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Elite Sit on the Sidelines as Colombia Struggles

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
August 10, 2003
Los Angeles Times

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To mark the third anniversary of Plan Colombia, the U.S.-backed anti-drug program, and set a future course for the country, Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, met with President Alvaro Uribe on Friday to hear Uribe's case for a Chile-style bilateral trade agreement with the United States. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld will call later this month to discuss enlarging the U.S. role in Colombia's counterinsurgency campaign.

You'll recall that Colombia strongly supported the Bush administration's quest to oust Saddam Hussein, and Uribe may now expect something in return. But it would be unwise for the U.S. to hand out rewards. Playing favorites with Colombia on trade would undercut both countries' efforts to cultivate support from Colombia's neighbors on border security and counterterrorism. And further helping Colombia's counterinsurgency without first insisting that the country's political and financial elite begin to take an active role in saving their country would be a recipe for warlordism and more violence in rural Colombia. Trade and guns, though important, ignore Colombia's core problem: an elite largely disconnected from the life of the country.

This isn't just Colombia's problem. The economic elites in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia send their children to the U.S. or Europe to be educated. They vacation in Miami, New York, Paris, London, Rome and Berlin. They keep capital and homes in Europe and the United States. They seldom pay taxes at home and routinely regard themselves as above the law. Much of the responsibility for the region's grinding poverty, inequality and weak institutions can be laid at their doorstep.

U.S. policy doesn't put pressure on these elites to participate in the reconstruction of their own countries. For most of the post-World War II era, the assumption in Washington has been that civil servants and government bureaucracies in state ministries were solely running their countries. If this were ever the case, it is no longer.

In Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, for example, it's evident that as important as the good governance of state and private institutions is, the intentions and actions of the elites often set the political tone of a nation. In Colombia, they hire private militias to protect their assets. In Venezuela, they sabotage the national economy for political gain. In Ecuador, they ignore the rule of law.

Yes, Uribe's first year in office has been marked by many successes. Yet there is an absence of strategic thinking on how to sustain state control once government forces establish territorial security. One reason for this is that the Colombian elite has yet to give Uribe consistent and unambiguous support for such a monumental task.

For example, Uribe's security policy depends in part on his ability to raise revenue at home. Last year, a one-time wealth tax generated about $700 million, a substantial portion of which came from a relatively small but politically powerful universe. All the money went to the war effort, and rightly so. This spring, Roberto Junguito, the minister of finance, was widely hailed for leading Colombia to a first-quarter growth rate of 3.8%. He sought to build on this achievement by calling for another levy on wealth, the proceeds of which would be channeled into rural and social development programs. The elite balked, and his idea withered. Junguito has since stepped down.

Or take Colombia's new national security strategy. Early drafts contained explicit references to the importance of expanding state sovereignty not only through police and security forces but also through permanent rural development programs and legal institutions. No such equivalence of "guns and butter" is manifest in the final version of the document, the overwhelming message of which is that a military solution is possible, even desirable. The elites embrace this wishful thinking as well.

The government's emphasis on the military approach has lost it some political opportunities. For example, several million hectares of fertile land, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in other assets, are in the hands of the government, thanks to asset forfeiture laws on the books since the mid-1990s. But Colombia's equivalent of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is charged with managing and redistributing the assets, is beset by patronage and bureaucratic inertia. Land, cattle and other assets sit idle or rot away, benefiting neither the state nor, in the case of the land, the 2 million internally displaced Colombians who would benefit from land reform.

Land, after all, remains at the core of Colombia's social conflict. So the issue of how the state will redistribute land it has taken back will be crucial to the success of its negotiations with an umbrella paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The government wants the AUC to demobilize its force of 13,000 fighters and, if it succeeds, that would certainly reduce the number of battlefronts. But equally critical to Colombia's reconstruction are the political agreements struck for reparations, how those charged with crimes against humanity will be handled and who will put up the several hundred million dollars needed to finance the demobilization.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the two main rebel groups, will be watching the talks to see if they offer a suitable model for their own negotiations with the government. Unfortunately, the Colombian military may already have ruled out this political possibility. Just after the Uribe government released its national security strategy and announced negotiations with the AUC, the commander in chief of the Colombian armed forces, Gen. Enrique Mora, remarked that negotiations with the FARC or ELN would be unnecessary because the rebel groups could be defeated on the battlefield.

With nearly $4 billion invested or committed since 2000, the United States has the leverage to weigh in on the fundamentals of what the Pentagon calls "effective sovereignty" in the Western Hemisphere. Those fundamentals certainly have a military component. But equally important is the social one: Local elites must get involved in nation-building. If they remain on the sidelines or only serve to frustrate humanitarian and economic development programs, the U.S. efforts to help Colombia rebuild will be lost.


Julia E. Sweig is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Inside the Cuban Revolution."

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