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Colombia: Between Violence and Forgiveness

Can free trade be a possible solution to Colombia’s continuing economic and political woes?

April 14, 2001

Can free trade be a possible solution to Colombia's continuing economic and political woes?

Colombia has seen more than a decade of violence and ineffectual leadership. First, there was the corrupt presidency of Ernesto Samper Pizano. Then there was the peace-obsessed and economically depressed tenure of Andres Pastrana.

Far from its present image as a run-down and savage Latin American country, Colombia was in fact a fairly healthy economy throughout most of the 20th century — until the outset of the last decade, that is. During the 1980s, Colombia chose not to go the route taken by most of Latin America, and default on its external obligations.

As a result, Colombia arrived at the beginning of the 1990s in better shape than any other Latin American country, with the possible exception of Chile.
Then all went wrong. Many analysts point to the adoption of a new constitution of 1991 as the first misstep.

The new constitution advanced democracy in the country, but it had a fatal flaw. In an effort to quell local dissatisfaction with the central government and undermine the attractions of guerilla movements, Colombia’s new constitution created an imbalance between local and central government.

New provisions compelled the central government in Bogota to share an ever-growing portion of its revenues with local governments. Yet, at the same time, there was no concurrent transfer of central government responsibilities to the local level. The nation’s overall fiscal balance will undoubtedly deteriorate unless changes are made in subsequent years to repair this excess.

Now, Colombia’s people, in their despair, are seeking ever-more radical solutions to its complex security and economic problems. Both of the two leading presidential candidates in the May 2002 elections represent a clear move to the political right. Where they differ, perhaps, is in their view of the “Big Brother” to the north — the United States.

Horacio Serpa, the ultimate apologist for ex-President Samper, is currently running second in opinion polls. He harbors anti-American and chauvinist views. The clear frontrunner, at this point, however, is álvaro Uribe Vélez — who wishes to increase U.S. military presence in Colombia.

Mr. Uribe has considerable baggage, however. He has met with — and employed people — who were later indicted on drug-trafficking charges. The leading candidate has shown at least tacit approval for the tactics of the paramilitary and vigilante group known as “Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia” or AUC.

The AUC came into being in the 1980s as a counterforce to left-wing guerrilla movements, but it became entangled in Colombia’s drug trade. During its existence, the AUC has also murdered thousands of innocent people — and it was declared a terrorist organization by the Bush administration in September 2001.

In some sense, the coming elections are inconsequential, because the outcome will leave Colombia deeply isolated. Foreign investors and especially direct investors will not be encouraged by an Uribe presidency. In my years of analyzing Colombia’s economy, it has become very clear to me that U.S. corporations are hesitant to invest in the country because of its violence and instability.

However, oil companies are among the few exceptions to this rule. As one representative of a foreign oil producer once pointed out to me, kidnappings — as well as the frequent demolition of pipelines — are considered to be “industrial accidents”. Oil companies are captive investors, however, since petroleum is largely found in countries with considerable political instability.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to shoring up stability in Colombia. This is well-documented by the fact that the guerillas waging war against the government have successfully stepped up their murderous and destructive campaign in recent months. Most recently, a savage car-bombing in Bogota that killed 12 people and injured scores more was laid at the guerilla’s feet.

Since President Pastrana formally ended the still-born peace negotiations on February 20, three senators have been kidnapped. One of them was tortured and murdered. On March 16, the archbishop of Cali, Isaías Duarte Cancino, was assassinated.

It is true that the Colombian military is better equipped and trained today than in the past. Military advisors from the United States are also providing important logistics support — although they are legally prohibited to advise the Colombian military in the guerrilla war.

The challenges of waging war in Colombia have not changed, however. The country’s mountainous terrain is inaccessible, facilitating the existence of feudal states. It is in such “para-states” that local warlords of the FARC and the Ejército Liberación Nacional (ELN) find refuge — and prove almost undefeatable.

The disgraced former Minister of Defense, Fernando Botero, once explained the situation very eloquently to me. He explained that the guerilla movements were fractious and disintegrated — and noted that they lacked central leadership and a cohesive ideology.

But since these groups are composed of hundreds of warlords, each with their individual fiefdoms, no mass negotiation can be successfully concluded.

As a result, the prospects of a Hollywood-style mass disarmament of FARC and ELN cells — with guerillas streaming down the hills to give themselves up — seems far-fetched. The guerilla scam is much too profitable for the individual feudal oppressors of Colombia’s people.

The solution, therefore, is not military. It is not short term, either. Sadly, Colombians will continue to suffer. The only solution to this intractable problem is time — and a refocusing of Colombia’s government on its economy.

Colombia must strengthen its fiscal position and diversify its economy. It must raise educational standards, improve social equity and continue to broaden its democracy without diluting fiscal prudence. The rule of law must be applied evenly — and without digression.

The international community should support such measures. The Clinton Administration, for its past, provided $1.3 billion of financial backing through Plan Colombia, approved by Congress in the summer of 2000.

The plan has been backed by the Bush administration. And there are even some rumblings that Congress might be asked to give permission to U.S. military advisors to aid the Colombian forces in their war against the guerrillas.

At the end of the day, this is only one prong in a multi-pronged strategy. Perhaps the best news for Colombia and Latin America is that President Bush has shown determination to establish a free trade agreement for the Americas.

Such an agreement would integrate Colombia both regionally and globally. It would also help the country to transition from its violent past to a more peaceful and prosperous future. The Colombian people have earned it.