Episode 32. Colombia (FARC, Paramilitarios and Cocaine)
In this episode, Michael Hilliard and our three guests take us to Colombia, a state in the unenviable position of neighbouring the deeply troubled Venezuela, working through decades long civil conflicts, and living alongside deeply powerful drug cartels. Analysing how it will respond to these challenges requires an understanding of its history, economics, culture and the longer term geopolitical complications in the region. This episode tackles all of these factors and our experts analyse how Colombia might forge a path forward through these, in the midst and shadow of COVID-19.
Formerly the Latin American Regional Director for The Stratfor Group.
Founder of Americas Quarterly, a publication focusing on Latin America’s politics, business and culture.
Part 1: A Gran Strategy (01:46)
Allison Fedirka gives us the background of the fundamentals of Colombia; the complex geography that has contributed to division and the drug trade, a comparative history with its neighbours, and the difficulty of having both a strong, relatively diverse and liberal licit economy, alongside an illicit economy that is deeply economically important for many in rural areas.
Geography is absolutely key to understanding Colombia internally and externally. Dense jungles and huge mountain ranges contribute to deep infrastructural issues and the ability for militant groups and cartels to establish bases of power. Additionally, Colombia occupies an unusual position of having access to both the Pacific and Atlantic.
Fedirka guides us through the history of the state and its neighbours, including Gran Colombia, Panama’s independence in the early 20th century, the key administrative bedrock laid by the Spanish and the 60 year ongoing civil conflict.
Back to the modern day, we tackle the big economic questions in Colombia. With an illicit economy that comprises up to 40% of the total economy, powerful cartels and military groups and the ongoing consequences of La Violencia, where is Colombia’s economy headed? And how will the government in Caracas be able to deal with its recent problems of trying to integrate FARC members into society and the collapse of Venezuela and associated migration crisis, while the economy is under unprecedented pressure in the face of COVID-19?
Part 2: A Cold War Hangover (23:57)
Ted Piccone focuses our attention on the 60-year-long civil conflict in Colombia, breaking down the relationships between militias, the government and the cartels. We cover FARC, ELN, the right-wing militias funded by land-owners in the 1990s, and their respective relationships with the people of Colombia and external actors.
Drug cartel planes and funding has allowed rural farmers to support themselves in the face of missing and unreliable infrastructure that stops them from bringing produce to market. Indeed the conflict did not directly impact most Colombians and was primarily restricted to the countryside, however it nonetheless deeply impacted the Colombian economy by making travel and transport of goods an unreliable endeavour.
Alongside COVID-19 and the Venezeulan migration crisis, Colombia’s historic peace deal with FARC in 2016 was a major development in the modern history of the nation. We cover the details of how this peace process began and developed, and its progress since the signing. Challenges have included the unwillingness of the general population to accept ex-FARC members, and the fracturing of roughly 10% of FARC who have gone back to their illicit activities.
To round out this part we zoom out, focusing on Colombian international relations and involvement. What has the impact been of the Free Trade deal with the US in 2012? How is the ‘War on Drugs’ progressing and what is US involvement like? And what involvement does the UN have in the process?
Part 3: The Root of the Problem (53:49)
What are Colombia’s current relationships with its neighbours like? Tracing the historical legacy of Gran Colombia we look at the relationships with Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama, particularly in relation to the ever present influence of the War on Terror and War on Drugs that has so impacted modern Colombian politics
The crisis in Venezuela has resulted in over 1.7 million refugees heading for Colombia. While the refugees have by and large been welcomed, any intake of people this massive and unplanned causes friction and economic issues. Low oil prices and COVID-19 already threaten Colombia’s ability to effectively provide social services and employment for its citizens. Check out Episode 12 of the Red Line which focuses on Venezuela for a deeper understanding of the issues.
In the longer term, what are the prospects for progressing a solution for Venezuela? What it would take for people to return to the country, and what role is there to be played by neighbouring countries Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador?
Chris Sabatini also focuses on the international power player’s involvement in Colombia. The United States under Donald Trump has had a “sabre-rattling” foreign policy, with multiple implied threats of invasion. However this contrasts with the historic close ties the two nations have had including the cooperation to fight the cartels and a large number of student exchanges
Unlike most countries we have covered, there is not much to say about Chinese or Russian involvement in Colombia. Historic conservatism and close ties to the United States make it an unappealing prospect; though COVID-19 debt assistance does present a significant opportunity.
The Red Line's Colombia Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Colombia.
Open Veins of Latin America
The FARC: The Longest Insurgency
Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia
Alexander L. Fattal
Violent Democratization Social Movements, Elites, and Politics in Colombia's Rural War Zones, 1984-2008
Leah Anne Carroll
Politics of Latin America: The Power Game
Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America
This journal is published quarterly and has articles about countries throughout the region by well-regarded experts.
The politics of neoliberal economic reform in South America, 1980–1994
Remmer, Karen L
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