Columbia’s neo-colonial contention

Article published on March 12, 2003
community published
Article published on March 12, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Squashed between Spain and Washington’s war logic, the EU tries to develop an alternative strategy: An analysis.

Today’s international scene is characterised by growing integration in terms of economic agreements, strategic alliances between governments and the spreading of a globalised culture. This makes it difficult to identify the real nature of one state’s interest towards another state. Colonial conquest, which involved the physical occupation of a given territory, clearly identified the coloniser and the colonised with respect to economic relations, and administrative as well as political and social organisation. Today, on the other hand, in the relationship between independent sovereign states forms of ‘neo-colonialism’ may exist hidden by the complexity of states’ interaction. “North-South” relationships (which are, incidentally, often between a former colonial power and a former colony) are especially prone to multiple interpretations when considering free trade agreements (e.g. NAFTA between the United States, Canada and Mexico) and programmes of intervention in a state’s internal matters (e.g. Plan Columbia). If, on the one hand, agreements arise indeed out of a real reciprocal need for interaction, on the other hand such agreements are often used by the stronger party as tools to impose conditions on the weaker state. The polarisation of international relations, whereby it is necessary to establish interactions with specific players (i.e. the United States and the EU), within a context of extreme inequality in terms of negotiating capacity, creates a paradox: countries are aware of their disadvantaged position, nevertheless they are compelled to seek agreements. The absurd reality is that some states enjoy international recognition by way of their usefulness in the eyes of the United States and the EU, rather than by their existence per se.

International Criminal Court

The above mentioned Plan Columbia (1999) could be an example of the peculiar ‘convenience’ at the bottom of many of today’s international agreements. The Clinton Administration and the then Colombian president Pastrana proposed in 1999 the combined realisation of a “plan for peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the state”. The plan included the expenditure of nearly a million dollars from the United States, initially devolved to target the drug-trafficking issue, which represents a great problem for Columbia as both producer and exporting country, and for the US as principal consumer of Colombian narcotics.

Strategy proposals are essentially based on two fronts: the increase of military capacity to directly combat the trafficking, and the employment of fumigation with biological agents to reduce the cultivation of coca. The plan also includes social spending (in the form of education and infrastructure), but 70 per cent of funds goes to the military. In addition, in consideration of a regional campaign, the United States have envisaged the creation of military bases in strategic areas of Ecuador and Bolivia. Three years on it is difficult to make a clear assessment of the results. This is mostly because, despite the disastrous social and ecological impacts of the fumigations and the pernicious persistence of drugs trafficking, the strategic and economic necessity of Columbia’s association with the US precludes the implementation of any viable alternative.

The consequences of power imbalances extend beyond the areas specifically covered in Plan Columbia: in the summer of 2002 Columbia was ‘forced’ to adhere to bilateral agreements with the US with respect to the International Criminal Court (which has been ratified by Columbia but not by the United States) following a specific condition attached to Columbia’s signature in return for economic support from Washington.

Spain against the tide

The inadequacies of Plan Columbia, particularly vis-à-vis Columbia’s social concerns, made the EU decide against support. For the EU, emphasis should have been placed on agricultural reform and a more equitable redistribution of wealth rather than on a distinctly military solution to the problem. The alternative proposed by the EU (Resolution del Parlamento Europeo sobre el Plan Columbia y el apoyo al proceso de paz en Columbia, 01/02/2000) involves subsides of 105 million Euro over a period between 2000 and 2006 with the objective of promoting human rights, international humanitarian law and the right to liberty.

This could be a crucially important occasion when the European Union offers an alternative position opposite the United States, not so much in the conquest of spaces of influence, but rather in the presence of a new actor in the international arena, one that would allow less powerful countries to negotiate more equitable terms, one that would take into account responsibly the complex realities of the countries in which they intervene. It would indeed be very serious if Europe were to act with the same logic of dominance as the United States, as this would only restrict opportunities for less influential countries.

This ‘alternative’ European position cannot be taken for granted as the Union’s single members, with their separate political wills, move in parallel with the choices of the European Union. On the 1st of March 2003 Spain announced its intention of ‘donating’, as a symbolic gesture, eight Milagre fighter planes, a few helicopters, the possibility to use its satellites and other military means to strengthen military anti-terrorist measures in Columbia. In addition, Spain offers the relevant military training.

This support, which clearly privileges the military sector, appears in stark contrast with the above mentioned EU resolution. However, current home and foreign policy in Columbia strongly prioritises a military resolution to the conflict, and President Uribe himself turns to the international community for help with the struggle against terrorism in his country. Thus Spain’s ‘gift’ is celebrated by the Colombian government as an important moment in the alliance between the two countries.

Dominant or dominated?

Besides the actual benefits of this and other agreements, and besides the logic behind their formulation, it is very difficult today to be able to identify a clear ‘state interest’, since the engine that drives such relationships seems to be the appropriation of economic and commercial spaces, and self-determination seems a privilege of those who can afford a degree of commercial autonomy (or dominance).

The same ambiguity is found within the social sphere in the diffusion of cultural models, imposed on the one hand, on the other perhaps perceived as embracing modernity or an alleged freedom to choose, making it difficult to identify who is imposing and who is adapting. Nevertheless, there are those who can choose more than others can and those who formulate their own policies as opposed to those who see their policies obeying to imposed conditions.

It is certainly impossible to overcome cultural relativism and different perceptions of the same reality; it is impossible (and it would be damaging) to rework the economic interests and the power dynamics of many parties in a unitary manner. But the opportunity to debate the possibilities, to carry out autonomous internal political choices and to influence international decision-making is a right that every single country should see respected in an international geopolitical logic that strives to move beyond a world divided in those who ‘dominate’ and those who are ‘dominated’.

Real or alleged, neo-colonialism is characterised by many perspectives; therefore analysis can only be constructive as long as every stakeholder’s view is taken into account without discrimination.