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Colombia: A New Beginning

French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt (center), next to her mother Yolanda Pulecio, smiles at her husband Juan Carlos Lecompte upon her arrival at the Catam air base in Bogotá on July 2. Betancourt along with 3 United States nationals and 11 other FARC hostages were rescued by the Colombian Army. (Photo: Rodrigo Arangua / AFP-Getty Images)

As preparations are made for military parades in major cities, and people begin to hang national flags outside their homes for July 20 in commemoration of Colombia's first attempt at independence from Spain in 1810, the 44.4 million people of South America's fourth-biggest country have a lot to celebrate.

The dramatic release of one of Colombia's most high-profile hostages, the French-Colombian national politician Ingrid Betancourt and her 14 fellow captives was executed on July 2 without a single shot being fired. It was the latest, and gravest, blow against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a Marxist movement that had been widely despised—and, until recently, feared—after having tormented much of the Andean nation since 1964.

The economy is faring well: The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean says Colombia enjoyed $7.6 billion in foreign investment last year. E.C.L.A.C. is also forecasting a growth rate of 5.6 percent for 2008. Joblessness has fallen by 30 percent since 2002 and a $38 billion infrastructure investment is underway. And tourism is taking off, with ships from cruise lines including Disney and Holland America disgorging more than 200,000 visitors at the Spanish colonial gem of Cartagena last year—as thousands of others flocked to the country's natural rainforests and snow-capped mountains.

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Perhaps most surprisingly, most of Colombia's major urban centers such as Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali—once potent bywords for drug trafficking, criminality, and general chaos—are now serene. Nightlife has returned, the streets are filled, people are walking their dogs again, and, early this year, the United States Department of State downgraded its travel risk advisory. In fact, according to police statistics, these cities now possess lower per-capita murder rates than Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

Although problems persist, in particular cocaine trafficking, which accounts for 85 percent of the United States market, as well as allegations of human rights abuses by government forces, especially in rural areas, Colombia is undergoing something of a renaissance. This was affirmed by the July 3 visit by presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain to meet Colombia's Harvard-educated president Álvaro Uribe at the picturesque, 300-year-old Caribbean port of Cartagena to promote a free trade pact with the United States.

Times Have Changed

As Colombians remember, such diplomatic missions were not always the norm. Many remember all too well the August 7, 2002, inauguration of Uribe, Colombia's then-embattled new president. On that date, 12,000 police and 20,000 soldiers were deployed to create 10 protective security cordons around the presidential palace in the capital of Bogota. Officials, in addition, scrambled fighter jets and spy planes to enforce a "no-fly" zone over the capital and shuttered all domestic airports.

But it was not enough. Just as Uribe received his presidential sash at the national parliament building that day, the FARC rained a series of mortar shells across a large swathe of the city, killing 13 and injuring 32—ironically, mostly residents of slum neighborhoods. It was the fourth attempt on Uribe's life in the past six months—and four days later, it prompted him to declare a state of emergency. A lead story in Semana, one of Colombia's biggest-circulating and respected magazines, would go on to predict gloomily what Bogotá would look like once the FARC took over.

Times have changed, though. And many in Colombia, as well as policy experts in Washington and elsewhere, give credit to the Uribe who, now in his second term, enjoys higher approval ratings than any other head of state in the Hemisphere—more than 90 percent, according to one Gallup poll. There is talk of a third Uribe term—although, for now, it remains speculation.

There are numbers behind this trend. Homicides under Uribe have fallen by 40 percent, kidnappings by 83 percent and overall terrorist attacks by 76 percent. According to the State Department, Bogotá has extradited 687 criminals—largely cocaine traffickers—to the United States. In all, 47,000 combatants—including 32,000 members of government-supported paramilitaries as well as Communist insurgents—have laid down their weapons.

However, Uribe is not without his troubles. Opposition lawmakers are pursuing his impeachment on allegations that his aides traded political favors for votes. Many of his allies have also been jailed for covert ties to Colombia's illegal paramilitary groups, which, until they were disbanded, trafficked in narcotics and violated human rights with impunity as they battled the FARC. Groups like Human Rights Watch continue to note the government's lack of action when it comes to the abuse of civilians by still-operating paramilitaries and security forces.

Free Trade and Human Rights

And although John McCain supports the free trade initiative as a way to bolster the United States and Colombian economies (accounting for 35 percent of total exports in the first three quarters of 2007, the United States remains Colombia's most important trading partner) he too made a point of criticizing Bogota's human rights record—a major objection by Democrats who oppose the free trade agreement. "I believe that progress is being made," McCain told reporters during his visit, "and I believe more progress needs to be made."

