It might have seemed like a dark day for the United States' most important alliance in South America when Colombia's Constitutional Court struck down the military agreement allowing 800 U.S. troops and 600 contractors to operate out of seven Colombian bases. After all, military cooperation has been a central feature of the joint, decade-long mission to rebuild Colombia from a chaotic, near-failed narco-state to a functioning democracy, and Colombia's anti-American neighbors, particularly Venezuela, have long urged Colombia to eject the U.S. forces. However, when viewed in the context of long-term U.S.-Colombian relations, the ruling, negative though it may seem, is far from bad news. In fact, it is an important victory for both Colombia and the U.S.
The U.S. began its assistance to Colombia, which has included $6 billion over the last ten years and countless military "advisers," with a daunting three-step process in mind. Step one was to roll back the military power of the drug-fueled insurgencies. In the early 1990s, the Cali and Medellín cartels challenged the sovereignty of the state both on the ground, where security forces were corrupted or simply outgunned, and in the very halls of government. Waves of political assassinations enforced the cartels' hold on the increasingly hollow government, accelerating the country's decline as it lost the ability to enforce the law and offer basic services. This first step took a decade of work by U.S. and Colombian officials, much of which was consumed by constant corruption probes of the Colombian officials tasked with helping to hunt down the cartels.
As if this weren't enough, step two called for the U.S. to help Colombia re-establish national and local security forces that could return sovereignty and rule of law to the country, patches of which had become lawless havens for the notoriously brutal FARC guerrillas. At their height, the FARC took 3,000 hostages every year. Many of them were kidnapped purely for ransom, many for political reasons. The group also performed routine acts of terrorism. Like any native, grassroots insurgency, the FARC has been incredibly difficult to uproot. The process will look familiar to close observers of the war against the Taliban, with Colombia pursuing every option from political reconciliation to outright military assaults. No one expects the FARC to completely disappear anytime in the foreseeable future, and much of the jungle remains unsafe, but the insurgent threat is considerably more manageable than it once was.
Step three is perhaps the most important. The final phase of the U.S.-Colombia mission calls for the difficult, arduous work of building up reliable and trustworthy democratic governmental institutions. Everything from the courts to local security forces to the tax collectors must be painstakingly cleansed of corruption and be made strong enough to resist future threats that may seek to corrupt or intimidate them. If this final step is successful, Colombia will have transitioned from a large-scale nation-building project to a crucial American ally, though one that will naturally not always align with U.S. interests, in a region that is not always friendly.
However, the U.S. may be its own biggest hurdle in this final step. Throughout this three-step process, the U.S. has been there, giving financial aid and military assistance. American officials even helped weed out the many corrupt government officials by vetting them, using everything from polygraph tests to independent investigations, for ties to the cartels or insurgencies. When Colombia's courts were unable to convict cartel or insurgency leaders because the judges were corrupt and the jurors intimidated, the U.S. simply lent Colombia its own court system. The U.S.-Colombia extradition treaty, in which American officials find a legal excuse to send captured Colombian criminals back to the U.S. for trail and incarceration, finally gave Colombian security forces the power to truly enforce the law. However, this process has made the government in Bogota more like a U.S. protectorate than a sovereign, independent nation. But sovereign and independent are exactly what it must become if it is to establish a true Colombian democracy. Our success in the first two steps could have seriously risked the third because, as we are finding with the weak government in Afghanistan, overly dependent nations often have trouble expressing legitimacy.
This is how the Colombian Constitutional Court did the U.S. a great big favor in striking down our military agreement. Their ruling, which is legally sound, has demonstrated that the court finally functions as it should: An independent and unafraid institution. If they won't even yield to an enormously popular Colombian president backed by the most powerful nation on Earth, surely they will be more resistant to drug cartels than they have been in the past. The ruling has built confidence in the court, which will both encourage security officials and discourage criminals, and it has reinforced the country's system of checks and balances. Just as importantly, the ruling signals Colombia's increasing independence from the U.S. The transition of Colombia from unofficial U.S. quasi-protectorate to independent ally would be the ideal culmination and stated goal of twenty years of hard American and Colombian work.
As an added bonus, the court's ruling will probably change nothing. The high court ruled the military accord unconstitutional because it was implemented unilaterally by outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, without the required approval of the Parliament. Newly elected Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos can simply ask the legislature to retroactively approve the military agreement, which both Santos and the legislature are very likely to do. Santos, a long-time member of the Uribe administration who has worked closely with the U.S. since becoming Minister of National Defense in 2006, has every reason to want this accord. The Colombian Congress, which Colombia expert Adam Isacon of the Washington Office on Latin America described as "80% pro-Santos/Uribe," will be happy to approve the agreement once Santos formally requests it. And why shouldn't they want the U.S. to stay? After two decades of close cooperation, the once bleak Colombian outlook now appears brighter than many ever thought possible.
Image: Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe speaks in front of high-ranking security officials, including General Luis Herlindo Mendieta, who had been rescued from FARC guerrillas after 12 years of captivity. Their return in June 2010 was seen as an important step for the government against the FARC. By Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty.