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First Signs of a Policy Nightmare

July 25, 1999|Michael Shifter | Michael Shifter is a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service

WASHINGTON — Colombia is quickly becoming a "front burner" issue for U.S. foreign policy. The reasons--escalating violence and rising drug production--are not hard to discern. But what the United States expects to accomplish in dealing with the hemisphere's most troubled country remains a mystery.

Washington's impulse to "do something" and "get tough" is understandable, even legitimate. But that impulse needs to flow from a hard-headed assessment of what goals are realistic and feasible, a clear understanding of how far the United States is prepared to go and a rigorous analysis of possible consequences and ramifications.

The United States' creeping involvement in Latin America's third-largest country is undeniable. Colombia ranks third, after Israel and Egypt, in receiving U.S. security assistance. This year, the U.S. is providing some $289 million to Colombia in counternarcotics assistance, three times the amount it gave in 1998, which had already doubled each of the preceding two years. The bulk of the money goes to Colombia's national police; the country's military receives about $40 million. In addition, the U.S. is sharing intelligence information with the military.

Few doubt that more--perhaps substantially more--is yet to come. Recently, after meeting in Washington with Colombia's defense minister and armed forces chief, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, U.S. drug czar, proposed increasing the amount of support to drug-producing countries by $1 billion, nearly $600 million of which would go to Colombia (more than the Colombians themselves requested). McCaffrey defended his proposal by citing the "explosion" in cocaine production and spreading insecurity. Fighting drugs, in fact, remains the only rationale for U.S. Colombia policy that is politically popular and palatable with the American people.

But over the past several months, the loss of government authority and frightening advances by insurgents, toward the capital city of Bogota as well as across the borders of neighboring countries, have deepened Washington's concerns. Insurgent and paramilitary activities, a pervasive drug economy, political and institutional decay and an unprecedented recession (unemployment is at a record 20%) produce conditions that seem to deteriorate by the day. Colombians who are able to leave are doing so in droves.

President Andres Pastrana, taking a big risk in dealing with decades-long, seemingly intractable violence, has identified peace as his highest priority. Yet, with almost a year in office, he has little to show for the effort. His administration has suffered repeated setbacks and occasional humiliations, both military and political, in its pursuit of peace. Talks with insurgents have now been postponed.

To be fair to Pastrana, making progress with the country's most formidable insurgent force is anything but easy. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which dates to the 1960s, is militarily and financially stronger than ever. Its roughly 15,000 combatants operate with a network whose members are estimated at two to three times that number. Aside from power in some form, it is not entirely clear what they want.

After an auspicious meeting last July between then-president-elect Pastrana and the FARC's undisputed leader, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, the country's chief guerrilla force has been obstinate in its behavior and unreasonable in its demands. There is a growing perception that the FARC is fundamentally uninterested in negotiations and that the insurgency is simply distracting the government while bolstering its position. Recent declarations by FARC leaders questioning the Colombian government's goodwill don't inspire confidence.

From the outset, Pastrana's idea has been to deal with the FARC before turning to Colombia's other major violent forces, the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) and the rightist militia groups, each with approximately 5,000 combatants. But the FARC's recalcitrance, coupled with the militias' and ELN's ruthlessness and peevishness--the ELN's kidnappings of airplane passengers and churchgoers shocked an already numbed nation--have made it difficult for the Colombian president to succeed. Although a government negotiating team and FARC leaders announced a common agenda May 2, the areas for discussion remain exceedingly vague and cover the gamut, from reforming the justice system to redistributing land.

All this disheartening news has raised serious questions, both in Washington and in Colombia, about the clarity and coherence of Pastrana's peace strategy and even about the desirability of trying to negotiate with the insurgents. It is thus not surprising that U.S. policymakers find themselves edging toward greater support for Colombia's security forces, whose principal goal is, after all, defeating the guerrillas.

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