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Interview with Adam Isacson – Obama and Colombia

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Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy for the Washington Office on Latin America, is a leading expert on defence, civil-military relations and US security relations to the Americas. He spoke to Grace Livingstone, from LAB.


GL: Colombia’s President Santos has embarked on a series social reforms. Do you think the US supports him in that path and would support peace talks with the FARC? What is the US line on Colombia at the moment?

Adam IsacsonAdam IsacsonAI: The Obama administration is very committed to the counter-insurgency strategy still. They’re still very enthusiastic about helping the Colombian military weaken the FARC – I wish they would say more about weakening the other illegal armed groups – and take back territory. But they’re also interested in helping Colombia get a functioning civilian government presence in a lot of areas that don’t have one and helping the Santos administration’s land restitution and victims aid programme. There is more than rhetorical support for that. They have been putting money into it and in judicial reform programmes, in a way that the Bush administration was not interested in doing until the Democratic Congress forced them to. That’s there but they still have a very pro-military assistance view.

On the peace issue, my own conversations with officials suggest that there is interest in helping the Santos administration move towards negotiations with the FARC. A consensus view is that this is not going to end on the battlefield and the sooner that Colombia can get at least most of the guerrillas to demobilise the better and negotiations are the way to do that. They will never get ahead of the Santos administration on this, though. They’re never going to do or say anything in favour of peace negotiations that would make the Santos administration feel at all uncomfortable. But I think if that Santos government were to make moves, they would be quite supportive. President Obama is going to meet President Santos after the Summit of the Americas and I am led to believe that this is one of the topics they are going to talk about.

GL: Do you think the policy of heavily funding Colombia’s military sends a message to hardliners in the military and even paramilitaries that they don’t need to talk to the FARC, that they can hold out for a total military victory? Do you think there’s a tension there between their military aid on the one hand and supporting the peace process on the other hand?

AI: There absolutely is a tension there. When you ask US officials about it, they say ‘We favour peace, but we see the best way of getting there is to force the FARC to the negotiating table on the battlefield’. It’s the old: if you want peace, prepare for war.

They believe they’re pushing the FARC to negotiate on good terms.

In Colombia – I was just there this week – people are starting to talk about the possibility of negotiations again and viewing it as something desirable. I think there’s a direct relationship with that and the violence we’re already seeing, the FARC’s attacks and the Colombian government’s rather massive counter-attacks, they are jockeying for position in advance of a negotiation. Both sides are trying to show that they’re strong and, in the FARC’s case, that they can make substantial demands because they are still a formidable force, and they’re trying to show that they’re a formidable force by killing people in several parts of the country.

The United States is following that same logic with its military assistance programmes. The Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff was in Colombia this week and the Colombian defence ministry gave them a laundry list of things that they would like to have to help them with their renewed counter-guerrilla offensive. It looked like General Dempsey was pretty receptive to that. He told reporters that there would be a steady stream of colonels with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan assigned to spend a couple of weeks at a time with units on counter-guerrilla missions, which I find disturbing. But it shows that logic of trying to bring the FARC to the table in the weakest possible position.

GL: Do you think President Santos has the capacity to carry out the land restitution and victims’ law? There has been an upsurge of violence in the countryside in anticipation of land restitution. Do you think regional elites will allow him to carry out those reforms?

AI: No. Absolutely not. A friend of mine in Colombia just said that in a lot of these places where they’re pledging to give back land, that the people who have the land would kill their mothers before giving up a square centimetre of it. It’s going to be really ugly, particularly in the swathe of land in the Caribbean coast where a lot of the worst of the land theft happened and in Antioquia. It’s going to be a bloodbath. People are getting ready for the first massacres to start happening, in order intimidate and keep anybody from organising to reclaim their land.

I don’t think the Santos administration is prepared for this. Certainly, when they talk about their new security strategy they’re not talking really about securing a return of land. There is a plan to have police and military units deployed in some areas where restitution is going to happen and to try to accompany some of the recipients of land for short amounts of time, but those troops will have to be redeployed ultimately. What we’re really not seeing is an effort to investigate, to try and punish, either threats against land rights activists or actual killings of those who receive land or who are land rights activists. We have total impunity for threats and near total impunity for killings. The signal is if you want to keep your land, threaten or kill for it and the chances of being punished for it are almost nil.

There is an increase in money for protection of people in land cases and they are a priority for the new protection unit of the interior ministry, but big deal, you can protect a few more people, but if you’re doing it in the context of total impunity for abuses and killings, then there are going to be abuses and killings. There doesn’t seem to be an effort to investigate cases when they’re denounced. So there are a lot of people in Bogotá with good intentions – there are some who don’t even have good intentions, they just think it is good politics – but once you get to the regions, where you have these regional elites who are quite ruthless, intentions aren’t really worth much. You have to actually put down some political capital and be prepared to confront people who may be your political supporters.

GL: That’s a very bleak picture. It sounds like there is not much basis for a peace process if activists on the ground are still under threat and get no protection from the state.

AI: If this land restitution process does not succeed and there’s a pretty fair chance that it won’t, whether because of violence or even if because they don’t hand out the amount of land titles that they expected to, or even if they hand out some titles but the economic model is just so unfavourable for small farmers that they go out of business and you have a de facto land concentration anyway – if any of those things happen, the credibility of land restitution and the credibility of attempts to improve the lot of people in the countryside will be destroyed and that will fuel the guerrillas’ stated programme of supporting the peasants in the countryside. You almost guarantee – especially if there is a violent reaction to the land restitution – that you will see prolonged war and you will not see peace.

I was surprised in Colombia that so many people were talking about prospects for peace. I expect it’s because it has been a subject in the news. But I don’t personally see movement towards peace being a short-term likelihood. I’m not even sure the guerrillas are that interested in it, not for now anyway. Colombia has presidential elections in 2014 and maybe in that year it will be discussed in the campaign and a new president, or Santos if he is re-elected, can pursue it then, but that’s two years from now.


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