In Colombia, don't cave in to terrorists

Colombia’s official coat of arms displays two fundamental virtues: liberty and order. At the turn of the 21st century, Colombia lacked both. One of the region’s most unstable and violent countries, Colombia in 2002 experienced 28,000 homicides, 2,800 kidnappings, 1,645 attacks by terrorist groups, and guerrilla or paramilitary control of over 350 municipalities.

To restore institutional order and to protect individual liberties my administration developed the Democratic Security policy, focused on protecting vulnerable civilian populations, strengthening local, state, and national governments, and targeting the drug-based revenues of Colombia’s criminal organizations. Democratic Security was implemented while also building investor confidence and strengthening Colombia’s social safety net. These three pillars, together with town-hall style meetings at which we listened, and responded, to the needs of citizens, allowed my government to reestablish its presence in villages and towns long controlled by FARC and other violent groups.

This success was achieved with U.S. aid supplied under Plan Colombia. It allowed us to conduct more effective security operations and provide employment, assistance to displaced persons, human rights training, and a stronger nationwide judicial system.

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With the support of most Colombians, the military successfully forced the FARC out of its strongholds and slashed its size by more than half, down to 6,800 members by 2010. By the time I left office, Colombia’s homicide rate had been reduced by 50 percent, kidnappings by 80 percent, and terrorist attacks by 90 percent. Our country reached the highest levels of foreign investment, exports and per capita income in years, while reducing poverty from 57 percent to 38 percent.

Today, these gains in liberty and order are in danger. President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration is involved in peace talks with the FARC. The guerrilla group is demanding changes to Colombia’s economic model and constitution and widespread impunity for its members in return for abandoning its terrorist agenda. Unfortunately, the Colombian government seems prepared to make these concessions.

President Santos has welcomed the prospect of FARC becoming a political party and its members, many responsible for crimes against humanity, participating in politics rather than serving jail time, an idea 72 percent of Colombians oppose. Such impunity would be absurd, as if the United States allowed al-Qaeda members to run for office.

The danger of granting impunity has been clearly demonstrated by the recent resurgence of terrorism in Colombia. FARC attacks in the first half of 2012 rose 52 percent compared to the previous year, while oil pipeline bombings increased 173 percent last year. During the last months, dozens of Colombian soldiers have been murdered by FARC in cowardly terrorist attacks. Not only is the FARC unwilling to relinquish its terrorist tactics, it hopes to force the government to compromise through this renewed campaign of terror. The promise of impunity constitutes the midwife of this violence, subverting order and perverting due process.

These negotiations also endanger the liberty of Colombians and the region. The FARC have put forward a number of alarming proposals that would be detrimental to Colombian democracy. These include changes to Colombia’s political institutions, suspending U.S.-Colombia military cooperation, legalizing narcotics, and widespread populist land reform. In effect, FARC is using the peace talks as a way to achieve its political aims, transforming Colombia into yet another member of the socialist, anti-American bloc known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).

It is no surprise, therefore, that the dictatorial regimes of Venezuela and Cuba are playing such an active role in these negotiations. The talks are being held in Cuba, one of the world’s greatest examples of authoritarian excess, and the FARC has demanded that the Colombian government drop its denouncement of Venezuela, which has long given these terrorists arms and safe haven, and recognize it as a source of regional stability.

The people of Colombia want and deserve peace, but not at this price. If FARC is truly committed to peace, they must cease their criminal activities, accept responsibility for their crimes, compensate their victims, and disclose the true scope of their long criminal history. Negotiating under any other conditions legitimizes terrorism, weakens democracy, and undermines peace.

In the past, the United States and Latin American nations successfully pressured regional dictators—such as Chile’s Pinochet and Peru’s Fujimori—to relinquish power to the people. Today, we ignore electoral fraud in Venezuela and stand by as terrorists seek to establish a beachhead in democratic Colombia. It is not enough to watch the struggle for democracy—whether in the Middle East or Latin America—we must together defend the virtues of liberty and order.

Uribe is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and served as president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010.