Postscript: How Skillful the Juggler?

September 25, 2007

"Betancur saw the opportunity for Colombia to play a positive, independent role in the Caribbean basin, and he seized it." Belisario Betancur moved quickly to chart a new international course for Colombia. At his inauguration in August 1982, the new president announced his intention to bring Colombia into the Non-Aligned Movement and improve rela- tions with the country's Latin American neigh- bors.' Soon thereafter, Betancur supported Nicaragua's bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, despite concerted U.S. opposition. He also put forth a Colombian candidate to preside over the annual general assembly of the Orga- nization of American States, a direct, if un- successful, challenge to the U.S.-supported Honduran candidate. 2 In December, Betancur continued his offensive by the openly critical reception he provided for President Reagan in Bogota. With the new year, the Colombian leader became a vital new force in the search for political solutions to Central America's crisis. In October 1982, the Reagan Administration had attempted to undercut Mexican and Vene- zuelan peace moves in the region by forming a group of seven Caribbean basin "democracies" that were faithful to U.S. policies. While partici- pating in these discussions, Colombia, in January 1983, began meeting with Mexico, Venezuela and Panama-the so-called Con- tadora group-to search for a method of de- escalating tensions in the region that would have a greater chance of being acceptable to all parties involved. In April, Betancur snatched the baton from a domestically preoccupied Mexico and became the prime mover among the Contadora nations. He set off on a series of lightning trips to the other three countries in an attempt to re-establish the group's initiative in the region. These moves were a breath of fresh air from a country whose previous administration slavishly supported Reagan's every move in Central America. Betancur saw the opportunity for Colombia to play a positive, independent role in the Caribbean basin, and he seized it. Betancur: The Conservative's Liberal These initial moves were not at all out of character for Betancur, who has made a name for himself as a maverick in the Conservative Party. Unlike the vast majority of Colombia's political leaders who are drawn from the nation's traditional oligarchy, Betancur grew up in an impoverished rural Colombian village. His parents lost 17 of their 22 children; they died from a disease "known as underdevelop- ment," as Betancur explains it. Betancur's political beliefs have remained remarkably constant, if ambiguous, over the past 30 years, during which time he ran for the presidency five times. He claims a strict adher- ence to the traditional principles of the Conser- vative Party: Christianity, Western culture, representative democracy and the importance of family life. Nevertheless, his ideas are closer to the Christian Democrats of the 1960s than those of the current Colombian Conservatives. In brief, he opposes both "excessive capitalism" and socialism, both the United States and the Soviet Union. He believes in a "non-interven- tionist" state, yet has been sharply critical of 30"Most of the people of the Third World have little experience or apparent desire for self-government or participatory democracy." Lewis A. Tambs both Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher of England. He lauds the "sanctity of private property," yet favors the nationalization of some sectors of the economy. 4 His perspective on foreign policy has been much more consistent. From the early 1960s, he has condemned the role of the U.S. govern- ment, U.S. businesses and U.S.-dominated agencies in Latin America. As early as 1965 he spoke against the "imperialist behavior" of the International Monetary Fund. He has criticized those who maintain Colombia's commercial links predominantly with the United States and who resist extending them to the Soviet Union. While he believes that Cuba has fallen into the grips of "another imperialist power," he also has criticized counterrevolutionary forces who have tried to invade the country. He was par- ticularly vociferous in his opposition to the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, arguing that such action "tramples on the prin- ciple of self-determination and only seeks to chain our soul-which [the United States] be- lieves to be underdeveloped--to the desires of Wall Street."" This international line has been repeatedly articulated in campaign after campaign regard- Children of Mocoa. less of the official position of his own Conser- vative Party. In the 1982 campaign, for exam- ple, he attacked the party's policy for Central America which he characterized, simply, as "pro-American." 6 Even if they knew it was coming, Reagan and his foreign policy team were seriously disturbed by the Colombian turnabout under Betancur. As an apparent democracy, Colombia's support for U.S. policy lent the latter a degree of legiti- macy that could not be provided by Argentina or Honduras, for example. The Administration has made some public noises indicating support for the Contadora initiatives, but in private the Administration was fuming. The World According to Tombs It was within this context that Reagan nominated Lewis A. Tambs to be U.S. ambas- sador to Colombia. Contrary to many diplo- matic appointees, Tambs at least was familiar with the area of his assignment. A history pro- fessor specializing in Latin America at Arizona State University, Tambs had worked for seven years in Venezuela as an engineer. So much for the good news. The bad news is that Tambs makes Jeane Kirkpatrick look like a dewy-eyed liberal. Lewis Tambs built his reputation not in academic circles, but as an active participant in right- wing organizations including the Council for National Policy and the United States Global Strategy Council. He has been most active in the Council for Inter-American Security (CIS). CIS is a rabidly anti-communist think tank led by retired General Gordon Sumner, currently special adviser to Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders. For Tambs and CIS, the world is a simplistic chess board where everything can be under- stood in terms of maneuvers by the Soviet Union's military forces. Historical particulari- ties, social structures, economic differences all fade into insignificance. For a president who proclaimed that "The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on [in the world]," Tambs was the horse for the course. Unfortunately for Tambs, the same qualities that endeared him to such far-right congres- sional supporters as Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), made him distinctly unpalatable to the foreign service. It is not surprising that anyone Mav/June1983 31"The defense ministry asserted that the planes detained in Brazil were actually going to supply M-19's guerrillas." who could say, "Most of the people of the Third World have little experience or apparent desire for self-government or participatory democ- racy," would be rejected for three different Latin American assignments for which he had been proposed. 