About Caucus







September 21, 1999

Colombia: Counterinsurgency vs. Counter-narcotics

Bernard Aronson
ACON Investments

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:
Thank you for inviting me to testify.

Mr. Chairman I want to commend you, Senator Biden and the Members of the Committee for holding this timely hearing on Colombia. The United States usually goes wrong in Latin America, not because we intervene too quickly as conventional wisdom would suggest, but because, too often, we ignore the problems of the hemisphere until they deteriorate into crisis proportions and then seek to intervene when all of the policy choices have narrowed and often our own politics have become highly polarized. I hope and trust we won’t make that mistake with regard to Colombia as we did unfortunately with regard to Central America.

I also commend the committee for pursuing this issue in a bipartisan manner. Nothing will undermine our policy towards Colombia more then to turn our legitimate debate about U.S. policy towards Colombia into a domestic, partisan issue. We should have learned that lesson , also, from Central America. As most of you who were there during that period know well, throughout the 1980’s, when we were deeply divided along largely partisan lines, U.S. policy failed to achieve any of our objectives. When we united in 1989 around a Bipartisan Accord for Central America we were able to promote the first democratic change of power in Nicaragua, end the war in El Salvador, and set the stage for a successful peace policy in Guatemala. As a result today for the first time in history all the nations of Central America are at peace and all are led by populously elected democratic leaders.

Your focus is the narcotics threat. This is an issue that I have been involved with for more than a decade. Indeed, the very first issue that confronted me when I went to the State Department in February 1989, pending confirmation, was the war of terror that the Medellin cartel had begun to wage on Colombia. At that time, the United States rushed vitally needed military assistance to the government, and helped its armed forces and police defend the nation against the campaign of terror, bombings, and assassinations that the Medellin cartel had launched. In December 1989, on behalf of the President, I traveled to Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia to meet with their Presidents to organize the first Andean Drug Summit in Cartagena, Colombia which was held in February 1990. There the Presidents of the United States, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia developed and signed the first multi-lateral counternarcotics strategy in this hemisphere. And I was involved in the follow up summit, which included also the government of Mexico, which was held in San Antonio, Texas in 1992.

But as the title of this hearing suggests, you cannot segregate and separate out the issue of narcotics in Colombia from the larger crisis that is engulfing that country today, and that means the war there that has already claimed 35,000 lives and left more then 1 million Colombians refugees in their own country. The hard truth is that the war in Colombia has roots that go back more than forty years in the history of that country. There is no simple solution. The issues in Colombia -- from drugs to corruption to political violence to social neglect to poverty to lawlessness and instability—are all inter-related and feed on each other.

If we are going to help Colombians resolve these problems, which is in their interest and ours, we must be willing to stay the course and remain engaged over many years and over many administrations. Frankly, we are not very good at that as a nation, particularly with regards to Latin America. We tend to have a relatively short-term attention span, often dictated by our domestic politics. We tend to charge up the hill and back down again all too often leaving our friends in the lurch after we reverse and change policy.

We must not repeat that pattern with regards to Colombia. For the stakes are very high for the United States and for Latin America. This is a large, important country of 40 million people, the second most populous in South America, with territory the size of Texas, New Mexico, and Arkansas, combined. Historically, it is the best-managed economy in the region and one of Latin America’s oldest, continuing democracies.

What happens in Colombia will resonate for better or for worse throughout Latin America. Already, the crisis in Colombia is spreading regional political instability and is contributing to regional economic deterioration throughout the Andean region. The war in Colombia is already spilling across its borders into Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru.

Clearly, also, what happens in Colombia affects our nation’s strategic and economic interests and the health of own our society. For as you know well, Colombia has emerged as the largest producer and supplier both of cocaine and heroin to the United States. And its neighbor Venezuela, today, is the largest foreign source of oil to the United States.

I want to speak to you very frankly about Colombia because unfortunately we live in a political climate in which sound bites too often take the place of serious discussion and short-term political advantage often overwhelms and swamps the long-term strategic interests of U.S. foreign policy.

In brief terms let me give you my best recommendations.

First, we must help strengthen Colombia economically. The Colombian government cannot wage either peace or war successfully while investor dollars flee because of fear about its future. Colombia today is suffering through its first recession in 50 years. Many of the causes, low coffee prices, irresponsible economic management by the previous government, and the spillover affects of the Asian financial crisis, the Russian default, and the Brazilian currency crisis are not of the current government’s making. This year Colombia has had to devalue its currency twice. President Pastrana’s economic team has consistently taken tough economic reform measures. Hopefully, its Congress will provide necessary support. But the country needs a vote of confidence.

The U.S. Congress and the Administration should make it clear to the International Monetary Fund, the Inter American Development Bank, the World Bank and other donor nations that we strongly support a sizeable package of balance of payments and other assistance for Colombia. Congress and the Administration could also send a welcome signal to foreign investors and Colombia’s embattled business community by declaring their commitment to renew the Andean Trade Preference Initiative, set to expire in 2,001, which provides duty free access to most Colombian exports. As you know, in 1991, Congress with strong bipartisan consensus, passed this legislation, proposed by the previous Administration, specifically as a counter-narcotics measure designed to assist the principal drug producing nations in the Andes, and in particular, Colombia, develop economic alternatives as they pressed to eliminate the coca and poppy trade.

Second, we must not become polarized in a debate, particularly one with partisan overtones, about whether we should support the peace process in Colombia or provide increased assistance to modernize the Colombian armed forces. Today, we can and must do both. The United States must make it clear unequivocally that we support a negotiated settlement to the war in Colombia, and that this policy has broad bipartisan support in the Congress as well as the Administration. The fact is that neither side can defeat the other decisively. This war has deep social and political roots. Ultimately, the only lasting solution will be to bring all sides together around the table and find common ground in social, economic, and political reform in Colombia. We should make it clear that the door to negotiations is always open and that it is up to the guerrillas to shut that door, but the United States will never do so.

