Courage and Common Ground

Last Friday, I returned to Cartagena, Colombia at the invitation of President Juan Manuel Santos and was ferried by boat across the bay to Casa de Huespedes, Colombia's Camp David. As I looked out across the water at the modern skyline, now filled with gleaming high rises, I was struck by how much the country had changed since my first visit 25 years ago. Little did I realize, as I approached this same spit of land, that I would witness both the opening salvo and closing shots of a war on terror in Colombia.

The evening's main event was a dinner in honor of the Nature Conservancy. Before dinner started, President Santos pulled me aside, and in a hushed but excited tone, told me that he was "95 percent sure" that his military forces had a few hours earlier killed Alfonso Cano, the leader of FARC and Colombia's most wanted terrorist.

The news was the capstone of a decades-long struggle against violence in Colombia. It's a story of incredible courage on the part of many Colombians, and the product of U.S. policy forged across partisan lines by a Democratic President and a Republican Congress, proof that bipartisanship in the United States can solve what seem like intractable problems.

In February 1990, I took a walk on the grounds of Casa de Huespedes with another President of Colombia, Virgilio Barco. He had declared war on the Colombian drug cartels and was convening a Presidential summit at Casa de Huespedes the next morning. We talked about all the extraordinary security precautions that had been taken in advance of the anticipated arrival of President George H.W. Bush. President Barco was surprised that President Bush had accepted his invitation to come to Cartagena. Colombia was close to becoming a failed state. Pablo Escobar and the cartels were now fighting back hard, using their billions to finance a reign of terror against the Colombian public, bombing cities and killing and kidnapping innocent civilians with impunity. Barco, an engineer trained at MIT, never expected to be thrust into the role of warrior. But here he was on the eve of a major summit, looking across at the city of Cartagena, musing about what might lie ahead.

Barco knew that his own military was woefully unprepared. As we walked, he pointed out to the bay, and expressed thanks that the Americans had provided naval assets to protect the four presidents who would attend the summit. Colombia, he told me, had one old submarine from the East German Navy. And he said that their air force could fly only a handful of helicopters to cover his country, a territory the size of Texas and California combined. But he was determined to rid Colombia of both narco-traffickers and terrorists.

With the help of the United States, Barco's successor, Cesar Gaviria, finally broke the backs of the Medellin and Cali drug cartels. His successors then took on guerrilla and paramilitary organizations when they moved into the drug trade. Colombia became our strongest ally in South America, and arguably in the war against terrorism. In 2000, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly supported funding for Plan Colombia, a $7.5 billion comprehensive program that, among other things, helped Colombia build a modern, professional and effective fighting force. Plan Colombia, funded by both the Colombians and Americans with bipartisan support in Bogota and Washington, decisively tipped the balance of the war.

Today, Colombia enjoys a level of security that wasn't even imaginable just a few years ago. In 2000, there were 3,572 kidnappings in Colombia; last year there were 282. Bombings are now rare and people can safely travel roads throughout the country. A thirty year war with two powerful drug cartels and three major guerrilla groups that spawned violence everywhere in Colombia is now confined to a few remote parts of the country. Greater security is bringing greater prosperity. Economic growth this year is projected to be 5 percent. Colombia is indeed a real success story.

The story of the U.S.-Colombia relationship, which was recently cemented with the bipartisan Free Trade Agreement, should be heeded by those who today have gripped Washington in deadlock. Courage and the search for common ground can get us through even the toughest times.