Last Sunday’s Washington Post carried a front-page article by Dana Priest, in which she revealed “a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders.” Thanks to “a multibillion-dollar black budget”—“not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia”—as well as “substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency,” the initiative has been successful, in Priest’s assessment, decimating the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, as the country’s “vibrant economy” and “swanky Bogota social scene” flourish.
The lengthy piece offers a smorgasbord of propagandistic assertions, pertaining both to Washington’s Colombia policies, and to its foreign conduct in general. For a sampling of the latter, consider one of the core assumptions underlying Priest’s report—namely, that our noble leaders despise drugs. The FARC’s “links with the narcotics trade” and “drug trafficking” motivated U.S. officials to destroy their organization, we’re supposed to believe. True, CIA informants in Burma (1950s), Laos (1970s), and Afghanistan (1980s) exploited their Agency ties “to become major drug lords, expanding local opium production and shipping heroin to international markets, the United States included,” Alfred W. McCoy’s research demonstrates. True, a few decades ago the Office of the United States Trade Representative joined “with the Departments of Commerce and State as well as leaders in Congress” for the purpose of “promoting tobacco use abroad,” the New York Times reported in 1988, quoting health official Judith L. Mackay, who described the resulting “tobacco epidemic” devastating the Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries: “smoking-related illnesses, like cancer and heart disease” had surpassed “communicable diseases as the leading cause of death in parts of Asia.” True, the DEA shut down its Honduran office in June 1983, apparently because agent Thomas Zepeda was too scrupulous, amassing evidence implicating top-level military officials in drug smuggling—an inconvenient finding, given Honduras’ crucial role in Washington’s anti-Sandinista assault, underway at the time.
But these events are not part of History, as the subject has been constructed in U.S. schools. It’s common to read, every year or so, an article in one of the major papers lamenting the fact that “American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject,” as Sam Dillon wrote in a 2011 piece for the Times. The charge is no doubt true, as far as it goes: Dillon explained that only a “few high school seniors” tested were “able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War,” for example. But the accusation is usually leveled to highlight schools’ inadequacies, with little examination of the roles these institutions are meant to serve. And the indictments are hardly novel: in 1915, a Times story on New York City’s public schools complained their graduates “can not spell simple words,” were incapable of finding “cities and States” on a map, and so on. That piece explicitly critiqued graduates’ abilities to function as disciplined wage-earners, and so was more honest than the majority of today’s education coverage. The simple fact is “that the public schools are social institutions dedicated not to meeting the self-perceived needs of their students [e.g., by providing an understanding of how the world works] but to preserving social peace and prosperity within the context of private property and the governmental structures that safeguard it,” David Nasaw concludes in his fascinating history of the subject. Private schools, to be sure, are similar in essential respects. And one result of this schooling is that well-educated journalists can repeat myths about U.S. foreign policy, as their well-educated readers nod in blind assent.
The notion that U.S. officials have a coherent counterdrug policy is, again, one of these myths. In addition to the historical examples of U.S. support for drug traffickers cited above, we can note that the slur “narco-guerrilla,” which Washington uses to imply that the FARC is somehow unique for its involvement in the narcotics trade, ought to be at least supplemented by—if not abandoned in favor of—“narco-paramilitary.” Commentators tend to discuss the paramilitaries and the Colombian state separately, presupposing the former are “rogue” entities—another myth—when it would be better to view them, with Human Rights Watch, as the Colombian Army’s unofficial “Sixth Division,” acting in close conformity with governmental aims. Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño admitted in March 2000 that some 70% of the armed groups’ funding came from drug trafficking, and U.S. intelligence agencies took no issue with his estimate—and “have consistently reported over a number of years that the paramilitaries are far more heavily involved than the FARC in drug cultivation, refinement and transshipment to the U.S.,” International Security specialist Doug Stokes emphasizes.
When these substances enter our country, they become a key pretext for the skyrocketing incarceration rate, which has more people imprisoned for drug offenses today than were incarcerated for all offenses in 1980, criminologist Randall Shelden has pointed out, with rates of arrest and sentencing durations especially severe for blacks. “Every criminal prohibition has that same touch to it, doesn’t it?” legal historian Charles Whitebread once asked. “It is enacted by US,” he stressed, “and it always regulates the conduct of THEM”—“you know, them criminals, them crazy people, them young people, them minority group members,” he added sardonically. Reviewing the history of marijuana prohibition, Whitebread noted that, at the Marihuana Tax Act hearings in 1937, two men spoke regarding the drug’s medical effects. One was Dr. William C. Woodward, Chief Counsel to the American Medical Association, who explained his organization had found “no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug.” “Doctor,” a Congressman complained, “if you can’t say something good about what we are trying to do, why don’t you go home?” The second was a Temple University pharmacologist, “who claimed that he had injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 dogs, and two of those dogs had died.” When one Congressman asked him whether he had experimented on dogs because of some similarity they bore to humans, the pharmacologist professed ignorance: “I wouldn’t know, I am not a dog psychologist.”
That was the extent of the medical basis for outlawing marijuana in the U.S., as threadbare as the anti-drug pretexts of Washington’s Colombia policies. Nearly four years after Plan Colombia’s 1999 announcement, for example, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that “the Departments of State and Defense [had] still not developed estimates of future program costs, defined their future roles in Colombia, identified a proposed end state, or determined how they plan[ned] to achieve it.” But while efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production were poorly articulated—and failed consistently—other endeavors met with great success. For example, aerial fumigation displaced some 17,000 people from the Putumayo Department, where the FARC had a major presence, in 2001 alone. The fumigation effectively converted the land from a means of subsistence into a profit source: journalist Garry Leech pointed out that, from 2003-2004, there was “a slew of new contracts signed between multinational companies and the Colombian government,” and the events in Putumayo and elsewhere suggest that Colombia’s herbicide-spraying campaign was never really aimed at illicit crops, typically described as the main target. It seems that if the point were to eradicate, say, coca, the solution would be relatively simple: let coca growers harvest something else. But Plan Colombia has consistently devoted only minimal funding for alternative development schemes, indicating the peasants’ sin isn’t growing coca, but living as subsistence farmers. That kind of activity is an inappropriate use of the land in an oil-rich region, where there are profits to be made.
A Guatemalan peasant made a similar point to author-activist Kevin Danaher, when he visited her country in 1984—shortly after School of the Americas alumnus Ríos Montt had completed his genocidal tear through the countryside. The woman, Danaher writes, “told us that soldiers had come to her home one night and hacked her husband to death, right in front of her and her three children;” the man “was a subversive,” in the military’s eyes, “because he was helping other peasants learn how to raise rabbits as a source of food and money.” Danaher struggled to understand the connection between this effort at self-sufficiency, and the brutal end its advocate met. “Look,” the widow explained, “the plantations down along the coast that grow export crops are owned by generals and rich men who control the government. A big part of their profit comes from the fact that we peasants are so poor we are forced to migrate to the plantations each year and work for miserable wages in order to survive.” Were she and other Guatemalan peasants to become self-reliant, they “would never work on the plantations again”—an indication of the severe threat rabbit-raising posed.
This woman’s remarks indicated who Washington’s real enemy was in Guatemala, and throughout the world. The U.S. government was not opposed merely to “Communists,” real or imagined, during the Cold War, and in Colombia its policies have helped ruin—or end—the lives of millions of destitute individuals beyond the FARC’s top officials. Of course, Sunday’s Post article ignores this fact, portraying the struggle as one between the U.S. government and its Colombian allies on one side, and aggressive guerrillas on the other. But we can expect little else from this mythmaker of record.