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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 123-134

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Failed, Failing, or Just Weak?

Phillip McLean

If failed states on the other side of the globe threaten U.S. interests, then Colombia, a country just two hours by air from Miami, merits priority attention as well. A failed Colombia is truly a scary prospect. Colombia is not a traditional, small, dictator-dominated country, but rather a large, mostly modern nation with a long history of electoral politics and intimate links with the United States. Forty-two million Colombians inhabit a land as large as the northeastern United States. They look to their northern neighbor for trade and, now faced with multiple forms of domestic turmoil, for assistance. The administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have replied to those appeals with promises of aid. Yet, how does one assist a country destabilized more by crime than insurgency, which at times apparently is losing the ability to govern itself?

From a Weak Beginning to Success

Simon Bolivar might have called his creation a failed state when he turned his back on Bogotá and trudged off to a sad and lonely death on the coast near Santa Marta in 1830. He had led the northwest corner of South America to independence but failed to bring it order or effective government. 1 At the beginning of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt condemned Colombia, just then emerging from the chaotic "war of a thousand days," for its lack of governmental authority. Roosevelt finally gave up trying to negotiate a canal treaty with Bogotá and simply, as he put it with some exaggeration, "took Panama." 2 In the 1950s, Colombia again descended into bloody internal warfare—the violencia that left 200,000 dead and resulted in [End Page 123] one of its few periods of military rule. From the beginning, governments in Colombia have been weak, and periods of intense, mutual bloodletting have punctuated the country's history.

Now at the turn of another century, the world once again stands aghast at tales of Colombians killing Colombians and wonders what to do. The principal blame for this state of affairs lies, of course, with the country's leaders, whose task it is to find solutions. In this case, however, the world, specifically the United States and Europe, bears special responsibility because their citizens' appetite for the narcotics Colombia produces is a major factor undermining Colombia's law and order, economy, and democratic institutions.

Notably, between the time of Bolivar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's reign of terror, Colombia did have long periods of relative calm, if not quiet domestic peace. Compared to the rest of Latin America, Colombia has been a moderately successful nation. With rare exceptions, civilians, not generals, have run the country. Elections occur regularly and their results are respected. For much of the twentieth century, the coffee culture not only supported the country's international accounts but also sustained the growth of a comfortable bourgeois urban society and a stable small-farmer economy. Colombia's entrepreneurial class, based in five separate urban manufacturing centers of a million inhabitants or more each, has long been known throughout Latin America for its dynamism.

At the end of a decade of hemispheric social and economic reform, launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1960 as the Alliance for Progress, Colombia distinguished itself as something of a star. 3 It had made significant advances in education and health services, and its social indicators compared well with Chile and other Latin American leaders. It had educated a generation of financial managers who kept the economy growing without recession for some 40 years. As a result of this ingrained conservative style, Colombia tends to pay its debts. In the "lost decade" of the 1980s, it was one of the few major Latin American countries not to default on its foreign loans.

'A Nation in Spite of Itself'

One question has undoubtedly never been fully answered: What keeps Colombia together? 4 The expanse of Colombia's geography is not just vast but daunting, divided by three distinct mountain ranges with...


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