Pubdate: Sun, 10 Mar 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Section: Editorial/Op-Ed
Author: Ana Carrigan


GENEVA -- When the Colombian peace talks collapsed on Feb. 20, local 
authorities in towns and villages around the former peace zone had less 
than three hours' warning before President Andres Pastrana sent planes and 
helicopters to bomb their territory. They had no time to organize 
protection for civilians.

Georgina and Adam, who feared that divulging their full names would be 
unsafe, were two people I met in the village of Los Pozos. Their small plot 
abutted the government's negotiation site. None of the negotiators from the 
government or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, 
ever dropped by to greet them. They are very poor, and the poor in Colombia 
are invisible.

Georgina is 70; Adam is 84. In the photograph on my desk, they stand side 
by side outside the one-room wooden shack that has been their home for 30 
years. Georgina, short and sturdy, barely reaches to Adam's chest. Her 
strong face is deeply lined, but despite the harshness of her life, her 
expression is warm and gentle. Adam is thin and rather frail. He holds 
himself very straight and looks sternly at the camera. The day I took their 
picture, Georgina insisted I share their lunch: a slice of plantain, a 
slice of yucca and a fish the size of a sardine, taken from the nearby river.

We met on a Saturday in January. The peace process was in crisis. Ten days 
earlier, President Pastrana had broken off talks and given the FARC 48 
hours to abandon its government-sanctioned safe haven. Representatives of 
the United Nations, the international community and the Catholic Church 
were working around the clock to avert war. On that Saturday they had not 
yet achieved an agreement, and the Colombian Army was waiting for the 
expiration of the midnight deadline on Sunday to attack.

Adam yearned for peace, "a clean peace," he said, "that lets us work." When 
I asked him what would happen if the talks should collapse, he made a 
sudden, wordless gesture that meant, "We'll be off." How? Where to? He 
didn't know. He only knew that after three years of involuntary 
cohabitation with the FARC, he and Georgina would be marked people. The war 
between the guerrillas and the government is not their war, but that would 
not matter to either side.

President Bush has been right in refusing to become more deeply involved in 
this war and in refusing to expand American assistance from 
counternarcotics to counterinsurgency. Less than two weeks ago he said, "We 
are providing advice to the Colombian government as to drug eradication, 
and we will keep it that way." But the political pressure to change is growing.

The Pentagon and officials from other parts of the Bush administration, as 
well as President Pastrana, are trying to tie the war between the Colombian 
government and the FARC to the global war against terrorism. Last week the 
House passed a nonbinding resolution backing Colombia in its efforts 
against "United States-designated foreign terrorist organizations," which 
would include the FARC. And Mr. Powell stated that the "new situation" in 
Colombia may require the United States to "readjust" its policies.

Such a shift in policy would be fundamentally wrong and must be resisted at 
all costs. Sad as it is to report, there are no good guys in the Colombian 
war picture. The guerrilla insurgency is not the cause of Colombia's 
distress. It is a symptom of a national sickness deeply rooted in a 
corrupted political system. That system is imploding. There is no 
legitimate partner in this conflict for the United States.

This does not mean the United States has no role to play. Colombia urgently 
needs Washington's help. The tragedy for both countries is that 
historically, the United States has used its influence to strengthen many 
of the worst elements of a byzantine society whose complexities Washington 
has never succeeded in deciphering.

What makes Colombia so difficult to understand is its political system. 
Formally a civilian democracy, the government is an unequal partnership 
between two forces -- one civilian and democratic, the other military. Over 
the last 25 years, the military partner has increased its power and the war 
has escalated.

Every attempt by the civilians to bring peace has been shot down by the 
military's dirty war. Throughout these long and bloody years, the civilian 
partner has skillfully concealed its complicity in the dominance of its 
military partner, thus perpetuating the fiction of civilian and democratic 
governance. The resulting state is one in which democracy and barbarism 
coexist and the military -- which practices dirty warfare against the 
system's democratic opponents -- has failed to develop a professional army 
capable of fighting the guerrillas effectively.

The state and the army are now collapsing. President Bush confronts an 
enormous challenge. Can the United States devise a fresh strategy, focused 
on strengthening the independent democratic forces on the fringes of the 
Colombian political establishment? Their survival now depends on American 
help to stop the war and make possible a return to negotiations under 
minimal conditions: a bilateral cease-fire, rigorously monitored by an 
independent third force; the release of all the FARC's hostages; and the 
inclusion of an international mediator and representatives of civil society 
at the negotiations. Such an outcome is not unrealistic with Washington on 
board. It would protect and give a say to those civil society forces that 
are America's true Colombian friends. It would help lay the basis for the 
construction of a democratic and stable society.

After three years of a tense calm, people in the former peace zone have 
been engulfed in this ferocious war; thousands are fleeing. One image from 
my recent visit haunts me. Georgina and Adam set out stools beside the dirt 
road leading to the negotiation site, and there they sat gazing up the hill 
to where the mediators were working. Two old people, in the falling dusk, 
waiting for someone to tell them whether they would need to flee their 
home. I wonder what happened to them one month later. Were they sleeping 
when the army bombed the zone?

Ana Carrigan reports from Colombia for The Irish Times.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom