| Colombia Elections|
With Scott Wilson
Post Foreign Correspondent
Tuesday, May 28, 2002; 11 a.m. EDT
On Sunday, the people of Colombia voted amidst civil war for a new president. Outgoing president Andres Pastrana had attempted to negotiate an end to a four-decade old leftist insurgency led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But when the peace talks broke down in February, the country's electorate swung to the hard-line approach advocated by Alvaro Uribe, a former provincial governor who pledges to expand the war against the FARC.
Post correspondent Scott Wilson discussed Uribe's candidacy, the realities of Colombia and the role the United States in Latin America's deadliest war.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Washington, D.C.: Your story today reports that president-elect Uribe has offered to include the AUC in peace negotiations provided that they agree to a cease-fire. This seems disingenuous on its face, considering that a cease-fire by the AUC (which is obviously not going to happen in any event) would only benefit the FARC. But since this offer in itself opens the door to the political recognition that the AUC have been seeking all along, is it reasonable to interpret this move as further evidence of Uribe's already demonstrable willingness to work together with the para militaries despite their history of civilian massacres?
washingtonpost.com: Colombian May Talk to Anti-Rebel Force (Post, May 28)
Scott Wilson: Hi there - You raise a couple good points. First, yes, it does signal Uribe's willingness to work with the para militaries but as you rightly point out, under conditions that are likely to be unacceptable to the para militaries. This is also not that big a deal - the story's length suggests that - because no politician here has ever ruled out talking to any of the armed groups under a cease fire. Why would they? That said, there is a growing consensus here that any comprehensive future peace talks - really just a theory at this point - would have to include all the armed groups.
Akron, Ohio: Do you think there will be increased rebel attacks before Uribe's inauguration in August? Also, do you think there might be more such actions in the cities, particularly Bogota?
Scott Wilson: The short answer is yes, I do. We have already seen more bombs explode in cities leading up to his election, and most security officials here say that July is likely to be a very difficult month - increased kidnappings, bombs in Bogota and other cities - as the FARC tries to signal its strength to the new administration.
Evanston, Ill.: American officials like to say that we're sending huge amounts of military aid to help democracy in Colombia, and reporters rarely contradict that. Yet in Colombia the organized nonmilitary left has been eliminated through assassination, the rural population's vote is coerced by both left-wing guerrillas and right-wing death squads, and networks of clientelism (a la turn of the century New York) make a mockery of competitive elections.
Under these conditions how can any vote be considered "an unequivocal popular endorsement" of anything, and why don't journalists ever quote Colombia experts who could balance the propaganda of the US government?
Scott Wilson: Interesting question. We have written quite a bit about threats to the unarmed left leading up to this election - and the March legislative elections - and the history of betrayal against the left that partly explains the FARC's decision to turn its back on the electoral process. That said, the pressure against voters is hardly one way - the FARC threatened thousands of rural voters leading up to this presidential race.
Harrisburg, Pa.: What do you see as the obstacles that killed the negotiations between President Pastrana and the FARC? Will a hard line approach eliminate any of these obstacles, might it bring FARC back to the negotiating table, could a hard line approach lead to defeat of FARC, or does it more likely mean years of more violence?
Scott Wilson: This, of course, is the key question and I don't have a good answer to it. I think the obstacles that rendered Pastrana's peace efforts fruitless were used in a strategic decision by the guerrillas to use the safe haven and the time spent talking to strengthen themselves military. This is rooted in a decision the FARC made in 1993 when it essentially turned its back on politics - following the murder of more than 3,000 of its candidates - in favor of a military victory. But whether a force of its size, strength, and skill can be brought back to the peace table through force remains to be seen - and many think that, if it can be, it will take years.
Bogotá, Colombia: Do American people know their money is used to make poor armies in Colombia and, at the same time rich people send their sons to foreign countries -- especially to to USA -- for avoiding their death?
Scott Wilson: I hope so. I wrote a story about the inequality of the Colombia's mandatory military service requirement a few days ago that raised some of the issues you have. So few of the country's rich serve in the ranks, and that of course makes them even less aware of what is happening in their country. The U.S. Congress has shown new concern about this issue.
Chicago, Ill.: Why are we pouring so much money only into the production side of the equation in Colombia and doing nothing about consumption here in the U.S.? Is it simply because it's so much easier to sell guns, defoliant and helicopters to other countries than to effectively control the entrance and distribution of cocaine into the U.S.?
