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A Nation-Building Failure in Colombia

The U.S. has a real interest in a stable Western hemisphere, but reckless spending in Latin America empowers our enemies.

US President Bill Clinton speaks with Colombian Pr
U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks with Colombian President Andres Pastrana during the Colombian State Dinner at the White House in 1998. (Joyce Naltchayan/AFP via Getty Images)

Colombia’s new president-elect Gustavo Petro, a career far-left politician who probably hangs a Che Guevara poster on his parlor wall, is scheduled to be inaugurated next month. Many observers predict he will join the Havana-Caracas-Managua club of Marxist radicals. How much gasoline the new president and his allies will throw on smoldering societal divisions in Colombia is an open question, but the fact that Petro’s instinct as a young man was to join the M-19 guerrillas is not encouraging.

Broadly speaking, there are two tiers to the western hemisphere’s latest swelling of the “pink tide.” The hardline Marxist dictatorships are typified by Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—the core of the so-called ALBA movement—who rail against Washington, radicalize their societies, lock up their enemies, and spread chaos and revolution outside their borders when given opportunity. Others are less doctrinaire, but ideologically noisy and certainly U.S. skeptics, a category formerly best represented by Correa’s Ecuador and now perhaps by Castillo’s Peru and Boric’s Chile. 


Whichever of these two groups Petro joins as he calls for a “new dialogue” in the Americas, he will surely shut down continued U.S. security cooperation, represented by “Plan Colombia,” Washington’s most serious foreign assistance program in the Americas.

The U.S. has been intensely involved in Colombia for decades. The story is a complicated one that was not supposed to culminate in the election of a radical leftist like Petro. When Colombia’s security situation became dire in the late 1990s, most foreign-policy conservatives agreed that genuine U.S national interests were tied to the fate of this key Andean country. The challenges in Colombia included not only responding to transnational drug trafficking and terrorism, but also reinforcing a tottering national government against a guerrilla insurgency that could spread revolutionary Castroism and trigger another massive northbound migratory diaspora. 

For most conservatives, the spirit of Mr. Monroe’s famous doctrine, while not exactly applicable to a hornet’s nest like Colombia, did give solid footing for advocating U.S. law enforcement, intelligence, and counterinsurgency cooperation in this strategic country. In fact, there was strong bipartisan support for a robust counternarcotics mission, which Congress hoped would take cocaine off the street in the United States and save Bogota from imploding. 

The massive assistance story began when Colombia’s then-President Andrés Pastrana Arango, battling to survive against nonstop drug and political violence while FARC guerrillas controlled vast swaths of the country, famously called on Washington to fund a “Marshall Plan” for his country. While he was sure he could get more U.S. security dollars, Pastrana was also seeking a big boost in American-financed social and economic development, using the old cliché that going after security threats requires first tackling underlying social and economic causes. It was a page right out of LBJ’s Great Society playbook.

Of course, the Marshall Plan, regularly trotted out in memory to sucker Congress, was designed to help the stalled first-world European economies recover after the Second World War. It never provided Washington with a roadmap in developing countries, with their stubborn poverty, corrupt institutions, and low private-sector capacity. 


Won over by Pastrana, the Clinton White House and National Security Council gave counternarcotics assistance priority in justifying the mission to the American public, but also empowered State Department and USAID to devote probably half of the total aid to institutional, social, and economic development programs. Whether the goal is moving peasant farmers away from cultivating coca plants or distracting rural youths from Marxist recruiters, Washington is happy to design a program for it. While U.S. military advisors, diplomats, and security contractors on the ground were always counted in the many hundreds, not thousands, American financial aid rolled over year after year, eventually skyrocketing into the billions.

A protester participates in an anti-U.S. rally in Bogota in 2000, as U.S. President Bill Clinton was visiting Colombia to deliver an aid package to Colombia and to support "Plan Colombia." At least one police officer died after being hit by an explosive. (Photo by Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images)

As the Clinton administration passed the ball to the Bush team, the U.S. emphasized more counterterrorism and counterinsurgency cooperation in support of President Álvaro Uribe’s worthy efforts to defeat the FARC on the battlefield. The staggering count of violent deaths in Colombia, which had climbed to over 80,000 a year in the early 2000s, began to fall dramatically, down to under 1,000 by 2015. Many factors contributed to the hard-won political stabilization, and Washington’s massive dump of resources arguably played a part, but in the end the Colombians themselves deserved the credit for salvaging their country, through Uribe’s decisive leadership and the sustained engagement of the Colombian army.