7 Thus, to get past the Senate Foreign Rela- tions Committee this time, Tambs essentially had to retract most of his published statements of the last decade. For example, his stress on military solutions to Central America's pro- blems was evident in an article he had written in October 1981: "The Cuban-Sandinista cancer in the Carib- bean and Central America can be removed through surgery, killed by chemotherapy, or isolated through quarantine. Armed occupa- tion, incitement of rebellion or air and naval blockade of Cuba and Nicaragua are the three major options."' Now, Tambs assured the senators that he was prone to "overstatements," which weren't necessarily valid today. Although there was much hesitation on the part of many senators-- one called it a "mistake to send as our repre- sentative a man with preference for military rather than diplomatic solutions in Central America"-in early March 1983, Tambs received the Senate's consent, and packed his bags for BogotA. Will the Real Betancur Please Stand Up? The Tambs appointment was one indication that Betancur would have as many problems elaborating his foreign policy as he had in for- mulating a domestic policy. The posting of a hawk to Colombia at a moment when the Col- ombian president was trying to hammer out a peace strategy for the region was provocative, if not insulting. Surprisingly, the Colombian government ac- cepted the appointment without public recrim- inations. The Colombian foreign minister declined to veto the nomination on ideological grounds. Looking for a silver lining, he said that the nomination was actually welcome since it would guarantee Betancur direct access to someone who shared Reagan's views on the region." Whatever the reasons for accepting Tambs, Betancur was obviously being pulled in two directions as he elaborated his foreign policy. For example, at the same time that he seemed to be wrestling Colombia back from active partici- pation in Reagan's Central American plans, Betancur named General Gonzalo Forero Del- gadillo as ambassador to Honduras." 1 Forero is one of Colombia's top experts in counter- insurgency warfare. Given that Honduras has become one of the keys to Reagan's plans for Central America (both in terms of weakening Nicaragua and strengthening El Salvador), Betancur's move was highly significant. Even more indicative of the forces tugging Betancur along a conservative path is the issue of Colombia's arms build-up. While Betancur was calling for an end to "the importation of heavy offensive weapons" in the Caribbean basin, he placed an order in Washington for 240 Seasparrow ship-to-ship and ship-to-air mis- siles. " He permitted the air force to purchase 12 A-37 fighter-bombers and one Boeing 707-C from the United States. And he has not chal- lenged Turbay's order for four West German frigates to be armed with 32 Exocet missiles of Malvinas/Falklands fame. 1 To pay for these new weapons systems, the construction of a new air base in eastern Colom- bia and new naval and air force facilities on the Caribbean island of San Andrds, the military budget for 1983 has been increased to $2.6 billion, an enormous rise from the 1970s annual average military budget for some $200 million." And this is happening at a moment of increas- ingly severe budget deficits in Colombia. Once Again, the Generals Once again the military establishment ap- pears to be setting the course for Colombia, and the civilian president seems unable to funda- mentally change or challenge it. Under Turbay, the military shifted its concentration on tradi- tional disputes with Venezuela over oil-pro- ducing territories to a strong projection into the Caribbean. The most important aspect of this was the construction of new airfields and naval facilities on the island of San Andrds, hard off Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. 1 4 By April 1983, the military's determination to have its voice heard in foreign affairs had left the realm of subtle interjection. The Libyan jets made this very clear. In late April 1983, four Libyan jets bound for Nicaragua were detained 32 NACLA ReportMav/June 1983 "The posting of a hawk to Colombia at a moment when the Colombian presi- dent was trying to hammer out a peace strategy for the region was provocative, if not insulting." when they stopped for refueling in Brazil. Local authorities found that they carried military, not medical, supplies. While the diplomatic conse- quences of this were being played out among Brazil, Libya, Nicaragua and the United States, Colombia's top brass stepped in. At first, the defense ministry claimed that Colombia had captured one of the Libyan planes which had landed in their country. Lack- ing any means of proving this, the ministry then asserted that the planes detained in Brazil were actually going to supply M-19's guerrillas in Colombia; they even carried 172 guerrillas on board." While no shred of evidence existed to prove this, the military had made its point: Col- ombia's domestic unrest was nurtured by Cuba- Nicaragua-Libya. They had to be fought at home and stopped abroad. And the Future? Where Betancur will go from here is the question on everyone's mind. In terms of domestic policy, Betancur has already backed down significantly before military and civilian hardliners. Not only has the amnesty fallen through-as of this writing the Colombian mili- tary has again launched a major offensive against the guerrillas-but the president has been unable to generate any economic program to alleviate the hardships caused by the pro- Campesino shack, outside of Bogota. 3334 NACLA Report longed recession. bassador in Washington, and a representative In the foreign policy arena, Betancur must of the most conservative and militarist faction of juggle his desire to play an active, peaceful part the Conservative Party. in the region's affairs with the military's seem- Up to now, however, it appears that Betancur ing desire to play an active, bellicose role. has agilely kept all the balls in the air: seizing Should the right-wing forces find that Betan- what diplomatic initiatives he can while allow- cur has become more of an obstacle than they ing the military to re-arm and build for future bargained for, they have already settled on his wars. But given the strength of the forces ar- successor: Alvaro G6mez Hurtado, the vice rayed against him, one wonders when his hands president selected by congress, Colombia's am- will tire and the balls will come tumbling down.