At the same time, the guerrillas must understand that should they refuse to negotiate seriously as they have done so far, the democratic community will help the government of Colombia defend itself and defend the rule of law. If the guerillas have a genuine program of political and economic reform it ought to be on the table; but if they hope to achieve their goals through violence, extortion, kidnapping, and war, the democratic community will help the government and the people of Colombia defend themselves.

To send that message clearly, and to achieve a strategic stalemate that might make serious negotiations possible, I believe Colombia needs a program of a sustained modernization of its armed forces and that program must be one that will survive budget cycles and political cycles. We must make it clear to the Colombian Government that we will stay the course. But we must also make it clear to the government and the armed forces of Colombia that U.S. assistance is strictly conditioned on real and continued progress in rooting out human rights abusers from the armed forces and a concrete program to dismantle the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries practice a scorched earth policy towards any and all Colombians suspected of guerilla sympathies, including journalists, priest, and the human rights community. Indeed, the guerillas have no better recruiting tool than the paramilitaries, which massacre civilians and have helped displace over a million internal refugees, far more than have been displaced in Kosovo.

The United States must work also with the Government of Colombia to mobilize an international coalition of democratic nations, multi-lateral institutions, and non-governmental organizations to support negotiations, reach out to and engage neighboring countries in a constructive way, talk to, cajole, pressure, and entice the guerillas, and help the Government of Colombia defend itself should the negotiating option fail. That community must start here in this hemisphere with other nations from Latin America and Canada, but it must extend to democratic nations in Europe, Japan and others. And it must include the active engaged involvement of the United Nations and the Organizations of American States.

The United States must also continue to find channels to talk to the guerillas, directly, hopefully through a bipartisan mechanism involving both Congress and the Administration. I know this is not popular. Nor were the first U.S. contacts with the P.L.O, the I.R.A., or the F.M.L.N. guerillas in El Salvador. But part of the problem in Colombia is that you have a guerilla force, particularly the largest guerilla army the FARC, that is extremely isolated from the currents sweeping Latin America and indeed the modern democratic community, and that isolation only makes them more intransigent and more dangerous.

The areas in which the guerrillas are active have been long neglected by the central government; they are to some extent states within a state. A major effort must be made to open these areas to economic progress to develop economic alternatives to drug trafficking, to provide government services, land and other needed benefits. That will take money and the Colombian Government alone cannot afford the price; with our democratic allies around the world, we must begin to assemble a significant aide package from the International Community and make it available as both and inducement to and a guarantor of any negotiated settlement.

We must be clear, also, about the relationship between the guerrillas and the narcotraffickers, and not confuse ourselves about this issue. There is no question that the guerillas provide protection to coca and poppy growers and to the drug traffickers’ networks in parts of Colombia in exchange for funds they use to finance their armies. To the extent to which the guerillas are complicit in the drug trade they are a legitimate part of any counter narcotics program. However, the traffickers and the cartels that organize finance and run the drug trade are not the FARC or the ELN. I say this because there are some who seem to believe and would have the American people believe that there is an easy, military solution to this war and that once the guerrillas were defeated militarily that would end the drug problem in Colombia. It would not. This war long pre-dated Colombia’s emergence as a center of cocaine and now heroin production. Drugs were never the principle issue in the conflict between the guerrillas and the government, nor are they today.

In truth, the greatest blow we could strike against the drug cartels and the drug traffickers in Colombia is to bring the war to an end. . For the war is the sea in which the traffickers swim. They benefit from the instability and violence, corruption and weakening of the state that the war has brought to Colombia. If the war were over, the Colombian nation could focus its energies, resources, and defense forces on the greatest threat it faces, the narcotrafficking cartels, and the corruption they have brought to Colombia’s political system, its Congress, judiciary and other vital institutions.

Although the situation looks grave, I am not a pessimist about Colombia’s future; we should not forget the enormous resources this country possesses. This is a country that for 50 years up until last year has posted steady real growth. This is a country that never had to renegotiate or restructure its national debt even in the deepest depths of the Latin American drug crisis. This is a country whose entrepreneurial class is as good as any you will find in the world and whose people are hard working and productive. Perhaps most important this is a nation whose judges, human rights workers, journalists, honest politicians, soldiers and police, and ordinary citizens have shown enormous, sustained courage in defending their nation against the drug traffickers and the violence waged against them by the traffickers, guerrillas and the paramilitaries, with thousands paying with their lives.

There is a huge constituency for peace in this country and there is no political support for continued violence. President Pastrana himself said it eloquently in his inaugural address. He said: “ I am here to express the voice of a country that wants peace, that seeks social justice, and is ready to carry out politics as an exercise of the common good. Colombia cannot go on divided into three irreconcilable countries, where one country kills, the other dies, and a third, horrified, scratches its head and shuts its eyes. “

The real question is will this war end sooner rather than later and at what cost to Latin America and to its neighbors in this hemisphere. Ultimately that decision will depend on Colombia, but what we do or fail to do in the United States will also make a large difference. I would urge to this Committee and all of its Members to join with others in the Congress and the Administration in forging a new bipartisan consensus on Colombia that allows us to speak with one voice and act with one clear strategy towards this nation. If we do that, if we defend our interests and our values over the long run, if we play a role that is legitimate but do not try to usurp the legitimate responsibility of Colombians for solving their own problems, I believe we can make an important and constructive difference in advancing the cause of peace, the rule of law and the reduction of the narcotrafficking threat that Colombia represents today.
Thank you very much.