A Tortured Country Sees Hope

<i> Michael Shifter is a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service</i>

Last week, the Western Hemisphere’s most troubled country showed it is no stranger to paradox. Colombia may be at war with itself, but its people, recognizing a critical turning point, voted in record numbers for a new president. Seldom has the blend of crisis and opportunity--disenchantment and resilience--been so much in evidence.

In what was widely regarded as a referendum on the controversial and stormy administration of Ernesto Samper, Colombians not only turned out in impressive numbers, but they also gave the Conservative Party candidate, Andres Pastrana, a comfortable margin of victory over his rival, Horacio Serpa. The election ended more than a decade of Liberal Party rule.

The signs of Colombia’s predicament are legion and unmistakable. The most disturbing is the growth of violent forces. Guerrilla groups, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and, to a lesser extent, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have expanded substantially and are active in about half the country. Paramilitary units have exploded exponentially and pose a major threat to peace and institutional order. Abetting the spiral of violence is the financial support provided by drug traffickers, no longer organized in one or two large cartels, but decentralized and spread throughout the country.

In large part, the militias owe their growth to a government whose political legitimacy and capacity have eroded steadily over the past several years. The government’s breakdown accelerated during the Samper administration, which began in 1994. Public institutions and private groups alike have lost much of their coherence. A largely unresponsive political party system and the penetration of drug-related money into Colombian society and politics ossified the decay. These trends show few signs of abating.


Colombia’s human-rights situation is dire. Every day, about 10 Colombians are killed in politically related violence. The paramilitary and guerrilla groups, along with the country’s weakened security forces, abuse people at will. Typically, unprotected, often poor, noncombatants are the victims. They figure disproportionately among the estimated 1 million Colombians who have been displaced by violence since 1985. The poor are also the main victims of Colombia’s pervasive criminal violence, which accounts for some 85% of the country’s yearly 30,000 homicides.

Yet, Colombia’s diet of violence is not new. Its mounting economic difficulties are. During the continent’s debt crisis in the 1980s, Colombia was the only major Latin American country unaffected. Today, the country’s gross domestic product is falling, while its unemployment rate is rising. Uncharacteristically, Colombia’s inflation rate, at 20%, is one of the highest in the region.

If Colombia’s political and economic distress weren’t bad enough, the country’s relationship with the United States during the past four years deepened the malaise. The two countries had long enjoyed a friendly and close relationship. But accusations that Samper accepted some $6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali cartel in 1994 changed all that. Samper’s visa was revoked, and the United States decertified Colombia in 1996 and 1997 for failing to cooperate in the fight against drugs.

Yet, well before last week’s presidential runoff, Washington had backed off its hard-line approach. In March, the United States attached a national-security waiver to the decertification decision, eliminating the possibility of sanctions. Partly in response to deteriorating security conditions in Colombia, a number of powerful voices in Congress urged greater support for the Colombian government. This year, Colombia will receive more than one-third of the entire global account in counternarcotics assistance from the United States.


Undisputedly, Pastrana’s tasks are daunting. But they are not hopeless. Colombia is endowed with immense resources. Despite its unremitting violence, the country has been ruled by constitutionally minded, civilian governments longer than any other in South America. Colombia has held four nationwide elections in fewer than nine months, each under progressively more secure conditions. Last October, Colombians overwhelmingly embraced a “mandate for peace” at the polls. In the first round of the presidential contest in May, they showed unprecedented support for an independent candidate and resoundingly rejected a former general whose recipes for Colombia’s ills broke with the country’s political traditions.

Recent signals from the FARC, the country’s main guerrilla force, as well as Pastrana’s initial statements, suggest that Colombians’ longing for peace may finally be requited. The president-elect will need to take full and quick advantage of his mandate and the manifest goodwill of the Colombian people.

He also will benefit from a less stern and punitive-minded U.S. government, which was, no doubt, pleased--and relieved--by the defeat of Samper’s handpicked candidate. But Washington will need to develop a more balanced policy based on interests beyond drugs and rebels and overcome its occasional impulse to “get tough” in fighting either one when domestic politics rewards the choice. It should also work to retire its good-guy/bad-guy optic on Colombia.

Yet, the new Colombian president will be no pushover for the United States. When asked if he could see “saying ‘no’ to the United States for anything,” Pastrana responded, “Maybe for a lot of things.”

It is commonplace, and true, to assert that only Colombians can overcome the huge problems and intense polarization that has bedeviled their country for the past several years. But the coming months will also pose a major test for the United States to build a genuine partnership with a tormented, but resilient, country that appears to sense a special moment it can hardly afford to let pass.