This past May, Alvaro Uribe Velez was elected president of Colombia in the first round, with an overwhelming mandate to deal with the country's main problem: the Leninist insurgencies of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Castroite Army of National Liberation (ELN). Uribe (a lapsed Liberal) received 51 percent of the vote in a crowded field, despite being an independent, rather than a Liberal or Conservative, the traditional parties that have controlled Colombian politics since the nineteenth century. His support, as this author witnessed at the time of the elections, crossed all lines — economic, class, and political. There was good reason for this: Colombians were tired of the violence that made their country the world champion of kidnapping and murder, and realized that appeasement of the communists — the failed policy of President Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) — only increased the violence and led to the country's descent into chaos.
By contrast, Uribe was clear and decisive in his electoral program, advocating a hard-line approach to FARC, which, with some 17,000 combatants, is the deadliest threat to Colombia's existence as anything resembling a democratic country. Uribe's position was made credible by his being the only major politician who had criticized Pastrana's naiveté and appeasement policy from the start.
After taking office on August 7, Uribe did exactly what he promised to do as a candidate: he announced the formation of a million-strong system of citizen collaborators with the government against the guerrillas, a dramatic increase in defense spending, to be paid for by levying a special tax on the rich, and, in the medium term, the formation of armed citizen groups controlled by the military to combat leftist terrorism.
Surprisingly to many, including this author, who has consistently criticized the Colombians' general reluctance to join in the struggle against Marxist terrorism and their toleration of Pastrana's suicidal "peace" policy, the large and competent business community not only supported Uribe politically but accepted without complaint the one-time, 2 percent defense tax on the "rich" (defined as all those with income or assets of over $60,000).
One result was that the cooperation of the military and police with the government, plagued by their distrust of Pastrana, has improved dramatically, as has the effectiveness of the government forces' counterinsurgency operations. Another is that the Colombian Congress, where Uribe has no organized majority, has so far supported legislation introduced by the president intended to give the forces of order more leverage in pursuing, arresting, and interrogating terrorists and the criminals they associate with. Even more spectacular is the Congress's willingness to discuss Uribe's proposal to cut down on its own numbers and expenses — again, in order to husband the nation's resources against the main enemy, FARC.
To its credit, the U.S. Congress (which has long been more important in deciding Colombia's capacity to deal with its internal threat than its counterpart in Bogotá), under strong prodding from the Bush administration, finally gave up its pretense that the problem in Colombia is drug production and trafficking, rather than a Leninist insurgency. It has finally recognized that the two are one and the same. Indeed, FARC is without any question the largest single producer of coca and cocaine in the world and will soon match the unlamented Taliban in heroin exports — at least to the United States.
Not surprisingly, Colombia's old enemies here were upset and unrelenting in attacking Uribe's policies. Some U.S. liberal and left-wing congressmen, the usual spokesmen of self-proclaimed "human rights" pressure groups, were positively scared at the notion that Uribe could in fact mobilize the nation for victory against the FARC (the ELN is militarily close to extinction already — mostly due to the self-defense forces). Their favorite approach, as ever, is to state that the Colombian military is at least as (morally, if not technically) guilty of "human rights violations" as the insurgents, and that the former are still in cahoots with the United Self-Defense Force of Colombia (AUC).
The AUC is a mixed bunch, to be sure. But that is why the very idea of treating them as a unit is misguided (with apologies to the State Department, which has declared them a "terrorist organization" on par with Al Qaeda and FARC). Indeed, the 15,000 strong (and growing) AUC is the result of the successive Colombian governments' patent inability to fulfill the most basic function: protecting the citizenry against communist predation. Many AUC members are former military men; as many, if not more, are former FARC and ELN militants. Most are just peasants and laborers tired of being terrorized. A significant portion, however, are former and present criminals and narcotraffickers taking advantage of the lawlessness of Colombia's outback. These latter are the natural target of Uribe, the military, and indeed the healthier majority of AUC leaders and members themselves. It is clear, however, that no AUC element, criminal or just vigilante, has ever attacked Colombian police or army units, nor (something the State Department should understand) have they ever attacked U.S. citizens or interests. This in contradistinction to FARC, which has kidnapped and murdered Americans (including leftists) and makes no secret of its anti-American strategic goals. It seems that the only reason AUC as a whole was put in the same basket as FARC was to make sure that enough Congressional Democrats would agree to help Colombia.
Unfortunately, there are still Colombians whose actions help, if their sympathies do not belong to, FARC. Some trade union leaders, especially in the influential Ecopetrol (the state oil company) union, are ELN or FARC infiltrators. But on September 16 most Colombian trade unions declared a general strike, justified by Julio Roberto Gómez of the General Confederation of Democratic Workers (CGTD) as a rejection of Uribe's freeze on public-sector hirings (he has not cut existing employees)and decrease in public spending — or "social investment," as Gómez calls it. Simply put, while the business class (and indeed the middle class) was prepared to contribute toward defending Colombia, the leaders of the "progressive" public sector unions were not. The "rich" would pay; the privileged "progressive" employees of the state would not. And who would benefit from further damage to the economy and to the health, oil, and telecommunications sectors, of whose paralysis union leaders are particularly proud? FARC, of course.
And then there are the professional "human rights" NGOs of Colombia, who make up half the total number of human rights groups in all of Latin America. As REDEPAZ, an umbrella organization for such groups, stated on September 15, for Uribe to ask citizens to arm themselves to defend themselves and democracy is to "convert [the citizens] in part of the conflict" — as if they were not already the unarmed victims of it. Keeping the population — the citizens — of Colombia unarmed against well-armed terrorists is to give FARC a free hand to continue its massacres. FARC's main propaganda target is precisely the idea of an armed citizenry, and REDEPAZ is on FARC 's side.
The remnants of the Pastrana defeatist approach are not entirely gone. In fact, 16 of Colombia's 32 state governors are (unsuccessfully) pressuring Uribe to allow them to engage FARC in "regional dialogues" — i.e., to make deals allowing terrorists to act in a neighboring state in exchange for immunity in their own . As the courageous Elsa Gladys Cifuentes, governor of Risaralda, has put it, that would transform Colombia into 32 "Caguans" — the name of the ill-fated, Switzerland-size area given by Pastrana to FARC in exchange for what amounted to failed negotiations about negotiating. Cifuentes is still one of the few governors to speak out like this.
Alvaro Uribe has his work cut out for him. Spectacular as the Colombians' change of mind and return to common sense, which expressed itself in his own election, is, many — too many — politicians, union leaders, and "human rights" fundamentalists, both in Colombia and in the United States, are still prepared to capitulate to FARC's openly manifested totalitarianism — whether in the name of "human rights," "economic justice," or "peace," well-intended, just misguided, or treasonous — as if there is a practical difference.
Uribe tries, and does a better than job than many, to deal with all these problems, and he has enormous popular support. It is time for the United States to help him more, in turn, especially by making it clear that Uribe's enemies are also enemies in our war on terrorism.