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Commentary

Yes, it's personal in South Florida — but that doesn't make it good policy in Latin America

Collage of Colombia's Marxist FARC guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary AUC soldiers during the country's civil war
Scott Dalton (left), Fernando Vergara
/
AP
MONSTROUS FORCES Colombia's Marxist FARC guerrillas (left) and right-wing paramilitary AUC soldiers during the country's civil war.

COMMENTARY Railing at the decision to remove Colombia's FARC from the U.S. terrorist list is good South Florida politics — not good Latin America policy.

In 2018, two years after Colombia’s half-century-long civil war finally ended, I met Angélica Lamos in the country’s Norte de Santander state. Her farm there was overrun in 2003 by the vicious right-wing paramilitary army known as the AUC.

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Lamos said the AUC, infamous for its death squads, had threatened to either conscript or kill her then 13-year-old son. She and her family fled to Venezuela.

They returned to Colombia in 2014 — the same year the U.S. removed the now demobilized paramilitary group from its list of terrorist organizations. I asked Lamos, given what she’d suffered from the AUC, if she accepted having those disarmed combatants welcomed back into civilian society in her midst — and their terrorist label removed.

“In the interest of peace, yes,” she told me. “I hate them. But it’s the right thing.”

READ MORE: Dear Uribistas: Colombia's Problem Right Now Isn't the FARC — It's You

I’m well aware that many Colombians with AUC stories similar to Lamos’ would have said “Hell no, it’s not right.” I would have understood their anger. But as I considered the right thing for Colombia amid its turbulent history, I had to side with Lamos. Not because I don’t think she had every right to seek revenge on the ogres who stole a decade of her life; but because I think she saw more clearly how to salvage the decades ahead.

Colombia fought a civil war that killed more than 200,000 people because it was, and still is, home to some of the world’s worst social and economic inequality. That won’t be solved now unless the country takes peace, warts and all, as seriously as Lamos does.

And so, if I nod to her when it comes to the AUC, I have little choice but to lean that way regarding the AUC’s mortal enemy – the Marxist guerrillas known as the FARC, whom the Biden Administration removed from the U.S.’s terrorist list last week.

I don't blame Colombian expats one bit for still hating the Marxist FARC guerrillas — but that doesn't mean their hatred is the basis for sound, post-civil war U.S. policy in Colombia.

Before they disbanded as part of Colombia’s 2016 peace deal, the FARC were their own monstrous force — more Mafia than Marxist, notorious for narco-trafficking, indiscriminate bombings and ransom kidnappings of civilians. As a correspondent I watched those rebels in south Colombia; and over the years in South Florida I’ve spoken with dozens of Colombian expats who were victimized by FARC violence the way Lamos fell prey to the AUC.

And I don’t blame them one bit for still hating the FARC.

But that doesn’t mean their hatred is the basis for sound U.S. policy in Colombia.

CRIMINAL NEGLECT

It certainly shouldn’t derail the U.S.’s recognition that 90 percent of the FARC’s membership are now civilians and that the defunct army itself is now a political party. The administration rightly kept the 10 percent still fighting, and the splinter groups they belong to, on the terrorist list.

Most of the ex-FARC militants live in rural regions historically and criminally neglected by Colombia’s government. They’re the areas that most need U.S. development aid. Scrapping the FARC’s terrorist designation — a process actually started under President Trump — lets Washington work with those former guerrillas to improve the most desperate living conditions. That is, to help prevent another poverty-driven civil war in the future.

That’s what I fear most Colombian expats are plugging their ears to — including Miami state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who’s lambasting her fellow Democrat, Biden, for crossing the FARC off the terrorist roster.

The FARC kidnapped Taddeo’s father in the 1980s. He escaped, but “this is personal for me and a lot of other people,” Taddeo told me last week.

AnnetteTaddeo2019Senate.jpeg
Steve Cannon
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AP
Democratic Florida state Senator Annette Taddeo of Miami speaking in the state Senate in Tallahassee.

I get that — and the fact that Biden should have consulted Colombian-Americans about his FARC decision much sooner.

But again, personal doesn’t mean good policy. In South Florida it does mean good politics — so it’s fair to ask Taddeo, a gubernatorial candidate, if she’s taking this stand to garner conservative votes. She adamantly denies that. So do other Florida Dems following her lead on the FARC issue, like Orlando Congresswoman Val Demings, who’s challenging Republican Senator Marco Rubio for his seat.

Still, ask yourself how long the politically popular personal in South Florida has pre-empted diplomatically effective policy in Latin America — and where it’s gotten things. On Cuba. Venezuela. Not very far.

Colombia policy might escape that trap. Talking to Angélica Lamos would be a good start.