e-mail us

Cover story

Elites dig in, population grows, violence continues in Colombia


I am no longer surprised by anything I read or hear about Colombia. I have been observing it for more than 50 years, and it all follows its own ghoulish logic. This is a country where one quickly learns to live dangerously.

I first looked down on Bogotá, the capital, from the window of a DC-3. Before boarding, we had been weighed -- not just our bags but ourselves. The weight-to-power ratio was critical. We were testing the DC-3’s ability to clear the mountain. The pilot had an oxygen mask. The rest of us held our breath. The year was 1946.

Within days of our safe landing, the Colombian Senate in formal session declared me an honorary citizen of Colombia, along with several dozen other journalists. We were participants in a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association. It was a perfect example of how the oligarchy has traditionally run the country. We were wined and dined at luxurious country clubs. They hoped we would write when we went back home about the modern cities and the booming coffee economy, ignoring the expanding slums and the misery in which the coffee workers lived -- and especially la violencia.

We wrote little at that time about la violencia, the pathological condition that causes Colombians to kill each other savagely and for no obvious reason. It had begun sporadically more than a decade earlier. Today it is institutionalized. Of course it is not irrational. It is a gut response to a social system that has for centuries concentrated power and wealth in a small ruling class, while leaving the mass of citizens not only in poverty, but without recourse against the capricious impositions of the patrón.

While in recent decades, drugs and drug lords constitute a new aggravating factor, they did not create the tragedy of Colombia. Get rid of drugs, and the essential issues remain unsolved.

Population explosion in the 20th century without corresponding economic growth made Colombia’s system unworkable. There were fewer than 4 million people in 1900. In 1950 there were 11 million (today, 40 million). Unable to divide the tiny family plot any further, many young peasants chose to climb higher in the mountains to join bands of desperadoes. They could count on a brief moment of local glory before falling to the bullets of the military. The bandits would occupy a village or an isolated homestead, or ambush a bus. Before fleeing with their loot, they would slaughter all inhabitants, mutilate the bodies and chop off the heads.

The year after our meeting, la violencia reached Bogotá. Jorge Gaitan, an advocate of reform with a wide following, was assassinated in broad daylight. Onlookers seized the gunman and beat him to death. It was never determined who was behind the killing. Long pent-up resentments had, however, been released. An outburst of pillage and burning swept the city for days and spread across the country -- El Bogotazo.

In the decade that followed, la violencia produced an estimated 200,000 victims. The oligarchs had a solution. In 1958, a pact signed by the Conservative and Liberal leaders spelled the end of the pseudo-democracy that had existed for a century and a half. The two parties would rotate the presidency every four years. Each would be equally represented in all branches of government and in the diplomatic service. They could control, they hoped, the rate, scope and character of change. As a bonus, they were eliminating the possibility of any other party challenging their monopoly of power. What the people thought no longer mattered.

I had an insider’s view of what followed, because I had just achieved the dubious distinction of becoming an honorary member of the oligarchy. I had become the director of public relations for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia. With coffee the major source of the country’s foreign exchange, the federation was the real source of power. We were the government.

I was, of course, a small cog in this big machine. But I played a part. I developed the philosophy that underlay the International Coffee Agreement. It was a simple concept. The number of cents we got for a pound of coffee was irrelevant. What was important was the number of pounds of coffee needed to buy a tractor, what economists called the terms of trade. The poor countries had to get a price for their raw materials that paid for the inputs they needed if they were to modernize their economies.

Led by the United States, the major coffee consuming countries signed the International Coffee Agreement at the United Nations. To help U.S. coffee drinkers swallow the additional cost of their favorite drink, we invented Juan Valdez. We found him in Hollywood, a Cuban actor. When we dressed him up and gave him a mule, he looked like the Colombian campesino we wanted to sell -- prosperous, happy, the beneficiary of the higher coffee prices.

We didn’t stop there. We grabbed the Alliance for Progress, a program initiated by President Kennedy in March 1961. Colombia would become its showcase. We recruited young men in Colombia to work with Peace Corps volunteers. We called them promotores. They would develop grassroots initiatives in the villages in which they would work with their U.S. counterparts. The promotor would assemble the villagers to discuss what were the perceived needs of the community. It might be a well, a school, a bridge, whatever. No problem, said the Peace Corps guy. He could get the materials. The people would volunteer the labor.

“Not so fast,” said the villagers. They knew the protocol. “We must first discuss this with Don Jaime.” Don Jaime was the local patrón, in all probability the local representative of the Coffee Federation. Don Jaime listened. “But why hadn’t you told me about this? If I had known, I’d have taken care of it long ago. Leave it to me.” And Don Jaime paid for the well or the school. The traditional patrón-peón relationship had been reaffirmed.

Within a few years it was clear that nothing had changed. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, la violencia became institutionalized as never before. Warlords set themselves up in autonomous regions. Kidnappings became a common method of raising funds. The countryside was no longer safe for the Peace Corps volunteers, and they were moved to desk jobs in government offices.

I spoke several times to Orlando Fals Borda, then dean of the faculty of sociology at the National University of Colombia. His analysis of the Alliance for Progress was devastating. “What we actually did was to mortgage the country in order to save a ruling class that was headed for disaster. It was already tottering when this stimulation came along to enable it to gasp out a few more breaths, the same kind of artificial breathing as that of a dying man who is fed oxygen, and equally expensive. The sad part is that this ruling class will not have to pay the mortgage it incurred. It will be paid, perhaps with the blood, certainly with the sweat of our children and the working classes, the innocent people who always in the last analysis pay for the broken plates.”

In 1969, the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate looked at the work of the alliance and concluded that it had fallen far short of its economic and social goals. The committee insisted, nevertheless, that the alliance had justified itself: It had achieved its basic objective, which was “political stability and maintenance of Colombia’s democratic institutions.”

Thirty years later, as I look at Colombia’s “political stability” and “democratic institutions,” I shudder at such naiveté. The politicians ignored Fals Borda and continued on their traditional path. I, for my part -- I hope a little wiser -- tearlessly said goodbye to the Coffee Federation.

Things have changed, but only for the worse. There were 19 kidnappings in 1982. Now kidnappings number in the thousands each year. The annual number of violent deaths, adjusted to the size of the population of the United States, is a quarter of a million. The war against the guerrillas is only 15 percent of the total. According to Human Rights Watch, the paramilitaries “working with the tacit acquiescence or open support of the Colombian military,” carried out most of the 400 massacres in 1999.

Wars require money, and drug profits enable all three parties to the Colombian war to buy ever more sophisticated weapons and maintain bigger armies. Drugs came to Colombia because the insatiable demand in the United States since the Vietnam War expanded the production of drugs from the traditional sources of supply in Asia to South America. Colombia was ready and willing. Social chaos provided the climate. It is a perfect match.

Will today’s U.S. escalation of the war achieve its objective of destroying the coca crops in Colombia? It is unlikely. And even if it does, production will merely move across the border. Already drug-processing plants are springing up on the Ecuadorian side of the border with Colombia.

Envision what Colombia will be like if all this continues. What little industrial infrastructure now remains will have been reduced to rubble. The vast areas under coca production will have been sprayed with glyphosate and will lie infertile for generations. And what about the land mines and the depleted uranium shells?

Will a U.S. Senate commission decide once again that our decisive role in achieving this outcome has been justified, that we have brought political stability and democratic institutions to Colombia?

Gary MacEoin’s Colombia and Venezuela and the Guianas (Time Life Books, 1965, 1971) can be found in English and Spanish editions in many public libraries. MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001