The Power of U.S. Decertification Policies in the 1990s

Editor’s Note: Today we continue this week’s focus on Colombia and its role in America’s war on drugs. Contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School, writes about his experience returning to Colombia, the country of his birth, and witnessing the effects of American drug policy on that country. 

Screenshot 2020-07-01 14.37.26I returned to Colombia after my undergraduate years in the early 1990s.  At that point the U.S. War on Drugs had penetrated deep into the social, cultural, economic, political, legal, and environmental realities of Colombia.  The presence of the CIA, DEA, and Marines was evident; it was no secret that the country’s domestic and foreign policy agendas were directly and indirectly impacted by U.S. political and economic interests.  Parallel to this, Colombia’s society was adjusting to the aggressive structural changes that resulted from the implementation of neoliberal policies that centered around the privatization of production, the reduction of government intervention and regulation, and the implementation of free market policies that would eventually result in the bilateral Free Trade Agreement between the two countries in 2012.

It was under these circumstanced that President Bill Clinton’s administration took advantage of the 1980s foreign policy tool that required nations receiving U.S. Official Development Assistance (ODA) to combat the War on Drugs, to pass annual certification requirements as a precondition for receiving the aid.

Most, if not all the millions of  U.S. aid to Colombia was tied to the War on Drugs, at a time when this aid had become an integral part of the funding and functioning of the Colombian bureaucracy.  The ODA had not only become part of the country’s bureaucratic and power structures but it had also become the bread and butter of state corruption.  The Clinton administration’s decision to tie the aid to the country’s performance in the War on Drugs immediately threatened the interests of the vast number of direct and indirect stakeholders that depended on the ODA, ultimately converting aid into a powerful foreign policy tool that eventually transformed the social, cultural, economic, political, legal, and environmental realities of Colombia.  

Certification became particularly useful for President Clinton in 1996, as he geared up for his reelection campaign.  He used the policy to go after the Liberal Party leader and President of Colombia at the time, Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), accusing him and his campaign of having links to the drug cartels.  Colombia, which had been paying the price of the supply-side centered War on Drugs since the early 1980s and sacrificed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives on behalf of the United States, was strategically decertified by the Clinton administration in order to show American voters that his administration was not going to tolerate foreign corruption or the violation of human rights.  

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Colombia’s decertifications of 1996 and 1997 revealed, once again, how American foreign and domestic policy have a direct impact on the realities experienced by other countries that are dependent on ODA.  The construction of the dependency on aid that first got started in the 1950s, eventually created the internal structures and systems that turned ODA into an essential part of the political economy of the country.  During those two years Colombia’s political, social, and economic structures were weakened.  Violence escalated as the Samper administration tried to show the United States that they were committed to the War on Drugs.  The country was forced to reallocate its national budget in order to make up for the loss of aid money, drying out social and infrastructure programs in order to escalate the internal war against the cartels, and ultimately trying to show the Americans that the country was complying with the anti-narcotics policy.  

In the absence of ODA, and under the pressure to show results, the Colombian government laid down the foundations for the reemergence of paramilitary forces that would eventually work hand-in-hand with the Colombian military in their long-term fight against the Colombian cartels.  The outcome was an escalation of violence, but this time under the green light from the Colombian government that empowered paramilitary forces to carry out the dirty work on the government’s behalf.  Unfortunately, this allowed the definition of the enemy to be blurred, and by the early 2000s, when the bilateral free trade negotiations started, the number of legitimate and illegitimate armed forces escalated to unseen levels.  

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The government had its own paramilitary arm, but so did the cartels and the other organized criminal organizations that flourished, joining the multiple guerrilla groups that were also directly or indirectly linked to the world of narcotics.  Colombia was an unregulated war zone yet it was desired by the transnational corporations and global investors that wanted to capitalize on the untapped natural resources and the thirsty consumer society that had been shaped by the dynamics of the 1980s and 1990s.  

Colombia has never been decertified since, yet the damage has been done.  President Clinton’s decision created a new spatial and temporal dimension in the history of Colombia and the U.S. War on Drugs.  It revealed Colombia’s systemic dependency on the United States and the vulnerabilities to which it is exposed as a result of this nation-building approach.  Violence has not ceased; on the contrary, it has become more complex.  The repercussions of the 1996 decision are reflected in today’s reality, where indigenous groups, labor union leaders, community leaders, comedians, intellectuals, environmentalists, social activists, journalists, and left-leaning politicians now find themselves in the middle of the War on Drugs.  Today, anybody may become the target of the U.S. counter-narcotics initiatives in Colombia.  That is the beauty of blurring the enemy.