Scott Wilson: A great question. Most Colombians say legalizing drug production is the only real solution to the problem, unless the U.S. starts taking its drug-consumption problem more seriously. By the way, I thought those TV ads that ran during the Super Bowl that tried to link drug consumption with deaths in Colombia - people saying "I helped kill a Colombian police officer " - were pretty interesting, although not sure how much effect they had.
Chicago, Ill.: Don't you think that the real problem in Colombia is not the guerrillas but the social conditions of poverty and inequality that gave rise to them and continue to be the norm in most of the country, conditions that are exacerbated by neoliberal policies forced upon developing countries by the IMF and World bank? This war has waxed and waned for the last 38 years, who says that more guns and bullets will decide it. By the way, in calling them Marxist guerrillas, you are doing a great disservice to Marx; if anything they are now truly capitalist guerrillas, they have acquired control of most of the cocaine production consumed in this country and are exploiting their little niche.
Scott Wilson: Your question seems to say two things: First, social problems are the root cause but that the guerrilla army that arose 38 years ago to address them is not a political movement. I agree whole-heartedly that many of Colombia's problems are rooted on social imbalance, injustice, and a huge security vacuum in much of the country. I also think that, while the FARC has certainly focused a lot of attention on making money from the drug trade, it still has a political rationale in my mind (but perhaps a greatly diminished one). A number of the FARC's "fronts" are devoted solely to making money by protecting the drug trade. But what do they use the money for? Waging war against the state, not buying huge farms, ranches and cars (of course they steal those things when they need them.)And the ELN, the smaller guerilla group, is still quite ideological - hardly involved in the drug trade - although maybe less so than it was 30 years ago.
Washington, D.C.: Can you give us some sense of the ideological agenda (if any) of the FARC and the ELN? They are always described as leftist or Marxist, but I'm wondering what exactly they asked for during negotiations with Pastrana over the past few years, and what if any specific political demands the Uribe administration can expect to confront.
Scott Wilson: Good question. Part of the problem is that the FARC negotiating agenda was never very well defined - lots of talk about social injustice, neoliberal economic policies, etc. in general terms but no real set of concrete proposals. In ideological terms, the FARC in theory would erect a heavily centralized Communist-style government with confiscatory economic policies to redistribute the country's unequally concentrated wealth. The ELN would do something similar, again in theory. Hard to be much more specific than that, although I would recommend a book called "The Country We Want to Build" by FARC leaders published last year. It might help you understand the goals a little better, but again only in very general terms. Uribe is likely to face the same thing, and what's important to understand now is that the FARC believes it is strong enough to win real concessions at the peace table(or even "win" the war). They would ask for, at least, a new constitution that they would have a huge hand in writing and a guaranteed share of a new Congress, cabinet, etc.
Bowie, Md.: Is Ingrid Betancourt still being held by her kidnappers? What is being done to secure a release of this brave woman?
Scott Wilson: Yes, she is. Public outrage, expressed by European diplomats and others, is about the only visible sign that much is being done. The FARC has said they will hold her for at least a year, and then make her part of a "package" of kidnapped politicians that they hope to exchange for imprisoned guerrillas.
Boston, Mass.: The FARC do use their money to buy farms- take the huge cattle farm belonging to Marulanda and the 'resort' found in the ex-demilitarized zone. Don't forget about those well publicized stories.
Scott Wilson: Did you see the "resort?" It's a dance floor and a swimming pool. And as I noted I don't think they "bought" Marulanda's farm - rather, they occupied/stole it.
Evanston, Ill.: You didn't answer my questions. Given that Colombia is less democratic than the apartheid American south was, why would you say that Uribe's election is "an unequivocal popular endorsement" of militarism? And -- this isn't directed at you specifically since you don't usually cover Washington -- why don't journalists include Colombia experts noting that Colombia is highly undemocratic to balance quotes by US government officials about aiding Colombian "democracy"?
Scott Wilson: I don't believe Colombia is "highly undemocratic." Pressure on voters is usually reflected in abstention, not a vote for one side or another. And the abstention rate in most U.S. elections is higher than it was in this past one here.
Washington, D.C.: Can the right win in Colombia as it did in Central America? In other words, can the military and the para militaries eliminate the rural support for the FARC and the ELN through torture and slaughter? Or does the rebels' financing through the drug trade make them immune to this kind of pressure?
Scott Wilson: Hmm. Good question and I don't know the answer. I can say that the military and the para militaries have made big inroads over the past two years, through the paramilitary use of terror/massacres to clear out FARC areas of support. Not sure that's a winnable strategy, though,and obviously it's a hugely costly one in terms of human life and political support.
