- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Latin America's political class is having a hard time lately, and that is all to the good. For years and years, the politicos have blamed their countries' ills on the United States, the International Monetary Fund, whatever's at hand, and never themselves, the thieves and demagogues. Maybe things are changing.
In Argentina, politicians can't have a fancy meal in a restaurant without middle-class patrons accosting them at their tables and letting them know what they think of them in richly obscene Argentine Spanish, which has more than a hint of Neapolitan gutter language. In Venezuela, thousands are in the streets wanting President Hugo Chavez to resign after he, in effect, put the country's two corrupt political parties nearly out of business. Why? Because he has manifestly failed to improve the lot of most Venezuelans, and the thievery continues just as in years past.
In Colombia, there is Ingrid Betancourt, long a gadfly of the country's corrupt establishment. In "Until Death Do us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia" more memoir than manifesto and thus all the more convincing she details her struggle against that establishment, as well as the infamous narco-traffickers, and hardly least, the Marxist guerrillas who have also helped spread mayhem and murder in Colombia for more than three decades. As alert readers know, the author has recently been kidnapped. The perpetrators: Colombia's feared Revolutionary Armed Forces, better known by their Spanish initials, FARC. But, by her own account, she has had so many death threats over the years from so many sources, that if it wasn't the FARC, it would have been someone else.
Her fate is yet unknown, but her mother's request that the security forces not look for her tells us much about the state of Colombia. Few have much confidence in their ability to deal with the FARC and save a very courageous, if at times quixotic, presidential candidate.
Her indictment of Colombia's political system runs deep. The police, the courts, and politicians, especially in the legislature, are hopelessly compromised by narco money. The press with a few honorable exceptions get a much deserved roasting for ineptitude and cowardice. Above all, she skewers Ernesto Samper, Colombia's president between 1994 and 1998. Quite simply put, the author charges (she is hardly alone in this) that Mr. Samper accepted campaign contributions from drug kingpins and then labored to conceal it by, among other things, silencing witnesses, permanently. (One potential witness, the author says, was shot dead in the vagina. Only in Colombia, it seems, can the killing be so obscene and there is worse in the book.)
Is all this credible? The United States government certainly believes Mr. Samper was guilty of taking the money. Washington eventually decertified Colombia in its war against drugs during the Samper years, meaning Colombia could no longer be eligible for aid.
The author's account rings true because few would have gone through all this for so very little. Certainly not for the publicity which often has been negative or a political career that has shattered her family life, something described in convincing detail. Her faith in the Colombian electorate may be mistaken, however. True, she won two congressional races, but her new party was not receiving much support in the polls at least before the kidnapping. But if she manages to come out of this alive, it should be noted sadly that in Colombia, the two major parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, which have been around as long as Republicans and Democrats, are entrenched machines where votes are another commodity. In a desperately poor country, money still rules. So do bullets.
Colombia's violence began in 1948, and although it has mutated several times since, it shows no sign of ceasing. The 19th century was no less violent and with all that lawlessness, corruption, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and, of course, drug-trafficking are all but inevitable. Still, the author isn't prepared to give up. Even now she's probably ready to continue if she ever gets out of the FARC's clutches. But Colombia remains Colombia and it remains hard to believe anything will really change, although a few Colombians like Ingrid Betancourt have borne witness to the country's sorry state.
A caveat: The author convinces me she wants a better life for Colombians, especially the underclass.Other than ridding the country of its corrupt political class, it's not clear how she plans to achieve this. Her emphasis on protecting Colombia's industries from foreign competition doesn't make much sense. If the poor are to benefit from a new Colombia, they must have access to the same property rights their superiors enjoy. It at least would be a good start. But taming the predatory political class that Ingrid Betancourt has learned to loathe so much would be an awfully good beginning, and I wish her and her colleagues luck in that quest.

Roger Fontaine is a writer in Washington. He served on the National Security Council Staff during the first Reagan administration.


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