POSTSCRIPT 1. Miami Herald, August 8, 1982. 2. Miami Herald, November 26, 1982. 3. Francisco De Roux, Candidatos, programasy compromisos (BogotA: Cinep, 1982), p. 25. 4. Ibid, pp. 24-40. 5. Belisario Betancur, "Colombia busca un cambio," in Alberto Lleras, et al, Los Caminos del Cambio (BogotA: Edi- ciones Tercer Mundo, 1966), p. 13. 6. De Roux, Candidatos, p. 39. 7. Lewis A. Tambs, "Introduction," in United States Policy Toward Latin America: Antecedents and Alternatives (Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1976), p. 8. 8. Lewis A. Tambs and Frank Aker, "Shattering the Viet Nam Syndrome: A Scenario for Success in El Salva- dor" (mimeo, 1981), p. 7. 9. CARACOL radio network, as cited in FBIS, February 7, 1983. 10. FBIS, December 28, 1982. 11. Congressional Record, Senate, December 1, 1982, p. S13693. 12. El Espectador (Bogota), November 28, 1982, and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 1982 (London: Taylor and Francis, Ltd., 1982), pp. 210-211. 13. El Espectador September 17, 1982. 14. This issue was discussed in Jimeno, "Colombia- Another Threat in the Caribbean." 15. Associated Press wires received in New York, April 21, 1983, 1812 GMT and April 22, 1983, 0049 GMT and see Latin America Weekly Report, May 6, 1982.

Tags: Colombia, Carlos Betancur, CBI, Tambs, Military

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