Twenty Years On 

It’s time to Invest in “Paz Colombia.”

Twenty years ago, Colombia was on the brink of collapse. The nation's Nobel Laureate in Literature, Gabriel García Márquez, narrated the nation's woes in News of a Kidnapping, which was released in English translation in 1997 and chronicled the 1990 kidnapping of nine journalists on orders of Pablo Escobar. "Nothing was simple in those days," recounts the author, "least of all obtaining objective information ... or teaching children the difference between good and evil."

click to enlarge colombia.gif

Fast forward to 2017. Although obtaining objective information remains as difficult as ever, Colombia is a new nation, compared to where it was in the 1990s. The number of kidnappings decreased to 205 in 2016, down from 3,570 in 2000. The economy has grown at an average rate of 4.1 percent over the past four years (2012-15) for which data is available and the homicide rate has fallen from a high of 86/100,000 people in 1991 to 24.4 last year.

During that same period, the Colombian government, under the leadership of President Juan Manuel Santos, negotiated a peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); the revolutionary group has turned over weapons and are beginning the process of reintegration into Colombian society.

None of this occurred by magic. Since the early 1990s, the Colombian people have been working in a determined fashion to retake their nation from the corrupt politicians, drug lords, rogue military agents/police, paramilitary fighters, and armed insurgents. They began by re-writing their constitution.

The new constitution of 1991 modernized the Colombian nation by broadening the definition of Colombian from the 1886 charter, which defined Colombia as a "Hispanic, Catholic" nation, essentially excluding all who identified otherwise. Everyone, after 1991, had a stake in Colombia, not just those who traced their origins back to Spain, and the recognition of new political parties, some with their origins in demobilized guerrilla movements, set a precedent for more inclusive politics.

Next, as part of the 1991 reform, the Colombians modified their judiciary, moving it from an inquisitorial to adversarial system. This has included modernizing of prosecutors' offices, development of transitional justice and alternative sentencing, and a clear acknowledgment of the rights of the victims of the conflict via "Ley de Victimas" of June 2011.

The Colombians have professionalized their military thanks to a $1.3 billion U.S.-supplied funding package called Plan Colombia, which, since its inception in 2000, has grown to about $10 billion. The funding has forced a lethargic, barracks-based Colombian military to become more effective and engage enemy combatants, resulting in demonstrable victories for a military which had essentially settled for a stalemate with the expanding FARC insurgency. Plan Colombia supplied much needed training, technology, and most important, dozens of high-altitude Black Hawk helicopters.

Over the past two decades, Colombia has made significant investments in social and physical infrastructure that have moved the nation in a more prosperous, peaceful direction. In 2000, it inaugurated a complex urban transportation system in Bogotá called Transmilenio, and the international airport at Bogotá has been completely redesigned and rebuilt. In Medellín, creative investment in parks and libraries and urban transportation systems have tied the affluent sectors to the more economically challenged regions of the city; these, and other projects, have had transformative force for this once notorious "drug center" of the Americas.

Despite these remarkable achievements, there are many who would prefer to dwell on the dark days of the past; they have led a carefully orchestrated campaign against the peace process and have sought powerful allies to help return Colombia to the past. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been courted by former Colombian presidents Pastrana (1998-2002) and Uribe (2002-2010) in their awkward attempts to stall the peace process. They hope Rubio can convince President Trump to retract $430 million promised to Colombia by former President Obama for a program called Paz Colombia.

The war with the FARC is over. It left a quarter million dead; millions more were (and are) displaced, and it is estimated the war cost 2 to 3 percent of Colombia's GDP per year. Profit, greed, power, envy explain why some powerful sectors of Colombian society and their U.S. allies hope and strategize for the never-ending war for Colombia. But Paz Colombia is the better way forward.

Paul J. Angelo is a Ph.D. candidate at University College, London. Michael J. LaRosa teaches history at Rhodes College.

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