The United States Always Opts for War

By Sergio Alejandro Gómez on October 4, 2016

 The U.S. has been the principal supporter of war in Colombia. Photo: Sergio Alejandro Gomez

The U.S. has been the principal supporter of war in Colombia. Photo: Sergio Alejandro Gomez

Chernick spoke with Granma in El Diamante, a remote settlement in Colombia’s Llanos del Yarí, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) met to plan their return to civilian life. He was there to prepare a new chapter for the third edition of his book on efforts to end the armed conflict here, Acuerdo posible: solución negociada al conflicto armado colombiano. (Published by Ediciones Aurora in Colombia)The Colombian conflict is a labyrinth of injustice, pain, and hate that has persisted for half a century. The U.S. professor of Political Science, Marc Chernick, has devoted his life to investigating the causes of this war, and above all, to tirelessly proposing ways to resolve it. He has written extensively on the guerillas and previous peace talks, and currently directs the Latin American Studies Center at Georgetown University, and consults with several Colombian institutions of higher learning.

 What role has the U.S. played in the Colombian conflict?

The conflict has been very long, and the role of the United States has changed over time. We are not only talking about the 52 years of struggle by the FARC-EP, but also the entire previous stage of La Violencia (1), when the leaders and founders of the current guerilla took up arms in the 1940s.

If one looks back, from 1948 on, you can see that they have had a role from the beginning. The day they killed Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the United States was present at the Bogotá Conference (2). Fidel Castro was in Bogotá, too, for sure. From then on, the United States began to worry about Communism. The war in Korea broke out, and troops from Bogotá were sent.

The Colombia battalion returned to the country along with U.S. advisors. That was in the 50s, in the era of La Violencia, and the United States began to experiment with non-conventional war in Colombia. This was its first experience with the issue of guerillas, before what was to come in Vietnam.

And Cuba?

Washington was in Colombia experimenting on the ground practically at the same time Fidel was in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. But there weren’t U.S. advisors in Cuba doing what they were doing in Colombia. It’s a story that has yet to be written.

The relationship between the Colombian Armed Forces and the United States, coming out of Korea, was very close. The National Front, the offensive against the Independent Republics and everything around Marquetalia (3), that ended with the founding of the FARC-EP, had U.S. advisement.

If you consider what happened before, and I have spent my life looking at these things, you see that Manuel Marulanda wrote to the National Front leaders asking them to come to Marquetalia and talk, but the response was always bombs, and thus this 52-year struggle by the FARC-EP emerged.

The United States had a very involved role in the founding stages of the guerilla and the previous period.

And how has this role evolved over the last 50 years?

After this initial stage something called Vietnam happened. The U.S. got bogged down over there, and left Colombia to the side a bit. They had the whole strategy of military cooperation and advisement that was implemented in Latin America against Cuba, after the Revolution, but Colombia was not as central as it had been.

Its return (as a priority) took place in the 1980s, with drug trafficking. That’s when they begin to get interested in the Colombian conflict again, and this stage lasts until the Colombia Plan is initiated, at the end of Andrés Pastrana’s administration and the beginning of Álvaro Uribe’s.

They changed the anti-communist cover for that of the war on drugs.

Was this a fundamental change or only the packaging, to achieve the same counterinsurgency objectives?

The truth is it was the same struggle. In legal terms, during the 80s, 90s, and until 2002, the U.S. could only supply weapons to Colombia to fight drug trafficking. It was obvious that their interest was pursuing the FARC-EP and social movements, but they were limited by law.

For Colombian officials, their big concern was the struggle, both armed and social, but Washington arrived talking about drugs. It was clear that there was a war here, but the rhetoric changed. They lived two decades with this ambiguity: legally anti-drug, but underneath, a counterinsurgency struggle.

After George W. Bush was elected, and September 11, all restrictions on military aid were lifted. The decision had palpable effects on the ground. That is, beforehand, in theory, a U.S. helicopter could be used against the guerilla in a coca-growing area. But if there was an action in a non coca-growing area, that was prohibited.

