Few and Difficult Options

From the September-October 2002 Trumpet Print Edition

Colombia is a war-weary nation. President Alvaro Uribe Velez, elected by a large 53 percent victory in May, now has tough decisions to make about how to salvage the mess of a nation he inherited.

On August 7, the day of his inauguration, half a dozen pre-set mortars exploded in the presidential palace and residential quarters of Bogotá, killing 19 people and wounding many more. This served as a grisly warning to Mr. Uribe.

Such attacks are all too common in a country where well over 30,000 lives have been lost in the past 10 years alone in an extended war between the leftist guerrilla insurgents known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (farc, a group that Washington calls “the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere”) and right-wing paramilitaries (the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), as well as government security forces.

President Uribe finds himself the elected head of a country that is democratic in its constitution but where the rule of law is continuously overrun by warring anti-government groups. These threaten to tear apart the already fragile fabric of Colombian society and expand the war into other regions. Neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela have already suffered from the violent spillover.

President Uribe, whose father was killed by rebel insurgents, was elected following a bold campaign with the slogan “Firm Hand, Big Heart” and has promised to crack down harder than ever on the farc. Uribe’s proposals include doubling the defense budget in order to increase the size of Colombia’s 50,000-strong military, and creating a million-member armed militia. The United States has promised continued and increased support under “Plan Colombia.”

If Mr. Uribe chooses the route of more intensified war, as he seems to be preparing for, will he succeed? He is facing an overwhelming enemy. “Since President Pastrana broke off the peace talks with the farc leaders last February, the guerrillas have launched three major coordinated offensives that have substantially altered the military balance of power. In early June … the farc started a campaign of death threats and ultimatums, aimed at driving elected mayors and municipal judges from their posts.

“Within a few weeks, they had erased all traces of government authority from 35 municipalities in 24 of the nation’s 32 states. A further 200 mayors had fled their town halls and were attempting to administer by remote control from military barracks and regional capitals” (In These Times, Sept. 2).

As though this weren’t bad enough, Colombia is in dire social and economic straits, with public debt at close to 54 percent of Gross National Product, and 64 percent of Colombians living below the poverty line.

Uribe has few and difficult options. Basically, it’s a matter of choosing his ally in this war against the insurgents. He may choose continued dependence on Washington, which would lead into a widening of the conflict across neighboring borders under the umbrella of America’s “war on terror.” Alternatively, he may opt to cozy up to the EU, a principle investor in Colombia and a more natural ally. With UN and EU support, Uribe could revive Pastrana’s old peace process.

With anti-Americanism on the rise, it would not be surprising if Uribe opts for the latter course.