Is Colombia Becoming Another Vietnam?

BOGOTÁ: Cocaine production is rising; peace talks with leftist guerrillas have stalled; America’s $1.8 billion “Plan Colombia” - meant to train and equip special anti-drug battalions to eradicate coca production - is portrayed as a clumsy, self-serving intervention in the affairs of a vulnerable neighbor. So alarming are conditions in Colombia nowadays that some Americans worry about the country becoming another Vietnam.

How different it all seemed a decade ago! Back then, Colombians rejoiced at the prospects for peace, political change and economic progress. Indeed, newly elected president Cesar Gaviria, a youthful Kennedyesqe figure, ended his inaugural address with: “Colombians: welcome to the future”.

Demobilization of one large rebel army, the EPL, was so recent a memory that progress with the other two main guerrilla forces fighting in the country’s seemingly endless guerrilla wars seemed certain. Both the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were involved throughout 1991-92 in apparently serious conversations intended to end their revolts.

Moreover, Colombian tolerance for the drug lords - Pablo Escobar, perhaps the most notorious, had been elected to Congress - was evaporating. The dismantling of the Medellin drug cartel, then taking place, stood in sharp contrast with the murders of three presidential candidates - Luis Carlos Galán, Bernardo Jaramillo and Carlos Pizarro - during the 1990 election. This public outrage also incited political change. Congress, which most Colombians saw as irredeemably corrupt, was sent packing and a broad-based Constitutional Assembly was elected to rewrite the country’s 1886 Constitution.