Plan Colombia

Although you would never know it from listening to much of the current campaign rhetoric, U.S. foreign policy has achieved some important recent successes. One of them was on display this past week with the visit to Washington by the president of Colombia. President Santos’ purpose, in several public appearances as well as a meeting in the Oval Office, was to say “thank you” for sustained American economic and military support for his country. The principal vehicle for that support has been Plan Colombia initiated 15 years ago under President Clinton and continued by presidents of both parties. Under Plan Colombia, the United States has provided economic and counter-narcotic assistance plus military equipment and training in the largest and most sustained aid package in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations. President Santos’ visit is also in anticipation of the imminent end of a decades-long civil war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.

The recent history of Colombia is dramatic and fascinating. This is one of the most important countries in Latin America — at once sophisticated and barbaric, beautiful and ugly, and impressive and not. This writer spent some months living in Colombia at the very beginning of the 1970s. This was a time before narcotics gained a near death hold on Colombian society. Two related impressions of the country at that time stand out. First, the population was radically bifurcated between a cosmopolitan-urban-European elite and a largely rural, ethnically Indian and Afro-Indian mass. The elites were effectively indistinguishable from their counterparts in Italy, France and Spain. They were highly educated and professionally accomplished. They had little in common with the bulk of the population except the Spanish language and Colombian citizenship.

Not surprisingly, such a society is prone to internal conflict. In the early 1970s, that manifested itself in a very high rate of crime and social violence. Soon it morphed into something(s) far more ominous — drug cartels and a Marxist peasant-based insurgency (the FARC) that aimed to overthrow the government. Large swaths of the interior countryside came under insurgent control. Senior government officials were assassinated and government institutions attacked. The prospect of a Marxist takeover, with tens of thousands of armed insurgent fighters, seemed all too real. Often the insurgents and the cartels made common cause, with one providing money and the other protection.

In short, when Plan Colombia was formulated, Colombia was on the brink of becoming a failed state. At that critical juncture, the infusion of U.S. assistance was pivotal. But nothing would have happened without the courage, will and investments of Colombians. In addition to an abundance of natural resources, Colombia had two things going for it. First, it was a political democracy that never gave in to the temptation to resort to autocratic shortcuts and, second, the aforementioned elites produced high quality leadership both in government and in social and economic institutions. President Santos, himself, is the scion of one of Colombia’s traditional leading families. Today, Colombia’s insurgencies are greatly diminished, some of the most prominent drug lords are dead and the economy has achieved steady growth for years. The nation’s democratic institutions are probably stronger today than they have ever been.

All this contrasts vividly with development in next door Venezuela. Venezuela is even more richly endowed with resources and has been largely spared the curse of becoming a major cocaine producer. But Venezuelan society also is bifurcated and the siren call of Marxist revolution has been heard and heeded by the poor, and by gullible academics.  Faced with economic stress and popular discontent, Venezuela gave in to the twin temptations of Marxism and autocracy in the form of a firebrand (and very ambitious) army officer named Hugo Chavez. Cancer has taken Chavez but his political legacy remains potent. The result has been graphic — an economic collapse with hyperinflation and chronic shortages — in what should be one of the richest countries in the world. The oil industry has been so mismanaged that production is rapidly declining. Meanwhile, President Maduro (Chavez’s handpicked successor) blames everything on “economic warfare” waged by the United States and traitors inside Venezuela, like small businessmen, who act as agents of the Americans. There is a significant caveat; Venezuela still has some functioning democratic institutions and they are now expressing a growing political reaction against Chavismo. The battle has been joined and the outcomes will become clearer over the next year.

There is much in Colombia that remains uncertain. A peace agreement is slated for early signature between the government and the FARC. But there is another, smaller, insurgent group still in the field, so the era of full national peace and reconciliation remains elusive. Also the consequences of decades of civil war are daunting. For example, reliable estimates of the number of people displaced by violence since 1985 exceed 5 million. The number of forced disappearances exceeds 30,000 over the last four decades. Hundreds of thousands of former paramilitaries that fought the FARC have been demobilized. With one skill (killing) and no jobs, many of them have turned to crime. And, of course, the narcotics problem has not gone away. As long as the United States provides a ready and lucrative market for cocaine and heroin, there will be well-organized criminal networks in Latin America, including Colombia, to supply that demand.

Nevertheless, the overall picture of success is valid. In a continent (Latin America) long prone to paranoid resentment of American “domination,” Colombia stands as an important and influential exception.

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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