Colombia’s Eternal Agony

Colombia is in better shape today than it has been for years, thanks largely to President Alvaro Uribe’s leadership, but it remains a bizarre place, one facing strange and intractable challenges. Colombia’s FARC guerrillas have held some of their kidnapping victims for many years. Child soldiers still linger in paramilitary groups, and there are compromising video recordings of leading Colombian politicians and drug lords. Perhaps weirdest of all, there are imprisoned guerrillas who refuse to be set free, and a government that insists on liberating them, even against their will.

Uribe was re-elected just over a year ago by a landslide, a tribute to the popularity and effectiveness of his “democratic security” policy of combating both the guerrillas and the country’s generalized violence. Latin America’s oldest standing two-party system was decimated in that election, as the Polo Democrático presidential candidate won more votes than the Liberal Party’s contender, finally giving electoral expression to left-wing forces that had never been able to see more potential for change at the ballot box than by fighting in the mountains.

Negotiations on Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States had been finalized. Even the questionable deal Uribe cut with the right-wing paramilitary AUC groups, pardoning up to 30,000 of their members for often horrendous crimes in exchange for their disarmament, appeared successful. With Uribe in charge, Colombia seemed to be on a roll.

But much of this success has since been squandered, with both Colombia and Uribe now in deep trouble. The so-called parapolítica scandals have rocked Uribe’s government, forcing the resignation of some cabinet ministers, and embarrassing others, including the president himself. Photographs, videos, and audio recordings of politicians and paramilitary thugs (including one who boasts of having personally killed more than 300 of his enemies) have discredited a political elite that, while never very popular, has now had some of the worst suspicions that many held about it graphically confirmed.