Shades of Gray

The events of 9-11 have permitted the Bush administration to paint U.S. foreign policy as a matter of black and white choices. But Colombia’s internecine conflict–and the role the United States is to play in that conflict–make for a study in shades of gray.

Consider, for example, the February 25 abduction of Colombian presidential candidate and political reformer, Ingrid Betancourt, by Revolutionary Armed Front of Colombia (FARC) rebel forces. Betancourt’s kidnapping serves as a reminder: Whatever the pros or cons of increasing military aid to the government of Andrés Pastrana, alongside that increased aid the United States must also increase pressure on Colombia’s leaders to tackle their country’s appalling human rights record, endemic official corruption, and drug trafficking by military and government elites.

Frustrated by an increase in rebel violence in recent months and emboldened by the post 9-11 intolerance for armed struggle, President Andrés Pastrana recently broke off an unsuccessful three-year peace process with the FARC and ordered the Colombian military to retake territory earlier ceded to the rebels. In this and other military operations, his government is backed by an annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid.

As part of the plan to take control, government officials entered San Vicente, which until recently served as the capital city of the rebel territory. A number of presidential candidates, preparing for a first round of elections in late May, offered to join Pastrana ‘s excursion but were warned to stay away. Betancourt, having planned a human rights rally in San Vicente, made arrangements to make the trip by helicopter, but when she arrived in Florencia, outside of the rebel area, no helicopter was available. She and her assistants were then refused open seats on the President’s helicopter (which was also carrying a number of foreign journalists to San Vicente to hear speeches). Betancourt and her group decided to travel to San Vicente by car instead, and were abducted along the way.

A former representative and senator in Colombia, Betancourt has been a staunch critic of the rebels and their links to the drug trade. Yet she has been equally critical of corruption in government. As a reformer, she has called attention to the connection between the ruling parties and the billion-dollar drug cartels, and to how persistent corruption in the judicial system and public administration has locked Colombians in a spiral of poverty and crime.

Betancourt has also asked tough questions about what will happen to villagers residing in the FARC zone once the rebels pull out. These villagers have repeatedly voiced their terror of reprisals from the paramilitary “death” squads should the Colombian military enter the zone. In January, I talked online with Betancourt about this. When I asked if there were a policy on how these people would be protected, she replied that the government had offered “no guarantee that the people will be protected as the FARC retreats.”

Colombia’s anti-insurgent paramilitaries, as human rights watchers have amply documented, are a big part of the problem of providing for the safety of civilians. They have long operated as an extension of the military, and have been blamed for more than half of the 40,000 civilian deaths reported in Colombia over the past decade. They receive as much as 70% of their funding from drug trafficking, and also benefit from up-to-date intelligence and supplies provided by Colombia’s regular military services.

With the most recent installment of military aid to Colombia-$300 million-the U.S. Congress has demanded that the Pastrana government cut all ties to the paramilitary organizations and vigorously prosecute human rights violations by the armed forces. The fulfillment of this demand will require active monitoring of paramilitary activity and plenty of American pressure on Colombian officials. Instead, Pastrana has cut the budgets of government agencies charged with investigating human rights cases and has failed to prosecute members of the military for assisting paramilitary violence.

Some have accused Ingrid Betancourt of grandstanding in the rebel zone to bolster her standing in the polls. Her decision to visit the area, however, should be viewed in light of Pastrana’s abysmal record on protecting human rights and his lack of guarantees to protect civilians in the rebel zone. She had hoped to reassure frightened villagers and draw attention to human rights problems in the region, intentions that made Betancourt-like thousands of human rights activists before her-a target of extremists on both the left and right in Colombia.

Her abduction, in turn, serves as a reminder that in Colombia there is little that is black and white, and much that is gray.

In addition to encouraging every effort to find Betancourt, the Bush administration should move beyond rhetoric toward exacting compliance with restrictions that U.S. aid to Colombia be tied to the protection of human rights, the prosecution of those who commit them, and an end to corruption in government, including drug trafficking by officials. Now more than ever, without increased pressure for political and social reform from Washington, Betancourt’s dream of a safe and democratic society for Colombians will remain an illusion.