Sioux Falls, S.D.: Does the rank and file Colombian Army really want to fight it out with the FARC? There will be no generals and politicians present when that always occurs? Easy to talk about war when your not carrying the rifle. Can they make a difference?
Scott Wilson: It's easy to criticize the Colombian military, but they face an amazingly difficult job with very few resources (as a percentage of GDP, Colombia's defense spending is among the smallest in Latin America.)That said, and to answer your question, I can't imagine any one here really wants to fight this thing out but they will. Pastrana started and Uribe will continue "professionalizing" the armed forces - that is putting soldiers who have elected to be there in the front lines, not those forced to be there by the draft. Whether they can make a difference, I don't really know but I'm pessimistic unless Uribe can really bring a lot more military resources to bear on the conflict.
Washington, D.C.: It is often reported that the violence in Colombia is mostly confined to rural areas (the recent battle in Medellin being a prominent exception). But I recall a story last year that detailed threats and violence against leftist scholars and students at Colombia's universities. Is this still a factor, and does this sort of intimidation account in part for the weakness of the unarmed political left?
Scott Wilson: You have a good memory and you are right on all points here. Most of the violence is rural, but it is entering the cities more intensely (Medellin has long been a place where urban militias of the ELN, FARC and AUC have battled it out, but last week's confrontation in the city's southwest with the armed forces was a sign of things to come, I think. Military helicopters frequently take fire flying over Medellin's poorer neighborhoods....And don't forget Barrancabermeja, the site of a bloody ongoing fight between the FARC/ELN and the AUC.) And, yes, the threats to the unarmed left continue (in universities and other places)and are the chief reason (in my mind) for its weakness (that, and the fact that the armed left so dominates that effort right now.) But the unarmed left should take some hope from the fact that Luis Eduardo Garzon, a former union leader and all-around interesting guy, finished third in presidential voting (with about 6 percent of the vote.)
Washington: You intimate that the rebels steal land. How did Colombia's wealthy get all that land in the first place? Why don't you refer to the latter as thieves as well?
Scott Wilson: Ok, the rich stole a lot land. They are thieves too, or have been during some important moments in Colombian history that has greatly increased the social imbalance that helps feed the war. And the para militaries, too, "steal" land - that is, occupy farms, etc. as I said the guerrillas did. The para militaries are financed by Colombia's rich ranchers, businesses, and others - along with the drug trade - so their strategy can also be understood as a way for the rich to take control of more land.
Akron, Ohio: During the campaign, Uribe advocated cutting the size and compensation of Congress. Is this desirable and is it likely such a goal can be achieved? Also, given the amount of drug money and the corruption that accompanies it, how likely is it that he can make any significant progress in that area?
Scott Wilson: This is an interesting proposal, but I can tell you it's one that has a real potential to complicate his ability to get to the more pressing things on his agenda. It might be doable - and even worthwhile - but many people here say it is highly unadvisable at least early in the administration. He has a lot of support in Congress and his supporters don't want him to get into a fight over political reform - not what the country is necessarily clamoring for - that delays the rest of his agenda.
Akron, Ohio: Is it true that the FARC did nothing for the people in the "free zone" and just took advantage of the time/money from drug trade protection for strengthening their forces?
Scott Wilson: I don't know if "did nothing" is accurate. They built a lot of roads in the safe haven. They also recruited a lot of people - as many as 5,000 by some estimates. Military analysts here say many of those new recruits have been sent out to three key areas that the FARC has lost militarily in recent years to the para militaries - Uraba in the northwest, southern Bolivar province in the center of the country, and the Catatumbo region on the border with Venezuela. Fighting in those places has been heavy since the peace talks collapsed.
Washington, D.C.: What aspect of the Colombian situation do you think is most misunderstood by the American populace? Thanks.
Scott Wilson: I think the notion that this war is all about drugs and drug profits. Those profits are a means to an end for these groups. Clearly, the best way to get U.S. aid for Colombia is to portray the conflict as one solely about the drug trade - a business that accounts for an estimated 90 percent of the cocaine that arrives in the U.S. Taking those profits away would likely lessen the intensity of the war - while perhaps increasing extortion and kidnapping as the groups look for ways to make up the shortfall - but would do little to solve the underlying social problems that have sustained the conflict for 38 years.
Scott Wilson: Thanks to everyone who sent in questions. I hope I got to most of them. Hope to do this again soon.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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