Taking stock of U.S. policy in Colombia

by Theo Sitther

Colombia is at a crucial turning point. Negotiators from the Colombian government and from the largest guerrilla group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), have been in a process of peace negotiations for almost a year. They are slowly making progress toward a negotiated settlement of the five-decade long armed conflict. While political leaders in Colombia are taking steps towards peace, the time is ripe for the United States to reorient its engagement with the country from militarism to peacebuilding.

Here are some positive changes the U.S. can make:

Reorient aid. Colombia is a close U.S. ally and the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in the Western Hemisphere. Unfortunately, more than a decade of U.S. engagement with Colombia has been overly militarized. This has resulted in further entrenchment of the issues that drive armed conflict.

According to the Just the Facts website, Colombia has received almost $9.4 billion in U.S. assistance since the year 2000. More than 70 percent of this money has been in the form of military aid with the remainder going to support social and economic development.

Mennonite Central Committee’s partners in Colombia have long called for the United States to provide economic and social support rather than bolstering the military. The disproportionate nature of U.S. assistance should change to support the full implementation of the eventual peace accords as well as support for land restitution, helping more than five million internally displaced persons return home, sustainable and community-led development efforts, and mechanisms for gaining justice for the countless victims of violence and war.

End fumigations. U.S. engagement in much of Latin America and particularly in Colombia often falls under the rubric of the “war on drugs.” In Colombia, much of this plays out through the U.S.-funded program of aerial fumigations of coca crops, the primary ingredient in cocaine. While the intention of this program is to stem the flow of cocaine onto U.S. streets, there is little evidence that this has happened. The real consequence of this program has been the destruction of livelihoods and the environment in many communities. Too often, legitimate food crops are sprayed and destroyed. The box below highlights the story of a Mennonite Brethren food security project destroyed by aerial fumigations.

U.S. anti-drug policy in Colombia and in Latin America more broadly needs rethinking. Many are beginning to question the “war on drugs” approach of criminalization, militarization, and eradication. If Colombia is to move beyond conflict and violence, underlying issues of poverty and economic injustice need to be addressed rather than just destroying illegal crops.

The issues outlined here are just some of the many ways in which the United States could begin a new and more positive relationship with Colombia. As Colombian leaders are turning the corner from war to peace, the United States can do the same.


Next: The frustrations of fumigations

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