The Crucial Battle for Colombia

July 19, 2002

Ambassador Otto J. Reich

No public issue has held our attention as firmly as national security since September 11, and rightly so. The attacks on that day were brutal reminders of the danger that evil men pose to open and democratic societies, the value of our way of life, and the necessity of our leadership in the world. Our first war of the 21st century is peculiar to our time.

Our enemy is not a powerful rival state but a lethal combination of transnational criminal networks and terror organizations aimed at overthrowing governments and the international order, possessing the means and will to inflict terrible destruction. Unfortunately, this combination is not unique. Today, many challenges to our values and our interests arise from such combinations, even here in our own hemisphere.

Narcotics traffickers and terrorists are waging a vicious campaign of political violence in Colombia that kills 3,000 people every year.

The three terror groups in Colombia -- FARC, ELN and AUC -- are not popular movements. They do not represent forces for social progress. They are after power, control over territory and the dollars of drug trade that comes with it. Their tactics -- assassination, bombing, kidnapping and murder -- betray their true motives. The people and the democratically elected government of Colombia are their targets.

This is a critical moment in the history of Colombia and the Western Hemisphere. Colombia is an embattled country in a part of the world where democratic republics are struggling to overcome the legacy of poverty, statism and authoritarianism. Twenty years ago, only about a quarter of the people in Latin America enjoyed democratic rule. Today, all of Latin America has democratic government except Cuba.

The ideas of freedom and equality have begun to be put into the practice of democracy and markets throughout our hemisphere. This is a welcome development that holds great promise for us all, but the end of this historic evolution is not a foregone conclusion. In some countries, the transition to democracy is troubled by lingering conflicts and opposition to progress. In Colombia, the opposition is deadly. The 40 million people of Colombia deserve freedom from terror and an opportunity to participate fully in the new democratic community of American states. It is in our self-interest to see that they get it.

Colombia's troubles radiate outward, reaching even our own shores. Colombia is the third most populous nation in Latin America. Its economy is integral to the region, and the prosperity of the region is important to our own.

The U.S. sells more to Latin America and the Caribbean than to the European Union. We sell more to the Southern Cone common market (MERCOSUR) than to China. Latin America and the Caribbean comprise our fastest-growing export market. Equally important, we require strong partners in the hemisphere to suppress illegal migration, drug trafficking and terrorism. Only prosperous and stable democratic governments can provide the cooperation we need.

FARC's deliberate frustration of the peace process and renewed terror campaign, featuring the assassination of rural mayors and bombings in the capital, have prompted the government of Colombia to request expanded assistance from the United States. Recognizing that our interests in the success of Colombian democracy are broad, President Bush has asked the Congress to allow us to provide military and intelligence assistance to the Colombian government in its war against terror.

Colombia can defeat the terrorists, but it needs help from its friends to do it.

Despite violence and intimidation aimed at keeping the Colombian people away from the polls, the incoming president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, won an unprecedented first-round election victory campaigning on a platform to end corruption, uphold human rights, create jobs, spur growth and fight the terrorists. Mr. Uribe understands the necessity of having a social, economic and military strategy to win this war. Colombia does not want or need U.S. troops, but it does need training, arms, equipment and intelligence to implement a successful military strategy.

Our leadership is critical to the success and prosperity of the democratic republics in our region. We cannot allow criminals and terrorists to threaten our friends and neighbors. If the 800 million people of the Americas are going to fulfill the promise and potential of this vast and plentiful hemisphere, the United States must work with its partners and allies to extend and strengthen democracy in the American community. Our values, our security and the future of our hemisphere are tied to Colombia's victory in its war against terror.


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