As of 2002, the problem in Washington was something else. At that time, the FARC-EP began to be described as terrorists. The U.S. introduced the idea, and Uribe took it up, that Colombia was a battlefield in the global war on terrorism, and the U.S. returned in full force against the guerrilla, now with the terrorism discourse.

Uribe’s strategy and George W. Bush’s global war converged. Much was made of the fact that Colombia was not an Islamic country, to say that combating terrorism was not a religious question. In this sense, the country was key.

Could the peace agreement reached after four years of negotiations in Havana be considered a defeat for the U.S. war strategy?

I wouldn’t speak in absolute terms, but I would say what I have always believed that peace with the FARC-EP has been possible since the Marulanda era, in the 1950s. There were also real possibilities with Belisario Betancur in the 80s, and with Pastrana at the end of the 90s, through 2002.

There are many reasons that explain the failure of the these previous efforts, but one of the fundamental factors was that, when a Colombian President talked about peace, the U.S. would arrive saying that the problem was Communism, or drug trafficking, or something else. U.S. policy was always counter posed to the peace process.

When peace talks were announced during Belisario Betancur’s government, the U.S. ambassador at the time went on national television and said, “How are you going to make peace with narco guerrillas. He was the one who invented the term.

When the El Caguán process began, Pastrana started talking about a Marshall Plan for coca-growing areas. The U.S. said: you have it wrong, the problem there is not the guerilla, its drug trafficking. And the Colombia Plan emerged.

Washington always had a policy against the peace process. The official version was that the Colombia Plan and Uribe’s policies saved the country from becoming a failed state, and weakened the FARC- EP, pushing them to Havana. I don’t believe it. The peace talks had been possible long before, and the guerilla was always seeking this option.

Now, for the first time, during the peace talks in Havana, the U.S. supported peace. They even sent a special envoy. They could have sent someone to Caguán or Tlaxcala, but they didn’t. This time, when Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos talked about peace, Washington supported them. Finally, after all these years. It may not be the most important, but it’s a factor to take into consideration.

Is it possible that the U.S. might create obstacles to peace especially in the legal realm, under the pretext of abiding by international law and not the mechanisms agreed upon in Havana?

In general, I don’t think so. They have officially said that they are going to follow Colombia’s lead, and respect its decisions. It’s possible and probable that the Justice Department may take its own actions, since it is not subordinate to the executive branch. But as government policy, they’re not going to insist.

One of the recurrent demands of the FARC-EP is the release of Simón Trinidad, a guerilla leader imprisoned in the United States. Does President Obama have the authority to find a solution in his case, as a gesture of peace?

We have studied this, and of course, the President has the authority. But we arrived at the conclusion that Simón Trinidad could be returned without the need for a presidential pardon. There are other mechanisms that could be used. Colombia could ask the U.S. to repatriate prisoners to complete their sentences within the country. This type of agreement exists between many countries.

Once Simón Trinidad is in Colombia, the U.S. has no jurisdiction. He can be granted amnesty or a pardon, as part of the current process. They wouldn’t have anything to say. To date, he has not been linked to any crime against humanity that would send him to a special court. I have an idea that it might happen, but not before the November elections.

(1) This is a historical period that some date from 1946 through 1966, and others until 1958, characterized by violent confrontation between the country’s principal political parties, the liberals and conservatives.

(2) A Pan American conference that served as a precursor to the Organization of American States. As a young university leader, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, participated in a parallel event, the Latin American Student Congress. Shortly thereafter he witnessed the Bogotazo, a massive demonstration of discontent following the death of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.

(3) After the constitution of the National Front, a pact between liberals and conservatives to alternate in office, President Guillermo León Valencia ordered attacks on the independent republics that had been created in different parts of Colombia. Manuel Marulanda, who shortly thereafter founded the FARC, was in Marquetalia.

Source: Granma International