Labor leaders in the United States toe a much more forceful line on the issue. "Colombia is the most dangerous place in on Earth to be a trade unionist," A.F.L.-C.I.O. president John Sweeney has said, in articulating a concern by one of the most powerful supporters of the Democratic Party. (Democrats, including presidential nominee Barack Obama, also oppose the agreement, saying it would lead to outsourcing and job losses.)

G. Phillip Hughes, the National Security Council director for Latin American affairs pointed to statistics by The Washington Post indicating that 39 trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 2007—and that, in most of those incidents, the murders were unrelated to their union activities. "Thanks to President Uribe's policies, unionist murders are actively investigated and prosecuted—not perpetrated—by the government," he wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Times.

Meanwhile, the State Department notes that killings of trade unionists has fallen by 79 percent since 2002, and that the Ministry of Interior and Justice has implemented a $13.1 million program to protect more than 1,900 trade unionists nationwide.

Uribe-watchers express little doubt that the president, with strong support in Washington and unrivaled popularity in Colombia, will persevere. "It's almost as if he's a person with supernatural powers that let him do whatever he likes," said Maria Jimena Duzan, a leading newspaper columnist.

Many in Washington, too, feel that, despite its problems, Colombia has reached a turning point. "It's a real success story—even coupled with the 'ungovernables,'" said Carol Graham, a senior fellow for Foreign Policy Studies and Economic Global Development at the Brookings Institution, referring to the increasingly smaller parts of the country under rebel control. "Five-sixths of the country is better off and better managed than most of the rest of the region."

The Cocaine Equation

So long as the cocaine industry thrives, however, problems will persist, Graham noted. "The one monkey on their back is the cocaine—and it will remain so as long as people on the streets of New York buy their drugs," she said.

Nonetheless, the violence on this front has abated, too, since the Colombian military, with United States help, smashed the feared cocaine cartels of Cali and Medellín in the 1990's, noted Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow of Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings and an expert on illicit economies and conflict. Moreover, though cocaine is still produced en masse in Colombia, with few exceptions, only Mexican cartels and criminal organizations in Venezuela can ship it internationally, she added. This also diminishes the bloodshed.

The FARC remains one of the principal beneficiaries of the cocaine trade, which reportedly earns it more than $500 million a year (a fact that has, in the past, led to some inconvenient questions about the group's socialist mores—including from Cuban leader Fidel Castro). And the group remains a force to be reckoned with, say Colombian officials who believe that the FARC, along with a much smaller Marxist insurgency, the National Liberation Front (E.L.N.), continues to hold some 700 people hostage.

The fact that cocaine trafficking itself has not leveled off has prompted some in Washington and elsewhere to question the elements of Plan Colombia, a United States military and aid package, that emphasize aerial spraying of coca leaves. Since its inception in 2000 under the Clinton administration, Plan Colombia has made Colombia one of the biggest recipients of United States foreign aid to the tune of more than $5 billion.

But many in the United States government feel that there is no question that Plan Colombia has had its good side. "Colombia's better-trained security forces and improving counterinsurgency capabilities have significantly weakened the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia confining the group's operations largely to ambushes and harassment attacks," director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in February."

Examples of this cooperation include the training by United States Army Rangers of the Junglas, an elite police force outside Bogotá, while the Army Corps of Engineers helps to build barracks and classrooms for instruction. A former Green Beret unit is also teaching Colombian troops on how to furnish outposts with concertina wire, tunnels, and trenches.

Such training and the improvements in security have changed fundamental aspects of civilian life. For example, in 2002, according to the Colombian Prosecutor General's Office, 131 Colombian mayors were forced to conduct their duties outside of their own municipalities because of threats of violence. In 2007, every single Colombian mayor was able to work in the locality he represented. Better governance has yielded things like higher enrollment at public schools, which has risen to 92 percent.

Policy experts in Washington say Colombians are witnessing a transformative change. "There are many Colombias—there are a lot of regional differences, and that's true with security," said Michael Shifter, a Colombia expert and the vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue. "But if one looks at the country in a six, eight, ten-year timeframe, it's a totally different place."

Military Strategy

In particular, Colombians and Colombia experts alike point to the guile behind the most recent hostage rescue, "Operation Checkmate," which was years in the making. In an almost Hollywood-like move, Colombian soldiers, posing as FARC leader Alfonso Cano, contacted FARC loyalists and instructed them to prepare to help relocate the hostages. But the helicopter that arrived whisked them to freedom.

