Addicted to Violence
Jude Wanniski
September 14, 1999


Memo To: Rep. Charlie Rangel [D-NY]
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Colombia Addiction

There's no one in Congress who has spent more time than you, Charlie, in trying to stamp out the flow of drugs to the United States in general, and to your congressional district in Harlem in particular. I think you remember meeting my son Matthew, who did his Master's work at American University in Latin American affairs, and now works as a writer and researcher for Jack Kemp at Empower America. He came up with a different angle than any I had thought about, and I would like to share his op-ed with you. It appeared last week in a new Internet site that he is associated with: Shouting

Colombia's Addiction Problem
By Matthew Wanniski

Colombia has an addiction problem: it is addicted to the use of violence in solving internal disputes. It is a dependency that can only end when the ruling elite opens up avenues of communication with ordinary people with political mechanisms that can redress their grievances against the state.

Because of their dependence on force, Colombia's political leaders get further away every year from solutions to the social tensions that divide it. The top and bottom of society have walled themselves off from genuine acts of mutual diplomacy and appear committed to endless trench warfare.

If we measure democracy by the presence or absence of an electoral process, one can argue that democracy flourishes throughout the entire hemisphere. With the exception of Cuba, Latin America's long history of repressive regimes has given way to serious efforts at democratization. Yet, somehow Cuba appears to survive under Fidel Castro's maternal approach, which is undemocratic on the surface, but somehow settles popular grievances -- the key to Castro's political longevity.

Elections in Latin America are a victory for the forces of democracy and cause for celebration, but it is only a small battle that has been won. There is more to democracy than ballot boxes. Mexico has regular elections but has been ruled by the same party for roughly 60 years. India, with a billion people the most populous democracy in the world, remains in grinding poverty. Why? Because the social elites manage the democracy.

The question becomes: How do we measure the quality of a democracy? And how can Colombia improve the mechanics of its democracy, so that social injustice does not give way to outrage and desperation, where the only resolution to social conflict is through violent, terrorist acts?

The most apparent way is to note how well a country allows peaceful solutions to be found for all manners of grievances any group or individual brings against another. Free elections is one way in which a citizen can be provided a redress of grievances. But it is not the only way, nor is it necessarily the most important.

A process that guarantees peaceful arbitration and change within the system can be considered more or less democratic, as long as it is open to every citizen. A breakdown occurs when a group or individual feels it is necessary to go outside of the established system, as has happened throughout many Latin American countries.

The quality of democracy in Colombia and the other fledgling democracies throughout the region does not match that of the United States or Western Europe. In large part, this is because the citizens of Central and South America lack the benefits of a "Bill of Rights" on par with their U.S. and European counterparts. We here in the United States enjoy the freedom of assembly, speech, and the press, and private institutions can be established to help those who believe they have been unjustly treated by the system.

It is when access is denied to the appropriate channels of arbitration within the existing system that political activists take matters into their own hands. In many cases this leads to violence and the destabilization of the entire system.

Colombia's democracy so far has been enjoyed primarily by the country's elites, who have not provided the populace the necessary means for the peaceful resolution of disagreements. But democracy is a grass-roots ideology. In order to break out of the cycle of violence and repression, it must open up the political process to every citizen and protect their rights under the law.

Unfortunately, President Andres Pastrana appears to have a higher regard for foreign cash than for the lives of the people he represents. Case in point: The Colombian oil industry is losing revenue due to a lack of investment, in large part because of terrorist attacks on the country's pipelines by the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), the second largest rebel group in Colombia. President Pastrana hopes to achieve at least the semblance of peace in order to attract foreign investment in the sagging oil sector.

President Pastrana's goal instead should be to make it profitable for the rebels and other disaffected groups to lay down their arms and participate in the process politically, and to let the power of the ballot box and not the force of arms bring about the necessary changes the country needs to prosper and be at peace. Incentives for investment must be granted not only to multi-national corporations, but also to the populace as a whole, including marginalized groups and individuals, so they will not work against the system but with it.

Such a strategy would go a long way toward solving Colombia's drug problem, placing the burden on the shoulders of the Colombian government, where it belongs. The United States can help, but not by adding to the violence (which it appears intent on doing), but by pressuring President Pastrana to democratize and reform his exhausted country. To create true and lasting peace and prosperity, Colombia must kick its habit of violence and replace it with serious democratic reform.