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Journal of Democracy 12.2 (2001) 32-45

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High Anxiety in the Andes

Colombia's Perpetual Quest for Peace

Gary Hoskin and Gabriel Murillo

With few exceptions, Latin American democracies suffer from severe institutional weaknesses, growing poverty and inequality, and a host of other ills that come with spotty economic performance. The region's political systems, meanwhile, seem overmatched. They do not look as if they can make headway in solving these crippling problems. The five Andean nations--Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela--show especially clear signs of this weakness. Today they still enjoy formally democratic and representative institutions, but if they stay on their present path, the return of some form of populist authoritarian politics may be only a matter of time.

This crisis of governability reflects the continuous inability of the Andean countries to meet basic standards of "good government" in the areas of institutional legitimacy, economic efficacy, and social equity. In particular, a widespread lack of trust in institutions is hamstringing efforts to build up the social capital that these lands will need to reform their economies and tame the lawlessness, insecurity, and violence that now threaten them.

Although Colombia broadly shares in this plight, in other ways it is an outlier among Andean countries, and even in Latin America as a whole. Until fairly recently, Colombia was a politically and morally devastated society with a growing economy; today the moral and political problems remain, but the economy is stagnant. Even in the midst of crisis, however, the nation endures thanks to the extraordinary capacidad de aguante (tolerance for adversity) of vast numbers of citizens whose [End Page 32] rights all too often remain more formal than real, and who must struggle to make their voices heard.

For years, Colombia has been riven by strife between the government and two leftist guerrilla groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Rightist paramilitary organizations and criminal gangs devoted to narcotrafficking and kidnapping (crimes the guerrillas engage in as well) also contribute to the violence and disorder that beset Colombia.

Ending the two large leftist insurgencies through a negotiated settlement has become the overriding issue in national politics. Accordingly, President Andrés Pastrana has pursued this goal above all others ever since his narrow victory in the presidential runoff of June 1998. 1 Resolving the biggest conflicts, he believes, would make the other public-order problems easier to deal with and could only be good for economic recovery and institutional legitimacy, both of which he wants to bolster before the next presidential election in 2002.

In late 2000, the Pastrana administration's halting, erratic, and precarious peace efforts reached a critical juncture. November saw the suspension of meetings between government and FARC representatives, while separate attempts to reach an accord with the ELN could not get off the ground. Although maintaining a rhetorical commitment to peace, the insurgents, especially the FARC and ELN, as well as the para-militaries (who are still outside of the formal talks), increased the pace, scope, and intensity of their attacks. Growing numbers of Colombians, angered by the continuing guerrilla and paramilitary atrocities, criticized President Pastrana as too patient and too single-mindedly fixed upon negotiations. Pressure mounted not to renew the demilitarized zone with the FARC at the end of January 2001. Yet many other Colombians, joined by foreign governments and other international actors, still insist that whatever the difficulties surrounding them, negotiations must continue if a still wider and more terrible war is to be averted.

In a television address on January 31 of this year, the same day that the time period allotted for the demilitarized zone in southern Colombia expired, President Pastrana announced a limited time-extension of the zone and invited FARC leader Manuel Marulanda to meet with him in order to jumpstart the peace negotiations that the FARC had unilaterally cancelled in November 2000. Marulanda accepted Pastrana's invitation, and the encounter occurred on February 8, three days after the president's proposed date. Before the meeting took...