Up until the end, the rescuers played their roles to perfection—tying up the captives before violently shoving them aboard. So convincing was the performance that, at first, some of the hostages did not realize that they had just been freed.

"Without gunfire, it was demonstrated that the army could walk into the heart of the FARC and make itself right at home and carry off their most precious treasure, in full view, without anyone noticing," said the newspaper El Espectador on July 4. The decision not to attack the remaining 58 guerrillas, the paper added, "was an operational coup with strategic implications, because if the camp were to have been bombed, then the FARC could have consoled themselves by saying at least they had fought them to keep them from being rescued."

Colombian analyst Fernando Rojas told the state-run Mexican news agency Notimex that, for the FARC, Betancourt, who once ran for president against Uribe before her capture, was basically "the goose with golden eggs."

FARC Setbacks and Fallout

There have been other defeats as well. On March 1, FARC foreign minister and second-in-command Raul Reyes was killed in Ecuador by a Colombian military strike (after he was reportedly located through his satellite phone with United States assistance.) Later that month, FARC founder Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda died of a heart attack. Weeks after, another infamous FARC commander, Ivan Rios, was killed by his bodyguards before they brought his severed hand to Colombian soldiers along with an offer to surrender.

Then in May, FARC guerrilla veteran Nelly Avia gave up, too. In a press conference she cited government pressure and, among other things, the fact that she had not received any official communication from the group's senior leadership in more than two years as part of the reason for her defection. More recently, she added, her men had begun to run out of food.

Felbab-Brown believes these sentiments are widely shared among the FARC leadership. "If I was a FARC commandante, I would feel very nervous," she said. "This is a great chance for Colombia to break out of its cycle of violence."

Shifter agrees with Graham's assessment that as long as a drug trade exists in Colombia, the FARC will be able to continue its violent existence. "But I think it's up against the wall," he said. In other words, "as a unified, cohesive movement, the deterioration will be irreversible—it seems likely they will break up into smaller groupings."

More broadly, the 9,000-strong FARC insurgency has lost thousands of its members in recent years—more than 15,000 since 2002, according to the Defense Ministry—largely because of effective military offensives, coupled with generous offers of amnesty.

But herein lies another dilemma the Colombians must deal with: How to absorb the tens of thousands of demobilized insurgents and paramilitaries back into society. At best, it has been a difficult transition for people who, having lived in the jungle for most—if not all—of their lives, must now try to understand how to pay bills, use an elevator, and even wait in a line.

Worse still, the rebel groups always forced their members to have abortions or pass their babies along to their relatives, said Paula Pedraza, a psychologist at the Quinta Rama Peace House in Bogota. "They don't know how to handle children or show affection," she told USA Today. "Here they learn how to be parents."

Tourism in a Time of Peace

On the other hand, there have been other beneficial, if peculiarly inadvertent, side effects of the guerrilla war. One of the biggest ironies is how the fighting has kept significant parts of Colombia "green": another attraction likely to draw more tourists. With developers scared away from rural regions, the government has succeeded in setting aside bountiful areas for wildlife. Indeed, the Environmental Performance Index of the universities of Columbia and Yale has given the country excellent marks for both its biodiversity and habitat—thanks also to its aggressive conservation efforts through the disarmament process.

To this end, in addition to promoting the free trade agreement, Colombia is as intent on luring tourists as vanquishing insurgents these days. It is another battle they appear to be winning: 1.3 million foreigners visited Colombia in 2007, Trade and Tourism Minister Luis Guillermo Plata has said, up from 1.05 million in 2006—and more than double the number of visitors in 2002.

The November premiere of Love in the Time of Cholera, the film version of the 1985 novel by the famous Cartagena native Gabriel García Márquez and set in his hometown starring Javier Bardem, proved a milestone in that city's revival.

Initially, though, it was not an easy sell. Reportedly, noted The Los Angeles Times, filming was "only accomplished after Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon promised augmented security and met with the filmmakers, who were eyeing Brazil." (Santos, the paper added, was a former newspaper editor—and one of the victims whose travails were depicted in one of García Márquez's nonfiction works, News of a Kidnapping.)

Still, that did not stop the Lonely Planet guidebooks from naming Colombia as one of the world's top 10 destinations in 2006—or Travel Trade Gazette, a British publication, from lauding Colombia in August as a country "no longer to be sniffed at."

In a similar vein, Colombia's Tourism Ministry, armed with a $4 million budget, has a new slogan of its own: "Colombia—the only risk is wanting to stay."

Joseph Kirschke is a Washington, D.C., based journalist who covers international affairs and is a visiting fellow at the Fund for Peace, a research and educational nonprofit organization.

 
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