Skip to main content

to conduct foreign policy, but surely one of the worst is to take a complex challenge and reduce it to a single issue. Colombia is not just the place that feeds America’s voracious appetite for illegal drugs. It is a country almost three times as large as California with 40 million people and a tangled, brutal history.

Over much of the last half century,

Print article

democratic governance has failed to provide minimal standards of equity, stability, and justice for the Colombian people. The violent and massive expulsion of campesinos from their lands over the past 30 years gave rise to a rural insurgency known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Although today the FARC controls about 50 percent of the nation’s territory, White House drug policy adviser Barry McCaffrey dismisses the FARC as “narco-guerrillas” and proposes equipping the Colombian army and police to overcome the guerrillas — to the tune of $550 million in new U.S. military assistance. This is a sizable amount — enough to engage U.S. prestige and power in another country’s civil war.

If McCaffrey has his way, Colombia will become the world’s third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid. Yet the Colombian military is implicated in the drug trade. Colombians often refer to their blue-clad air force as the “blue cartel” — a term usually reserved for powerful drug rings in Medellin, Cali, and so on. In November 1998, when the aircraft of the chief of the military air transport command landed in Miami, the Drug Enforcement Administration found more than a half-ton of cocaine on the plane.

What ails the Colombian military is beyond the power of the United States to remedy. McCaffrey has referred to the Colombian soldiers who die battling guerrillas as heroes — and so they are. But morale in the armed forces is low and the desertion rate high. Draftees with high school educations are exempted from combat. The sons of workers and campesinos who have been deprived of education may be semi-literate but they understand that in the Colombian army, as in Colombian society, the system is rigged against them.

Under the apparently infinitely elastic guidelines of fighting the drug war, the United States already has 300 to 400 military and civilian personnel in Colombia. They operate five radar systems, train army and police battalions, monitor internal communications, fly spy missions over guerrilla territory, and provide intelligence on insurgent activity to the Colombian military. In July [1999], a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane either crashed or was shot down, killing five Americans and two Colombians. Since these programs began, Colombian exports of cocaine have more than doubled.

Another way

There is another way, one that was recognized by the war-weary Colombian electorate when in 1998 it elected a courageous president, Andres Pastrana, to negotiate with the insurgents. From the outset, Pastrana has rejected the characterization of the FARC as “narco-guerrillas”; to him they are revolutionaries who seek political power through force of arms, but who are open to negotiations and compromise. The escalating U.S. military involvement has done serious harm to Pastrana’s strategy of peace and reconciliation. Speculation that Washington would soon increase its military presence reached such a pitch in response to McCaffrey’s recent statements that Pastrana called a news conference [in August 1999] to declare, “As long as I am president there will be no foreign military intervention in Colombia.”

It reminded me of a similar pledge, in 1981, by El Salvador’s president Jose Napoleon Duarte when I was U.S. ambassador to that country. The Reagan administration sent military advisers and stepped up aid to El Salvador soon thereafter, arguing that the Salvadoran rebels fought not for their own cause but rather were hirelings of Moscow and Havana. Today, Washington must look elsewhere to justify its penchant for military involvement in the internal conflicts of other nations. In the case of Colombia, some members of the Clinton administration have seized on the anti-drug program as the camouflage necessary for taking sides in the civil war.

Pastrana’s peace effort has already achieved one signal success. In May [1999], his government signed a potentially far-reaching agreement clearing the way for formal negotiations with the FARC. Known as the Common Agenda, it implicitly recognizes that the revolutionaries took up arms in a just cause and commits both parties to negotiate profound economic and social reforms through political compromise. Among other measures, the Common Agenda calls for an end to the cultivation of illicit drugs and demands the confiscation and redistribution of the huge estates purchased with drug profits. It also requires the Colombian army to fight against the paramilitary forces that are funded by large landowners involved in the production and trafficking of cocaine and heroin. These shadowy figures have a vested interest in a violence-torn, fragmented Colombia without law or justice.

A journey into FARC country

In order to give the FARC a sense of security and to convince the group of the government’s good faith, Pastrana took the controversial step of granting the FARC temporary dominion over a territory the size of Switzerland. In June [1999], I flew to this remote zone with a group that included Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.). As soon as our plane landed, we set out on the jolting drive along a rutted dirt highway to FARC military headquarters. At various checkpoints, FARC banners proclaimed “Welcome! We are people of peace,” and “Welcome to the laboratory of peace.”

As I gazed at the neglected countryside, my mind went back more than 20 years to when, as a diplomat in Bogota, I had traveled to other remote regions of Colombia. Then as now, there were few signs that the government had ever invested a peso in education, health care, or farm-to-market roads. Back then, I gave talks to rural communities assuring them that the U.S. and Colombian governments remained committed to the Alliance for Progress reforms of President John F. Kennedy. But successive Colombian governments reneged on promises of reform, including a pledge to extend the rule of law into the countryside. And Washington, in the ideological grip of the Cold War, concentrated its major funding on counterinsurgency programs that I believe strengthened the violent extremes in Colombia and elsewhere in the region.

Our delegation and Victor G. Ricardo, the Colombian government’s peace envoy, arrived at revolutionary headquarters. We met for two hours with Raul Reyes, the veteran FARC leader and member of its seven-member ruling council. Delahunt spoke eloquently of peace and asked for the FARC’s help against the drug trade. Reyes spoke favorably of Pastrana and of the U.S. program of substituting legal crops for coca, the plant from which cocaine is made. He pledged that the FARC would cooperate with the program, cited FARC concessions in the talks, and promised more. “The FARC is the best ally the United States could have against drugs,” he said.

I cannot state with any certainty that the FARC leader meant what he said. In recent weeks, the revolutionaries have [since] launched a series of ferocious attacks against the Colombian army that eroded popular confidence in the president’s peace strategy. But before the United States sets itself up for another Central America-style failed military intervention, the FARC’s offer of cooperation should be put to the test. Colombians are fortunate to have a leader who understands that foreign arms and foreign advisers will only complicate and impede his strategy of renewing the Colombian nation through dialogue and compromise.

As if to reassure Pastrana that someone in the Clinton administration grasps the complexities of the Colombian challenge, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times [in October 1999], “After 38 years of struggle it should be clear that a decisive military outcome [in Colombia] is unlikely.” She properly condemned the outrages regularly committed by the guerrillas, yet avoided dismissing all of them as “terrorists” or “criminals.” She also noted the barbarity of the right-wing paramilitary forces that carry out, often in collusion with local Colombian army units, massacres of unarmed campesino families.

Despite Albright’s statement, U.S. policy remains ambivalent, torn between increased U.S. involvement in search of a military solution to the civil war and an unequivocal backing of Pastrana’s strategy of a negotiated peace, which President Clinton has endorsed. The first course of action would result in the weakening of elected civil government. While the logic of Albright’s analysis would not exclude sufficient assistance to ensure that the guerrillas do not gain militarily by stretching out the negotiations, it would emphasize diplomatic and economic support to build momentum for peace.

As long as the administration’s words and actions project confusion and disarray, the situation in Colombia will continue to deteriorate.  

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company. (First appeared on Page B2 of The Washington Post, September 12, 1999.)

Robert White, a former ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the American embassy in Bogota during 1972-1975. He is now president of the Center for International Policy in Washington.


Comments are closed.