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US diplomatic involvement stalled in Colombian civil war

The ongoing war in Colombia, not Afghanistan, was the topic of a spirited Oct. 29 forum on "The Columbian Civil War and US Policy" organized by the Center for International Studies.

"September 11 may mean further disengagement on the part of the US" in Colombia, said Cynthia Arnson, assistant director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. "But that would be a shame. The Colombian civil war is a complex, long-standing conflict, and the US should be actively helping the parties come to the peace table."

That sentiment was shared by other speakers at the forum.

"President Bush said, 'We'll stand behind [Colombian President Andres] Pastrana when he achieves a peace agreement,'" said Michael Shifter, director of the Democratic Governance Program at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "Well, thanks a lot. More has to be done," said Shifter, who suggested a good step would be filling the position of assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs.

The event began with a discussion of the roots of the Colombian conflict. Professor Jonathan Hartlyn of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Marc Chernick, director of the Andean and Amazonian Studies Project at Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies, described the differences among the three warring groups: guerillas, paramilitary and government security forces.

"The US is mostly concerned with drug production in Colombia, but the drug trade fuels an already existing conflict," said Chernick, adding that the United States must focus on the political and economic sources of Colombia's problems and encourage the development of democratic institutions, not just engage in a "futile attempt" to cut off cocaine supplies to America.

In the second half of the forum, Arnson and Shifter took a closer look at US policy, including "Plan Colombia," the $1.3 billion program which began during the Clinton presidency and continues under President Bush. Plan Colombia provides mostly military assistance to the Colombian government and focuses on anti-narcotics activities.

The forum's moderator, Assistant Professor Chappell Lawson of political science, expressed skepticism about how much the United States could and would do in the stalled Colombian peace process. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, three of the 28 organizations labeled as terrorist by the State Department are Colombian groups, he said.

The next forum in the ongoing CIS Forum@MIT series, which is scheduled for Feb. 25, will focus on the US-China relationship in the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, and on the ongoing tensions between China and Taiwan.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 7, 2001.

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