If Americans know nothing else about Colombia, they know that it is a place where people grow and package cocaine for use on the world market. This is, of course, a highly biased view of the country because Colombians do many things other than make and sell drugs and most Colombians are not involved in the drug trade at all.
However, it remains true that much of the world's cocaine does originate in Colombia, which has important consequences for that nation's standing in the world as well as for its relationship with the United States. This paper examines some of the consequences for the relationship between the two countries of the ways in which political and economic life in Colombia have become linked to the trade in cocaine.
We must begin this assessment with some basic facts about both Colombia and the drug trade.
It is certainly true that Colombia is primarily an agricultural nation, although it is not true that its primary agricultural product is cocaine according to information from the U.S. State Department Colombia has been an agrarian nation since colonial times, even though in the past two decades it has seen a high degree of industrialization.
Its primary cash crop has traditionally been coffee; however, since dramatic declines in the price of coffee in the late 1980s the country has diversified both in terms of its agricultural crops as well as its economy overall.
How Drugs Came to Colombia
The Columbian economy has become entangled with the illegal drug trade primarily because the country is relatively poor and because many people were effected by government austerity policies in the 1980s that were designed to ensure that the country was able to make its debt payments.
Squeezed by economic conditions and with the ability to produce large amounts of a highly profitable crop, some Colombians turned to cocaine farming. They were also, one cannot help but think, prodded in this direction by a government that was unable and unwilling to control the illegal tendencies of some of its citizens. A country that cannot support its citizens and that is also inclined to be disrespectful of its citizens's rights should not be surprised when those citizens turn to crime.
Colombia's history has been plagued by violence and insurgency. In the beginning of the twentieth century the country was devastated by the "war of a thousand days." In the 1950's Colombia suffered la violencia, a bloody internal war that left some 200,000 dead. Today, Colombia is again marked by intense internal warfare and violence. The current struggle, however, deeply involves also the multi-billion dollar drug trade. Funds from the narcotics trade have financed the growth of the three major terrorist groups: the FARC, the ELN and the paramilitary forces.
Colombia's socioeconomic problems cry out for reform and for the development of a strong, purposeful national will to resolve the country's chaotic situation. Foremost, the drug problem has to be solved. The drug trade not only finances organized violence, it has corrupted and warped much of the country's political and economic system. The nation must organize and finance a much larger, professional military force capable of dominating the terrorist groups. The government must also demonstrate its respect for human rights and its commitment to democratic government (http://www.gwu.edu/~clai/Commentary%20on%20Colombia.htm).
Although the country is wealthy in natural resources, it has not always been governed as wisely as it might be, which means that the distribution of wealth has often been extremely uneven. Whenever the country's economic basis begins to weaken, the effect of illegal drugs tends to become more pronounced. This cycle of relative prosperity and political stability and a weaning of the country from the money produced by cocaine and periods of high inflation, governmental austerity, and political corruption are reflected in the percentage of the wealth of the country that is generated by drugs:
When President Pastrana came to power in 1998 however, the economic situation was serious. Some of the problems he inherited were also financial and fiscal. From 1994 to 1998, real GDP growth plummeted from 5.8% to -0.6%. In those same 4 years, Colombia's foreign debt increased by 50% and most alarmingly, unemployment almost doubled. All of this was aggravated by U.S. decertification for two consecutive years, while prices for coffee and oil, the country's two largest exports, dropped, and neighbors Venezuela and Brazil suffered serious economic setbacks. The economy had entered its first recession in almost seventy years, unemployment was 18% and rising, the government's fiscal deficit rose to 6.3% of GDP 1998-99 the country experienced negative growth for the first time in 70 years. It was the result of macroeconomic imbalances, global investor uncertainty in the wake of the Asia financial crisis and growing violence in the country. Guerrillas and paramilitaries were gaining strength, and no negotiations with the insurgents were taking place in order to put an end to 40 years of violence (http://www.colombiaemb.org/colombian_economy.htm).
While Colombia's own dependence on cocaine as a source of income for its citizens rises and falls over the years, one thing that has remained strikingly constant is the fact that Colombia has been the largest producer and exporter of cocaine since the 1970s (http://www.undcp.org/colombia/rocha.html).
This constant rate of high production - at least in comparison to other nations - does not however indicate that conditions have stayed the same in terms of Colombian cocaine production. During the 1970s, for example, most of the cocaine that was processed in Colombia and distributed throughout the rest of the world was actually grown in Peru and Bolivia. However, when this became political impossible, all aspects of production were shifted to Colombia.
Even as it was becoming more politically difficult for drug dealers to grow coca in other South American countries, during the 1970s and 1980s coca growers in Columbia saw little resistance to their activities.
Colombia became the world's largest coca grower, when it became more risky, and thus more expensive to import coca base from Peru and Bolivia, due to the improved control and law enforcement in the border areas. The difficult marketing conditions for most licit agricultural products and the virtual absence of the state on the agricultural frontier and elsewhere, in addition provided strong incentives for the rural population to start cultivating illicit crops, the more so since insurgent forces were willing to protect the crops for a price (http://www.undcp.org/colombia/rocha.html).
In other words, Colombians turned to growing cocaine because other avenues of licit income became barred to them. Whenever the same kind of economic conditions recur, Colombians tend to react by turning to illegal drug production - although the drugs themselves may change. Marijuana now occupies in many ways the place that cocaine once did in the Colombian economy:
During the most recent period between 1996 and 1998 the process of substituting imported for domestic coca base deepened, due not least to the improved control of the air space between Peru and Colombia. The share of Colombian coca base in cocaine processing in the country, negligible ten years earlier, had now reached two thirds. The dismantling of the big cartels led to a fragmentation of Colombian trafficking and eventually to decreased market shares. The Mexican cartels took over an increasing share of the United States market for cocaine, a process which had been initiated already in the early 1990s. The income of Colombian drug traffickers now only represented the equivalent of 2.3% of GDP. (http://www.undcp.org/colombia/rocha.html)
It should be reiterated that even in the worst economic times that the vast majority of Colombians are engaged in licit activities. The impact of the drug trade on the Colombian economy is less dramatic than we might think. However, in a poor country, the money available to those who crow coca can be extremely important.
In 1998 Colombia by a conservative estimate had 93,000 hectares under coca, opium poppy, and marihuana cultivation, equivalent to 3% of cultivated lands in the whole country. It was furthermore estimated that illicit cultivation generated 69,000 full time jobs, or 2% of all agricultural jobs. Economic, social and political conditions in many Colombian regions have greatly favoured illicit cultivation. This holds true, not least on the agricultural frontier, where the state presence is weak, and where soil conditions are favourable for coca cultivation, or rather, unfavourable for many licit crops. In addition there is an ample supply of labour which has been expelled from more settled regions, due to shortage of agricultural lands and the armed conflict (http://www.undcp.org/colombia/rocha.html).
Conditions in Colombia can be seen - on an agrarian, political, social, and economic basis - to be ideal for sustaining the drug trade. In other words we should not be surprised that cocaine and marijuana flow out of Colombia. What should perhaps surprise us is the ways in which other countries, including the United States, respond.
The War on Drugs Meets the War on Terrorism
One of the most recent interesting political developments in the United States has been a blending of the war on drugs that has…
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