President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia makes an official visit to the White House this week to celebrate a feat few countries can boast of — a transformation from banditry, endemic violence and guerrilla warfare to the recovery of democracy and the revival of domestic security.
Colombia remains a work in progress, to be sure. Parts of the countryside remain unsettled, internal refugees are a huge problem and Colombia is still the No. 1 exporter of cocaine in the world, as Mr. Santos acknowledged last week. A peace deal with guerrillas remains unfinished.
Even so, there is no comparison between the Colombia of today and the nation that existed at the turn of this century. As former President Andrés Pastrana has stated, “We were on the verge of being a failed state.”
That’s an understatement. The insurgency had momentum, extending its bloody reach from the countryside into the cities. Right-wing vigilantes added to the death count. The government was weak, its military demoralized and ineffective. Democratic institutions like the courts and the police were riddled with fear and corruption.
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Today, the momentum is all in the other direction. Democracy is taking root, the insurgency has been crippled, narcotics traffickers no longer challenge the government’s authority. The turnaround has been attributed to the successful U.S. aid program called Plan Colombia, an economic and military assistance effort. Plan Colombia offers a case study in effective U.S. foreign policy — how to help a friendly government overcome a Marxist insurgency and regain control of the country.
But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Over the past few decades —the insurgency began a half-century ago — the Colombian people have been put to the test like few others in the region. They’ve endured the terror of Pablo Escobar and other cocaine-fueled butchers, as well as the assault of at least three insurgent movements. They’ve had weak presidents and corrupt governments. They’ve seen the safe zones reduced to a few beleaguered cities.
And yet Colombians of goodwill prevailed. They deserve credit for their endurance. Their commitment to the vision of a better future for themselves and their children, even in the worst of times, is remarkable.
The heroes include Colombian judges and members of the security forces who refused to knuckle under to death threats. Brave journalists and editors — murdered by the scores — fearlessly reported the truth. Honest politicians refused to be bought or intimidated.
Plan Colombia provided the help Colombia needed, but its people were architects and builders of their own success. Their unity is what made a difference. Despite internal political rivalries, the priority was always to overcome the real enemy, first and foremost. There’s a lesson that Iraq’s leaders should learn.
There are lessons for U.S. diplomacy, as well.
The first is that we can only help countries willing to make the sacrifices necessary to help themselves. The other concerns the bipartisanship necessary to forge a successful foreign policy like Plan Colombia, which has always had strong support from Democrats and Republicans in the White House and Congress.
If that same unity of purpose and agreement on policy could be achieved regarding the U.S. effort in the Middle East and other parts of the world, America would be safer and the prospects for peace around the globe would be vastly improved.