Against Uribe, the FARC guerrillas were never going to shoot their way, Castro style, into the presidential palace; but the situation was still precarious, as subsequent events would demonstrate. In part this was because Uribe never attained his goal of vanquishing the FARC, who survived to conclude a ceasefire agreement with his successor. 

Signed in Havana and brokered by the gullible international community and the crafty Cubans, the Colombian “Peace Plan” brought the FARC and their radical allies into the nation’s electoral process. By then, both Havana and Caracas had concluded that Colombia could eventually fall to their cause much more easily through the ballot box than the gun barrel by reprising the Chavez strategy used in Venezuela.

When tallied up, “Plan Colombia” became a two-decade, $10 to 12 billion assistance enterprise that was all over the policy map, consisting of needed security cooperation along with vast infusions of social and economic aid, topped off with a peace plan. Even today, State Department and USAID are still spending $800 million annually in Colombia. 

But with a radical leftist like President-elect Petro now preparing to enter the Presidential Palacio de Nariño in Bogota, many conservatives will be asking: was it worth it? 

On the counternarcotics scorecard, Plan Colombia proponents argue that when launched, Washington’s anti-drug trafficking strategy not only enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support, but was the only plan on the table (with all due respect to the libertarian decriminalization option). They maintain that in the end it effectively neutralized the drug threat.

Yet on review, it seems at best a mixed bag and arguably a failure. Colombia’s cocaine production data, perhaps the key indicator, show the numbers going down until about 2013 and then starting back up. Even the GAO reported in a comprehensive 2018 review: “State and other U.S. agencies involved in eradication and interdiction activities in Colombia have not evaluated these efforts to determine their long-term effectiveness in reducing the cocaine supply.” That is government-speak to say that nobody is making a convincing case that the plan worked.

We can never know if Colombia’s cocaine production would have boomed off the charts without two decades of intensive U.S. efforts in the country, but we have learned that drug-trafficking cartels facing resistance in one country typically shift coca cultivation and cocaine production to other sites, such as Peru and Bolivia in this case. In those countries, Washington’s assistance, while often large, has never become a massive nation-building enterprise on the Colombia scale, and it is likely that such a venture would have produced a similarly muddled outcome, if not outright failure. Beyond the debate over U.S. tactics in fighting coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking, Peru and Bolivia, like Colombia, are vulnerable to electing anti-U.S. political leadership that will abruptly end all counternarcotics cooperation. Both have in fact elected leftist governments with this outlook (as Evo Morales shut down cooperation in Bolivia), proving a fundamental need to reassess the strategy. 

There is no easy answer, but the most common-sense conservative approach is to recommend more Realpolitik that pursues no more than maintaining limited law-enforcement and intelligence cooperation where possible, so as not to leave the field totally to our enemies. The nation-building billions of Plan Colombia are not the model. The United States will surely face more ALBA-like hostility, as the pink tide has not yet hit the high-water mark in Latin America. Absent a unique Cold War-like geopolitical situation, we can wait them out. Realpolitik focuses on direct threats to the U.S. homeland. It does not attempt to “win” the war on drugs, an unattainable goal, but calls for realistic defensive action in an unstable hemisphere.

Shifting to the counterinsurgency scorecard, Plan Colombia proponents assert that U.S. assistance was a major factor in ensuring the floundering country did not become the next Che Guevara-inspired revolutionary outpost in South America. At least in the short term, they may be right that the effort contributed to Uribe’s victory in the field, but that success must now be measured against the rising pink tide.

Supported by the Obama administration, the Colombia Peace Plan strategy of incorporating FARC rebels into the country’s fragile democratic process was always risky. The Colombian people rejected the peace agreement in a referendum before its eventual backdoor ratification by career politicians. It did not take a Machiavelli—or a Castro—to anticipate that a Chavez-like demagogue could seize this opening to win a presidential election, end U.S.-Colombian security collaboration, and set the nation on a radical ALBA course.

Gustavo Petro at the signing of his official candidacy documents on March 25, 2022, in Bogota, Colombia. (Photo by Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Is Petro a new Chavez in lamb’s clothing? Whether he intends to follow Venezuela’s course or is just a dupe whom others will push along that path, the danger is real. There is one certain lesson from this convoluted story: Washington’s ambitious nation-building is a foolhardy strategy when our enemies can gain the keys to the kingdom through the ballot box.