WASHINGTON -- To say that things are looking up in Colombia is to voice a dangerous expectation. With its seemingly endless civil war, its long-powerful and vicious Marxist guerrillas and its bloody drug-running, Colombia does not lend itself to hopeful conjecture.
And yet, after seven decades of so many kinds of conflict that the country has become a kind of perverse political science laboratory, it seems that the country has turned a corner. Indeed, the Bush administration's decision this week to remove restrictions on aid to Colombia may well be the turning point toward some eventual solution.
One could not have foreseen last Sept. 11 that the terrorist attacks against the United States would within only six months send shock waves to shake up the long-stagnant Colombian conflict, but that is what has happened. As more and more officials, both in Washington and in Colombia itself, are now including the war against the guerrillas as another part of the president's "war against terrorism," an entirely new situation is arising in that Andean country.
The first warning that something was really changing came just this winter. Andres Pastrana, the Colombian peacemaker/president, suddenly got fed up with the Marxist guerrillas of the FARC, whom he had awarded only four years ago a huge, Switzerland-sized piece of land, supposing the grant would cause them to negotiate seriously for peace. Instead, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia cynically used the land gift to regroup, build up their forces, and kidnap and hold for ransom more and more innocent people. In February, the president ordered them out of what had come to be a revolutionary Brigadoon, commonly called "Farclandia."
Then something amazing happened. Instead of fighting, the guerrillas, who have long been acting as the well-paid praetorian guard of the drug traffickers, just melted away into the jungles and impassable high mountain ridges from which they had originally come. Many escaped dressed as peasants. And President Pastrana, a cultured ex-journalist who had nevertheless been ridiculed over the last year for his "faith" in the guerrillas' intentions, became the hero of Colombia.
"Pastrana's stubbornness has now gained him great respect," a highly placed Colombian politician told me. "History will treat him very well, because he put all his prestige behind the process, and now he has brought Colombia to the point where we can face the end of the problem. Now, no one can ever go back and give them what Pastrana did. That period is over. The FARC is no longer looked upon as a romantic group -- in fact, they are not even insurgents any more, but merely an illegal army."
A number of propitious elements and events have come together to create a turn of mind in both Bogota and Washington. On the military side, even while President Pastrana was having hopeless peace talks with the FARC, the Colombian military was solidly built up. The country now has 150,000 men under arms, twice what it had four years ago. For the first time, too, because of disgust with the conflict and the new effectiveness of the army, volunteers are replacing conscripts and now constitute fully half the force. New rapid-response units have been formed, and $1 billion in U.S. aid has led to the dispatching of Black Hawk helicopters and, only recently, increased intelligence sharing. (American satellite data could greatly help the Colombians spot guerrilla concentrations in the future.)
In addition, in the wake of 9/11, the United States' 1997 designation of the FARC as a "terrorist organization" has received new support from other countries, particularly those in Europe, who had hitherto resisted such designation.
Only this week, the Bush administration took a dramatic step. It announced that it will ask Congress next week to remove all restrictions on U.S. military aid to Colombia, particularly those imposed under the Clinton administration, such as the one that restricted U.S. aid money for use only against the drug traffickers and not the guerrillas. Since this was an impossible division to be made, the monies were never as effective as they could have been. The administration's proposals will be included in legislation asking for additional funds to fight global terrorism.
In the last two years in particular, events have been moving on in Colombia, a potentially rich country but one whose history has been defined by conflict and slaughter. In just the 20th century, Colombia has gone from "la violencia," which was an old-style fight between political parties, to a more classic liberation movement vs. government conflict, to a unique guerrilla/drug trafficker insurgency against the armed forces. And now there is this new stage, where the reformed and renewed government forces have the potential to seize the initiative -- and eventually instigate internal social reforms in the Colombia of the future.
This could well be the defining moment so many have been waiting for, but still, one does well to remember that this moment is only beginning.
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