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Students Experience Hectic Pace of Diplomacy During Winter Break Trip to Colombia

by Davidson College
Michael Reed talks with Davidson students
Colombian lawyer and journalist Michael Reed speaks with Davidson students Natalie Tagher '12, John Morgan '12, Gustavo Orozco-Lince '14 and Ian Addleton '12.

The most important thing Prof. Russell Crandall's students learned during their winter break trip to Colombia may have been the exhausting pace of diplomacy. The four days of their itinerary in the capital city of Bogota included early-morning-to-late-evening briefings with about 20 officials from government, non-governmental associations and military forces. That's typical, said Crandall, whose service on the U.S. National Security Council taught him all about such hectic expeditions.

He said, "Standard operating procedure for government officials is 'parachuting' into a country for a bunch of briefings with as many people as possible to try to get a feel for the lay of the land. That's pretty much what we did this time, so I feel like these students got some real experience in policy-making 101."

Crandall led 18 students, primarily from his fall semester class on "Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies," on a seven-day journey to the South American country that is the prime subject of his scholarship. It was his third such academic trip, following ones in 2006 and 2008.

Crandall's extensive government experience as an adviser on Latin America, and his scholarly writing about Colombia's 40 years of insurgency and drug wars, helped him develop high-level Colombian contacts who were willing to meet with his students. The group was also aided by Eduardo Estrada '03, who now lives in Bogota.

The Davidson students met the deputy chief of mission and head of the counter-narcotics unit at the U.S. Embassy. They attended briefings from some key members of President Juan Manuel Santos' administration, including one human rights advocate nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. At the Colombian Ministry of Defense they were briefed on counter-insurgency and human rights struggles and policies. They also spoke with associates of a U.N. anti-drug agency, the U.N. Commission for Human Rights, and the Organization of American States. They toured Colombia's Presidential Palace and visited both houses of Congress while they were in session, watching the elected representatives debating and voting legislation. They were also able to squeeze in a visit to Bogota's world-renowned gold museum and a "muy caliente" salsa dance performance.

Natalie Tagher is about to go ziplining
Natalie Tagher '12 gets secured for a zip line ride.

One of the most memorable meetings was with one of the country's most widely read and respected columnists at his communal farm at more than 12,000 feet elevation on the outskirts of Bogota. Several years ago his farm had been controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest Marxist guerrilla organizations.

Virtually the only constituency they missed-of necessity-was the rebels themselves. But the students did meet a former member of a once formidable Marxist insurgency called the National Liberation Army (ELN) who now works at a security and human rights think tank. A student on the trip, Allie Francis'12, recalled, "He told us the rebels launched a Marxist revolution inspired by the revolution in Nicaragua. They saw a successful insurgency there, and believed it could also be successful in Colombia. The U.S. got involved because of the perceived threat that communism would spread in the region, and this man's testimony showed us the legitimacy of that fear."

They got a first-hand description of "the bad old days" from one of their classmates. Gustavo Orozco-Lince, an international student from Cali, Colombia, said when he was 10 years old the ELN captured a Sunday service of people in church, kidnapped them and held them for ransom. Gustavo knew several of the captives personally.

Crandall said the personal, on-site exercise in diplomacy was an exciting process for students. "As they met more and more people, their questions got more knowledgeable and exacting. They were working off of each another, accumulating information and expanding their inquiries. That's how you learn-preparing and then processing. And one of the main things they learned that is that it's all gray. None of the answers are easy."

The good news students heard over and over again was how much safer the country has become in the last few years. Crandall said, "It's a remarkable transformation. People are beginning to talk about Colombia as a 'post-conflict society.' When we were here five years ago, there were tanks in the streets. But now the capital and other cities are generally secure. Colombians are still awed that they might finally be living in a normal country."

Allie Francis, a political science major with an interest in peace studies, said, "It was fascinating to see how the different organizations in Colombia were working together in the counter-insurgency effort to resurrect civil society in areas that were formerly controlled by the rebels."

Students riding through rural Colombia
Bouncing along through the countryside are (l-r) Allie Francis '12, Zach Herak '12, John Morgan '12, Iain Addleton '12 and Erin Berry '12.

The U.S. government has provided more than $5 billion of military and humanitarian aid to Colombia during the past decade to support the government's counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics strategies. While initially controversial, especially outside of Colombia, that support and the determination of the Colombian government and people have been successful in quelling the Marxist insurgents' threat.

However, drug trafficking remains a severe problem. What began as a left-wing, politically motivated revolution is today increasingly a group of more apolitical actors fighting for their survival through the drug trade, . Ironically, as U.S. government support helps Colombia defeat its rebels, continued demand for cocaine among U.S. citizens is helping the rebel movement survive.

Another student, Paul Ream '12, came away with a very positive attitude about the country's future. "The changes it's undergone since 2000 are incredible," he said. "In late 1990s people were predicting the FARC would take over the country. There were 30,000 rebels then, but just 8,000 now."

Ream continued, "We studied Afghanistan in class during the semester, and it's in a similar situation with the drug trade and an insurgency. But Colombia has made huge strides toward peace while Afghanistan hasn't. A primary reason is that the Colombian government accepted responsibility for the fight. The U.S. helped a lot, but Bogota drove the policy."

The group concluded the winter break trip by flying an hour west of Bogota to the verdant "Eje Cafetero" coffee region for three days of rest and recreation amid beautiful green coffee fields and snowy Andean peaks. They stayed at a 19th-century coffee "finca" converted into a bed and breakfast, picked coffee beans and learned what it takes to process coffee from field to cup. They also explored the area in 1950s Korean War-era "Willy" jeeps, and enjoyed rides on horseback treks and zip lines.

Now back on campus, the students will follow up on their experience during the next few weeks by producing and presenting a public multi-media report on their trip.