As Canadians, we are all too familiar with the assumptions made about a country, although it is clear that we are not the only victim of this judgement.
With its less-than-favourable reputation, Colombia finds itself stigmatized for its unique economic situation, and although some U of C students may not know where to find the nation of 42 million people on a map, everyone knows that Colombia and cocaine go together like caffeine and early morning class.
Colombia is not only responsible for 90 per cent of the world's total cocaine supply, but it also produces a staggering 30 per cent of the heroin that reaches Europe and the Americas each year. According to Dr. Stephen Randall, who spoke Wed., Oct. 30 at the University Club's lunch time lecture series, the South American nation, with its rich natural resources and highly diversified economy, is not just about the almighty high.
"We tend to see in the media only one side of the Colombian environment--the negative," commented Dr. Randall, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Professor of History at the U of C. "We hear about conflict, about death, and we tend to hear a great deal about narcotics.
"Colombia, in fact, is a nation of stark contrasts and many paradoxes," he highlighted. "Its natural physical features, its architecture, its culture and historical traditions are very much contrasted by its current political and strategic situation."
According to Dr. Randall, Colombia has developed a reputation not only for its cartels and coca plants, but for its esteemed academic institutions, cutting edge medical and technological research and vibrant cultural conventions. Medellin, one of Colombia's major urban centres, has become the hub for heart transplants in Latin America, performing large numbers of successful operations at comparatively low cost. Culturally, Colombia has rich literary and artistic scenes, exemplified largely by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
However, as Dr. Randall aptly pointed out, Colombia continues to find itself in political, economic and social jeopardy.
"For the past 50 years Colombia has been locked in a vicious cycle of internal strife fueled by the longest standing and most powerful guerrilla insurgence in Latin America," he said. "Colombia today has the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, and the highest incidence of kidnapping in the world."
The conflict, added Dr. Randall, is perpetuated by right wing paramilitary forces such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and financed not only by terrorism but by the highly profitable drug industry.
The narcotics problem in Colombia is one that cannot be discounted.
"In Colombia alone in the year 2000, 75,000 kilos of marijuana were seized," said Dr. Randall. "[Also recovered were] 110,000 kilos of cocaine, 563 kilos of pure heroin and almost one million litres of the various chemicals needed to produce cocaine, including hydrochloric acid, acetone and sulfuric acid."
According to Dr. Randall, the United States spent $400 million, half of its anti-narcotic budget for Latin America, on combating the Colombian drug problem in the year 2001 alone.
Despite the best efforts of the Colombian and U.S. governments, the anti-narcotics campaign in Colombia has not worked. Crop fumigation programs have not only failed to reduce the scope of the country's narcotics industry, but the pesticides used to kill coca plants have created serious consequences. Glyphosate, or "Round-Up plus," though illegal in the U.S., has been liberally sprayed on Colombian coca crops by U.S. forces, causing not only disastrous environmental problems, but serious health issues as well.
Crop substitution initiatives have also failed.
"What kind of crops will bring in the same revenue as coca?" asked Dr. Randall, highlighting the complexity of the problem.
When asked to comment on alternative courses of action, Dr. Randall alluded to several possibilities, including the decriminalization of narcotics in Europe and North America.
"Unfortunately, I have no magic solutions to this problem," concluded Dr. Randall. "If you push [the narcotics industry] out of Colombia, it will simply reappear in Ecuador or Peru. It's an extremely complex issue and a very difficult issue to resolve."