Published on Wednesday, February 27, 2002 in the International Herald Tribune
Conundrum in Colombia: Backing Both Sides
by William Pfaff
The kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, writer, mercurial political reformer and ecologist presidential candidate in Colombia, has intensified international attention on a country where the U.S. military role is rapidly expanding in support of the government's renewal of the war on the guerrillas who seized Betancourt. Colombia is the principal supplier of cocaine to the U.S. market. It may hold that unhappy distinction only temporarily, since the campaign to defeat the guerrillas would if successful push production across frontiers into other countries - a development that Colombia's neighbors anticipate and fear.
The entire Andean region is in difficulty, with economies languishing and established social and cultural bonds under pressure.
A recent analysis by Paul W. Drake and Eric Hershberg, for the Social Science Research Council in New York, cited the comment of one expert that Colombia is today "the most decomposed and dangerous country in Latin America." It formerly was one of the most stable.
Background to the regional crisis has been globalization's influence, imposing market-friendly economies that have not really succeeded and a model of government hostile to regulation and intervention.
The gap has widened between popular expectations and what the state actually has been able to accomplish. Colombia has done better than its neighbors, having shown more independence and efficiency in dealing with globalist pressures. However, since it asked for IMF assistance in 1999 social conflict has worsened.
The new model of development, based on the so-called Washington economic consensus, brought a regional globalization that undermined national industries and destroyed much uncompetitive productive apparatus, slashing the scale of public sector institutions, increasing unemployment and enlarging wage gaps. The compensating benefits that economic internationalization was expected to bring have mostly failed to arrive.
The political model promoted by the globalization consensus is that of a lean government open to market forces, favoring private enterprise, promoting and protecting foreign investment and paying foreign debts.
This minimum state has proved unacceptable to a large fraction of the region's population, so that a stalemate has emerged. The working classes and poor have been able to block or disrupt the new-model minimal government. The region's governments have struggled to keep inside the democratic camp, Venezuela's swerve into populism notwithstanding. Colombia has had the greatest success with neoliberal reform, but even there the promised benefits of the new model have faltered, while its negative effects have provoked protest movements intended to maintain vestiges of the protectionist order that in the past benefited workers.
Colombia's biggest problem is, of course, its leftist rebel movements of increasingly hazy ideological inspiration, living off the drug trade, at war not only with the army but also with often predatory private militias. A major part of the national territory was effectively ceded to the guerrillas three years ago, but that failed to produce peace or even compromise. The government's Plan Colombia, backed by the United States, is intended to produce peace by war – a gloomy prospect. The underlying problems have no military solution. Nor, if there were such a solution, is the Colombian army an instrument likely to succeed in imposing it, whatever the extra training it gets from U.S. special forces.
The fundamental reality is that the states of the region produce very little, other than illicit drugs, that is competitive on international markets. Since the United States is the principal market for Colombia's drugs, and since it finances and furnishes military backing to Plan Colombia, it finds itself in the bizarre situation of backing both sides in Colombia's civil struggle.
It consumes the drugs that are Colombia's great unaudited export, thus financing the quasi-guerrilla, quasi-gangster movements that challenge the government in Bogota, which Washington otherwise supports.
Perhaps the most constructive policy option open to Washington is one that it is the least inclined to choose. The sums invested in Plan Colombia could make a serious difference in the ability of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Justice Department to interdict drug imports.
Trying to use foreign governments and foreign armies to solve the domestic drug problem is the least efficient way to deal with the problem. It keeps the violence distant from the United States. However, growing U.S. military intervention in Colombia, as elsewhere, may end with casualties that bring the problem home.
Copyright © 2002 the International Herald Tribune