Colombia Vote Presages More Instability

Colombia held legislative elections over the weekend, a preliminary to presidential elections later in the year. President Andres Pastrana, who has functioned as the U.S. government’s "partner" in the ostensibly anti-drug campaign dubbed "Plan Colombia," cannot run for another term.

The candidate who now appears strongest is Alvaro Uribe, who is generally considered more hard-line toward the leftist guerrilla group FARC. Horacio Serpa, who has questioned Plan Colombia and the drug war in general, looked to be a strong candidate a few months ago, but seems to have faded lately. Uribe hasn’t said much about Plan Colombia lately. Presumably he would want to resist complete domination by the United States but would welcome money and military materiel so long as they were delivered on his terms.

The upshot of the elections over the weekend is that the traditional political parties got routed. The Conservatives of Andres Pastrana lost ground severely, as did the Liberal Party. The two parties traded occupancy of the presidency for most of the 20th century.


Some analysts – notably Al Giordano of – have suggested that the results of Colombia’s parliamentary election this past weekend indicate a firm rejection not only of the two major parties but also of U.S. involvement in that country’s civil war, which has been compounded in the last decade or so by narcoterrorism. A closer look suggests dissatisfaction, frustration and disillusionment, but something less than a clear direction among Colombian voters.

That outcome still suggests that the United States should reconsider the ambitious Plan Colombia initiated by the Clinton administration and continued under President Bush. It is difficult to see a clear path to a result most Americans would find satisfactory.


Last weekend’s result did indicate frustration with current conditions, which include an intensified civil war that has heated up even more lately in the wake of recently collapsed peace efforts. The leftist rebel group FARC had called for a boycott and only about 44 percent of Colombian voters showed up. That is actually not much lower than is relatively normal in Colombia, but still a symbol that the FARC has some influence. It probably helped itself, if anything, by not precipitating violence during the balloting.

The voters who did turn out were not happy but may have been understandably confused. They reduced Pastrana’s Conservative Party from 17 seats to 13 in the 100-member Senate. The establishment opposition Liberal Party lost 19 Senate seats, reducing its representation from 48 seats to 29.

In both the 100-member Senate and the 175-member House of Representatives small independent parties now hold majorities. But they are split. Supporters of independent presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe, generally described as a hard-liner who would intensify the war against FARC, did best. But followers of Antonio Navarro Wolf, a former guerrilla from the demobilized M-19 group, came in second.


Thus the voters seem impatient with the two parties that have dominated Colombian politics, but split between what could be called far-right and far-left alternatives. This suggests that the instability that has characterized Colombian politics for some time is poised to become even more unstable.

The U.S. mission, consisting mostly of military aid and military advisers, was sold to Americans as a battle in the drug war, but it was recently expanded to include guarding a pipeline owned by Occidental Petroleum. It has not stemmed the flow of cocaine and it has not brought stability.

House Republicans recently pushed through a resolution urging the president to support our noble Democratic allies in Colombia with even more aid and possibly more military power. That would probably make the situation even worse. Continued U.S. aid increases the resources the two sides – well, actually there at least three and probably more sides in a devilishly complex political landscape – have available and reduce any incentive for the Colombians to handle the problems themselves.


I talked to Sanho Tree, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies who has traveled to Colombia many times in recent years. He explained that the elite in Colombia, such as it is, is reasonably well insulated from the violence afflicting the country – although they do have to invest in extra security precautions and sometimes in personal bodyguards. But at least they don’t have to worry about their sons being put in harm’s way.

The Colombian military is one of the most top-heavy and bureaucratic in Latin America, which is saying something. There are 13 desk jockeys for every soldier in the field. Anybody with a high school diploma is excused from combat. "So the elites are more than willing to keep the civil war going, fighting to the last peasant," as Tree put it to me.

But it would be virtually impossible to keep the war going without money from Uncle Sap. The Colombian government collects about 10 percent of GDP in taxes, and about 2 percent of GDP is used for the military. Without money from the United States the war would have to be de-escalated – or left to the guerrillas and quasi-private right-wing paramilitaries to battle it out among themselves.


If the United States subsidizes the Colombian military directly, however, its policies lead to huge quantities of money being available to the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. This is because the vaunted Holy War on Drugs profitizes an otherwise marginally profitable crop like coca, making large quantities of money and weapons available to those willing to protect growers and traffickers from generally ineffective but nonetheless pesky enforcement efforts.

Every observer of Colombia has noted that both the leftist guerrillas and the paramilitaries (originally formed to protect landowners from guerrilla attacks) are increasingly financed by drug money. Intensifying the drug war has never yet stopped the flow of drugs, but only increases the advantage and the profits of those skilled at violence, blackmail, concealment and intimidation.

So U.S. taxpayers’ money flows to the Colombian military, and active drug war measures make cocaine more profitable for guerillas and narcoterrorists.

The best bet would be to end U.S. intervention and end the war on drugs so we can concentrate on the struggle against terrorism. The Colombian civil war would probably continue, but neither side would have as many resources for killing.

Such an outcome is unlikely; instead, despite a few budding questions among Washington policymakers, the likelihood is that U.S. involvement will increase, which will almost certainly only increase the level of violence and instability.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000).

Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).