, housing, and education.

In the early 1960’s, Colombia’s unrest became caught in this crossfire, magnified by exported Cold War militarism. In Colombia—as in many Latin American countries—wealth and power had been concentrated in the hands of a small elite, producing deep scars of inequality and social unrest. This fact, along with government violence in rural communities, inspired the formation of leftist armed peasant groups. This triggered U.S. involvement through military and intelligence aid, such as the 1962 Plan Lazo, which advised the Colombian government on communist containment:

A concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed later. This should be done with a view towards development of a civil and military structure for exploitation in the event the Colombian internal security system deteriorates further. This structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known Communist proponents. It should be backed by the U.S.”

Over $8 billion of U.S. military aid and 50 years later, this is a strategy that has withstood the end of the Cold War period. In 2000, Plan Colombia largely continued U.S. military aid for counter-insurgency policy under the guise of the drug war—which targeted rebel-held areas and ignored the country’s main drug-trafficking groups. The Colombian government had originally conceived of Plan Colombia in 1999 as a “Colombian Marshall Plan” for peace through negotiated settlement and socio-economic reforms that would take on inequality as a root cause of the conflict. A year later, however, following discussions with the Clinton Administration over U.S. funding, this plan for peace had become militarized, making Colombia the world’s third largest recipient of U.S. military aid. With President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” US counter-insurgency policy became explicit and all US military aid in Colombia was directed towards countering “terrorist activities, and other threats to national security.”

Despite the mandates of the Leahy Law and overwhelming evidence of the Colombian military’s appalling human rights record, the State Department has continued to certify Colombia as fit to receive American aid. U.S. military aid has thus continued through State Department recognition of torture, massacres, forced disappearances, killing of non-combatants, mass rape, targeting of human rights workers, and collusion with brutal paramilitary groups. Military aid has continued through a conflict in which 80% of the over 220,000 dead have been civilians and in which nearly 5 million have been displaced since 1996 alone.

Beyond intensifying the degradation of human rights conditions, militarizing Plan Colombia radicalized rebel distrust for the peace process and undermined a possible end to the conflict. Colombia had to wait 12 years for another chance at peace, with the country’s most vulnerable and disenfranchised populations shouldering the costs.

Colombia’s armed conflict is a product of poverty and social inequality. Channeling aid to military purposes—to the detriment of socio-economic initiatives—fails to address the root causes of political instability in the country. Notably, the State Department itself identified poverty as the seed for burgeoning violence in Colombia, even before the armed conflict had fully begun. The 1964 “Violence in Colombia: A Case Study” document issued by the American Embassy in Bogotá reports on U.S. military assistance on the country, stating that:

…the most important measures that still remain are in the field of major reconstruction and rehabilitation of the violence areas. Without adequate steps in this area, a new generation of violentos may be growing up spurred on to a new wave of terror by socio-economic conditions in these areas. One of the biggest actual and chronic dangers is that of rural unemployment. Lacking remunerative employment in these areas, men and boys must either come to the larger cities and seek jobs, starve, or in the last instance, turn to a life of crime. It would appear to be evident, therefore, that economic development of these areas is the key to the final violence solution.

The escalation of the conflict following US military aid demonstrates that militarization narrows the solutions to conflict, resulting in an impoverished policy that doesn’t deal with violence at its historical roots and which sacrifices U.S. commitments to human rights. U.S. national security doctrine should include social and political solutions to violence and instability. U.S. foreign policy needs a new a understanding of national security, one which would better serve our interests in peace, stability, and human rights.

As policy students we have a responsibility to demand and articulate a pedagogy of peace.  In school we learn about the virtues of maintaining national power and exerting military might from realpolitik theorists—perspectives that continue to inform our policy today. But we need to critically analyze conflict in our classrooms—its causes and consequences—as well as the effects of US military aid on conflict. Should we think about what war means to the hundreds of thousands dead and the 5 million people displaced in Colombia’s conflict? To the women raped and the children orphaned and recruited to war?  To the silenced millions with no money or interests or power or influence to defend?  And should we think about the opportunities for peace that were thwarted by militarization? Only with deep examination of and reflection on these effects can we achieve a policy that is accountable to the value of the lives of those affected by militarization.

Edited by Robert Arjet

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