Socialist Worker

Colombia: America's next Vietnam?

Issue No. 1735

At the recent Globalise Resistance conference in London one of the packed workshops was about what is happening in the South American country of Colombia. The discussion was introduced by JONATHAN NEALE, author of a book on the US war in Vietnam. He spoke of how the Colombian and US governments were pushing their Plan Colombia. The plan involves billions of dollars and US military 'aid' to Colombia.

Jonathan argued that the US was pushing towards a major military intervention. But he also argued that it was haunted by the memory of what happened in Vietnam a quarter of a century ago. It was defeated by the resistance of the Vietnamese people, a mass movement in the US and the eventual refusal of American GIs to fight. US forces in Vietnam were made up of working class Americans, and were disproportionately black.

The history of US imperialism in the last 20 years is a constant attempt to move the American working class into being willing to fight in a full scale intervention again. It has made some steps in doing this, with wars in the Gulf, the Balkans and elsewhere.

But the memory of Vietnam means the US rulers still fear committing large numbers of ground troops in what could be a prolonged and bloody conflict. Jonathan argued that Colombia could be a testing ground for such an intervention.

He also argued that the US focus on Colombia could only be understood as part of a wider picture. The US ruling class sees a rising tide of resistance in many parts of the world. Struggles against global capitalism and neo-liberalism have broken out in the last year in countries like Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia in the northern part of South America.

That is why the US is going for Colombia. If Colombia's government fell or the guerrilla movement took power, it would reverberate right across South America.

US plan

Plan Colombia is a $7.3 billion package backed by the US and Colombian governments. The US is the biggest single contributor, with $1.3 billion, almost all in military aid. The plan claims to be a 'war on drugs'. It will involve military attacks on the powerful FARC guerrillas who control a huge area of Colombia. It will also involve spraying chemicals, supposedly to destroy coca.

Coca leaves have long been chewed by people in the Andean region of South America as a mild stimulant. They are also the raw material from which it is possible to make the drug cocaine. The biggest drugs traffickers in Colombia are government officials, the military, right wing paramilitaries and the US.

Laurie Hiatt, wife of the US military attaché in charge of the Colombian anti-drugs operation, was arrested last year for smuggling cocaine to the US. Multinational corporations have taken over land in Colombia. This has been accompanied by right wing paramilitaries killing peasants.

This has led peasants to support the guerrillas. It has also meant the only way many can make a living is by growing coca. Free trade policies backed by the US and big business have also ruined peasants' ability to make a living from other crops. Instead Colombia now receives more US arms than any country in the world apart from Israel and Egypt.

The US is spraying the Roundup herbicide in Colombia. This chemical is produced by the multinational Monsanto, which also produced the deadly Agent Orange herbicide that the US used in Vietnam. The US also plans to spray a fungus, Fusarium oxysporon, which can mutate and infect a wide range of plants.

The IMF oversees the Colombian government's policies, which include opening the country to multinationals and wholesale privatisation of public services. Half the gross domestic product goes on paying debt. In the cities workers have fought back against these policies with a wave of courageous and militant strikes. They too have been targeted by the paramilitaries, with hundreds of activists assassinated.

The US is terrified that if the government is defeated in Colombia it could destabilise the whole region, one it sees as of vital strategic and business interest.

'A war on people, not on drugs'

Alberto Garcia, from the Latin American Solidarity Collective, also spoke at the meeting:

'For the last 50 years Colombia has been in a civil war in which officially more than 35,000 people have been killed, and the real figure is much higher. During these 50 years many peace processes have taken place. But all the people from the left who have been involved in these peace processes have been killed through the government's 'dirty war' policy. That policy came from people in the School of the Americas, where the United States trains the Latin American military. From the middle of the 1980s until now the Colombian and US governments have declared three 'wars on drugs'.

The first one was declared by a Colombian president. He became president because of his links with drugs cartels. So we were doubtful whether that war had anything to do with fighting drugs! George Bush was vice-president of the US at the time. He was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, sending drugs from the Colombian Medellin drugs cartel in Central America to the US to fund weapons for the right wing Contra forces in Nicaragua.

During this time, because of the implementation in Colombia of globalisation policies, there was more and more poverty in the country. The guerrillas grew from this and defeated some parts of the army. In that situation the US and the Colombian army gave more support to right wing paramilitaries.

These paramilitaries are responsible for killing people, massacring more than 20 people on average every day. Most of the victims are peasants who only want to have some land. The current president, Pastrana, is very close to the United States, and now they have the Plan Colombia.

They say it is a war on drugs, but in fact it is a war against the Colombian insurgency, against the Colombian people. The US is scared that the struggle, the situation, can spill over into other countries.

The US helicopters being supplied under Plan Colombia have the capability to spray more than 60 bullets a second. The strategy is to send the helicopter to spray bullets and then send planes to spray the land with chemicals. These chemicals cause a lot of health problems for the population and destroy the environment.

This is not just about Colombia. This is all about Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina. We are also aware of what is going on all around the world, from Europe to the struggle of the Palestinian people. We want to link the problems of Colombia with the problems of all the people who are struggling against neo-liberalism and imperialism.

We want to live in peace in Colombia. We are against drugs trafficking. But these policies, Plan Colombia, are not going to end the drugs problem. Colombians, like the Vietnamese people, are not going to just sit and wait for the United States to kill people. We are a very peaceful people, but we are ready to defend the right of people to live in peace, and the right of life.'

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