U.S. must be for peace in Colombia

By Louis Edgar Esparza, December 5, 2012

The United States should back the peace negotiations that are under way in Colombia between the government and the main rebel force there.

Both sides have been meeting in Havana to end the decades-long war between the administration in Bogota and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

The main obstacle to peace in Colombia is the small group of corrupt beneficiaries that has been unwilling to release its grip on wealth and control. And despite Colombia’s rich ethnic diversity, this bunch looks no different than the white Spaniards who reigned over the Andean region hundreds of years ago.

The government has a regressive income tax structure and continues to reduce taxes on multinational corporations, which is how Washington likes it. The Obama administration pushed through the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement last spring, which will only increase the enormous influence of U.S. companies in that country.

The United States is already Colombia’s largest trading partner, and this gives Washington a lot of clout. And Colombia is the recipient of the third largest amount of defense assistance from the United States, after Israel and Egypt. Mostly aimed at drug eradication, a decade’s worth of U.S. cash has been, at best, a complete waste. Colombia is still the top exporter of cocaine in the world and a military solution to the conflict continues to be unlikely.

Colombia is also one of the most violent countries in the hemisphere, which even today represses labor leaders, journalists and others who speak out.

That’s why many members of the rebel group have their doubts that honest people in the Colombian government can sign a meaningful peace agreement for a country that it has demonstrated it cannot control. Even if it has the willingness, the government may not have the ability to protect demobilized rebel combatants from the hired death squads that sent them back into their jungle hideouts in the 1980s.

Nor can the Colombian government be counted on to address the inequalities that the rebels have been fighting.

The United Nations recently found that 120,000 Colombians perish of undernourishment each year. Enormous amounts of Colombia’s land is consumed by cattle ranching, much of it stolen during periods of violence. The resettlement of more than 1 million internally displaced people from shantytowns back to their titled farmlands would be an enormous political ordeal. Will Colombian oligarchs muzzle their weapons as these necessary reparations take place?

Despite the challenges, there is always hope. Colombia has a robust civil society sector that the guerrillas are pining to join.

The United States must use its leverage on the Colombian government to broker a lasting peace. If the government can protect the former rebels and ensure freedom of speech and association, civil society will do the rest: finally delivering a more just Colombia.

Louis Edgar Esparza is assistant professor of sociology and Latin American studies at California State University at Los Angeles. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.