Colombia: A Powder Keg?



The government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is in the midst of a number of delicate and dangerous situations, most prominently the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombia continues to experience high levels of violence between leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups, as well as between drug cartels and the government forces trying to quell their activity. Extreme economic disparities and a Free Trade Agreement with the United States whose long-term costs and benefits for Colombians are as of yet unknown add to the already great uncertainty of Colombia’s path forward. Join Active Minds as we examine these tensions and what they portend for Colombia’s future.

Key Lecture Points

  • Colombia, the fourth largest nation in South America, is the product of the fractured effort to create a unified state in the wake of Spanish colonial presence in the Americas. In 1819, Simon Bolivar declared the independence of Gran Colombia comprising what are now Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama. By 1830, Bolivar was dead and Venezuela and Ecuador had seceded from Gran Colombia. The remaining territory, which came to be known as Colombia, was itself riven by political conflict, predictive of present-day challenges.
  • After decades of violent conflict between the military and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC have engaged in peace talks in Havana that began in November 2012. The talks have progressed slowly, although the parties have come to a tentative agreement on land reform. Political integration of former guerrillas remains a thorny issue and the killing of 19 Colombian soldiers in July 2013 is certain to be a setback in the talks.
  • Aside from the leftist FARC, right-wing paramilitary groups and drug cartels continue to contribute to significant levels of violence and property theft. The armed forces have also engaged in their own share of human rights abuses—under both Presidents Uribe and Santos—particularly in so-called “false positive” killings of civilians in order to boost body counts of leftist guerrillas.
  • Historically, US relations with Colombia have been contentious, beginning with the US sponsored coup that led to the secession of Panama from Colombia in 1903 (and the subsequent construction of the Panama Canal). More recently, US Colombian relations have warmed, particularly around the shared (and US sponsored) drug eradication effort called Plan Colombia. Despite the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2000, significant production and shipment of cocaine continues to occur, much of which reaches the United States.
  • The U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA)—more commonly referred to as a free trade agreement (FTA)—went into force in May 2012. Significantly increasing trade, the FTA has thus far benefited U.S. exporters the most, since trade restrictions on Colombian exports were already slight due to Colombia’s cooperation in the U.S. War on Drugs. Long-term costs and benefits on Colombians, particularly poor farmers and unions, remain to be seen.
  • As is the case in all of Latin America, Colombia faces significant inequality between wealthy and poor, and poverty is severe in many areas. This poverty has been compounded by violence and land theft by paramilitary groups, often hired by wealthy landowners ostensibly as protection from leftist guerrillas. It is likely that poverty and instability in rural and mountainous areas have contributed to the prevalence of drug cultivation, as peasants lose traditional means of livelihood.

Exploration Questions

  • Given his statements during the presidential campaign, what do you think will be Obama’s position regarding the Colombian trade pact and our future relations with Colombia?
  • How can the U.S. work with other nations on the War on Drugs? (Not just Colombia but Afghanistan and Mexico)
  • What is the impact on a national identity when assassination and kidnapping are a part of daily life?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you visited Colombia? Did you feel concerned for your safety?
  • Simon Bolivar is considered the leader of independence for much of Latin America. Do you see any parallels between Bolivar and our founding father, George Washington?

More to Explore

  • U.S. State Department on Colombia Click here
  • BBC Coverage of Colombia Click here
  • LA Times Interview with Colombian Defense Minister regarding Obama Transition Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Dudley, Steven. Walking Ghosts: Murder & Guerrilla Politics in Colombia. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. 2005. 127 pages. Dudley covered Colombia for the Washington Post and NPR for five years. He chronicles the rise and fall of the Patriotic Union Party (UP), Colombia’s insurgency, the drug war and U.S. intervention.
    Click here to order
  • Kirk, Robin. More Terrible Than Death: Drugs, Violence and America’s War in Colombia. Public Affairs, 2004. 301 pages. Robin Kirk is a researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book describes the political situation in Colombia, the War on Drugs and its effect on human rights in Colombia.
    Click here to order
  • Bowden, Mark. Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw. Penguin Books, 2001. 296 pages. Bowden tells the violent story of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord and the U.S. involvement in the 16 month manhunt for Escobar.
    Click here to order