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War of Perceptions: Colombian Government Vs. FARC

A War of Perceptions: the Colombian Government versus FARC

In a presentation at the Center for American Progress on July 23, 2008 in Washington, D.C., Colombian Minister of National Defense Juan Manuel Santos addressed lingering questions regarding the extraordinarily successful July 2 rescue of fifteen hostages from the grip of las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionárias de Colombia (FARC).

Santos touched upon topics ranging from the status of Colombia's controversial democracy, now in the hands of President Álvaro Uribe, to the current status of the wounded FARC, including the government's plans in the aftermath of a stunning victory against its longtime enemy.

Santos painted a picture of triumph in all areas. He attributed the successful transformation of Colombia's nearly "failed state" in 2000 to Uribe's democratic security initiative, which has revived the presidency. The president's military initiatives, Santos insisted, have improved the state of the country.

Just a few years ago, 480 municipal mayors, approximately 35% of the country's total, were unable to work in their respective localities due to safety concerns and rural roads were virtually unpassable as a result of alternating leftist guerrilla and rightist paramilitary control. The FARC was allowed to occupy a demilitarized zone during three and a half years of negotiations with Uribe's predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, but the zone was used by the group as a place to keep hostages and kidnapping victims as well as a platform for arms and drug trafficking.

Negotiations subsequently failed after a Colombian senator was kidnapped and the demilitarized zone was retaken by the Colombian armed forces in 2002. Uribe was able to build upon the negative political repercussions of the failed demilitarized zone strategy, which helped reveal the FARC's weakened state and which began swinging the pendulum of public opinion back towards a military solution, culminating in the dramatic July 2 rescue operation.

As Uribe's Minister of National Defense, Santos has become one of the most controversial figures in Colombian public life. Known to harbor presidential ambitions, he has also scorned Uribe's attempts to normalize relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In response to a question regarding the recent meeting between Uribe and Chávez on July 11, he noted that he had promised himself to not mention the "C-word." It was not lost on many in his audience that under a Santos presidency, there would be no kiss-and-make-up reconciliation with Caracas' strongman.

Santos and "Democracy"

Concerning the democratic security initiative, the hardline Santos favorably characterized the meaning of the word "democratic." First, it refers to the aim of providing security to everyone who abides by the rule of law, regardless of affiliation or creed. Santos made it clear that anyone falling outside of this purview, such as the FARC, would be vigorously pursued and castigated. Santos also described the strategy as "garantista": that is, it would provide the aforementioned security while still protecting citizens' individual rights. The two purposes, he acknowledged, are often at odds because the implementation of measures to increase security can come at the expense of civil liberties, but nonetheless are each essential in order to further the increasing legitimacy of democracy in Colombia. Santos' formula for "guided" democracy is paradoxical in nature. It is democratic in style but not necessarily in substance because of the ever-present danger that action taken to address security concerns could very well overwhelm the preservation of individual rights. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Santos gives even shorter shrift than short-fused Uribe to such issues as human rights and trade union guarantees.

New Legitimacy for the Colombian Government?

Two themes were consistent throughout Santos' Washington remarks. First was the pressing need to win the trust of the Colombian population in order to protect the government's legitimacy. Second, Santos emphasized the goal of increased consolidation of disparate efforts to increase the efficacy of the authorities' actions, both with regards to the various branches of the armed forces, along with the diverse goals of Plan Colombia. This would include combating the illegal arms trade, the anti-narcotic efforts, and implementation of positive social change to combat poverty. Santos cited Plan Colombia as the type of unified action necessary to make the Colombian government a permanent presence in the lives of its citizens, one that was prepared and willing to offer assistance.

According to Santos, before Uribe's election, efforts to improve the country's domestic security were disjointed and fragmented. Despite the fact that the problems of illegal arms trading, coca cultivation, and poverty are inextricably linked, Colombian approaches to combating them lacked coordination. Now, Santos claims that all efforts work together, with the military entering communities accompanied by police, doctors, teachers, and judges. Permanent police posts were built in conjunction with this increased governmental presence, in an attempt to demonstrate to the people that the aid was not simply temporary relief. Santos maintained that, through such consolidated action, the government was working to prove its legitimacy and its staying power to its citizens.

The Shadows Behind His Words

At odds with this impression of a fledgling, but well-intentioned, democratic government are the pervasive scandals surrounding Uribe's Constitution-altering referendum that allowed him to run for a second presidential term, and the rumored possibility that he may attempt to finagle a third term through comparable paralegal means. If Uribe is sincerely committed to the ideals of democracy as Santos purports, then he must demonstrate his faith in the democratic succession mechanism- that of free elections of a new president, and, by extension, in his country's political system as a whole. Santos noted the increased clout of the judiciary system in Colombia, using the prosecution of members of Congress and Uribe's disagreements with the Supreme Court as examples of its strength, indicating in his mind, at least, that democracy is functioning in Colombia. But without a comprehensive view of the problems that these prosecutions are indirectly revealing, however, this argument falls somewhat flat.

In the concluding section of Santos' remarks, he emphasized the fact that the FARC is weak due to command and communication problems, which contributed to the success of the rescue operation. But, he insisted, it would be a grave mistake to prematurely claim victory. Additionally, Santos underscored that his support of the rescue was based on the demonstrably low risk of harm towards the hostages. Should the FARC have discovered the plot prior to meeting the Colombian military forces, they would have simply disappeared into the forest. Had they realized it during the operation, any violence would have been directed at the unarmed members of the Colombian forces. The bloodless nature of the rescue, combined with an open offer by the Uribe administration to negotiate with the FARC without preconditions, are at very least another political injury to the FARC's legitimacy as a people's revolutionary force, even if that offer is later rescinded.

The ostensible goal of Uribe's administration with regards to the FARC is peace, and if the FARC continues to refuse the offer to negotiate, they run the risk of further transforming their image into that of an unnecessarily violent, drug-motivated organization that no longer has in mind the well-being of the Colombian people. For example, on July 24, the FARC again showed its desperation as eight out of ten hostages kidnapped on July 19 were returned to their families, allegedly because they could not pay ransom. The remaining hostages were considered by the guerrillas as more likely to be able to pay for their release. This action sends a clear message that the FARC is not only low on funding, but also is, as a result, beginning to treat kidnapping as a business as opposed to a way to gain leverage in their fight for a better Colombia. If they use kidnapping as a vehicle for gaining funding, the idea that they are truly fighting to improve the government on behalf of the country's people will only continue to lose currency.

The War Against the FARC: A New Front

Santos' Washington appearance and his later planned stops at the Pentagon and the House of Representatives represent the latest attack by Bogotá on the FARC and other detractors of the Uribe government in a clash that is now equal parts military conflict and politically motivated war of perception. No wonder, then, that Bogotá has spent thousands of dollars on the services of such controversial Washington public relations firms as Burston Marsteller. Santos cautioned the FARC by saying that momentum is on the government's side, and it appears that he is taking full advantage of that momentum by extending the military rescue into a public relations coup.

When it comes to formulating policy decisions with regards to Colombia, Washington would be wise to take the Uribe government's engagement in such a war of public images into consideration. It must weigh his administration's relative security successes against the persistence of huge governmental corruption scandals and human rights abuses. Uribe's patently qualified commitment to the preservation of a true democratic government must be critically examined. The coming years will be decisive for both Colombia and for the FARC, and it is imperative that the underlying implications of the actions, in contrast to the words, of officials such as Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, are not ignored.

***

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Susan Schaller

July 24th, 2008

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org

ENDS

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