319. Letter From the Director of the Office of Colombian-Venezuelan Affairs (Hill) to the Ambassador to Colombia (Oliver)1

Dear Covey:

The primary reason for our decision against your proposal [1 line of source text not declassified] was the general premise that we should not run the potential risks of such action unless U.S. national security is directly involved. This does not seem to be the case in Colombia at the present time.
Your proposal was discussed thoroughly in ARA/CV and with Bob Sayre, who also discussed it with Tom Mann. The general consensus, including the concurrence of CIA, was to decide against your proposal, although Tom would have liked to have discussed it with Mr. Gordon. This was not practical within the time frame because of Mr. Gordon’s absence until next Monday.2 Even so, Mr. Gordon’s general views are known to coincide with what was decided.
I think that the purpose of your proposal was well taken, [4 lines of source text not declassified]. I agree entirely with the line of thought in this regard as expressed in paragraph 3 of your proposal message.3 A poor showing by the opposition and a small vote for the Lleras candidacy might well put the Lleras administration at a psychological disadvantage subsequently and give opposition elements an advantage in their efforts to undermine his government. Nevertheless, the congressional elections of March 20 constitute in themselves a genuine mandate for the FTN and should provide an answer to any future criticism that Lleras was not the majority choice. Such a position could certainly be justified with the press and with the other countries in the Hemisphere. In view of the mandate provided by the congressional elections and in view of the fact that we have no assurance now that [Page 697] the present political system or U.S. interests in Colombia will be jeopardized, [5 lines of source text not declassified].
In analyzing further your proposal, I think it needs to be broken down into two parts: (1) Ruiz as an effective opposition presidential candidate during the next month, and (2) the related possibility of the development of a new opposition party with middle and lower class support within the democratic left. (I think Ruiz’ insight that the failure of the MRL has left a vacuum on the democratic left in Colombia, as mentioned in paragraph 2 of Embtel 1258,4 is certainly correct.)
With regard to part 1, I think the surest advantage of your proposal lies in the short range context. The advantage of providing legitimacy for the Lleras administration probably outweighs the disadvantage of possible troubles stirred up for the FTN in the short and perhaps the long range by a more effective opposition. Apart from the general premise mentioned in paragraph 1 above, your proposal would probably be a good idea simply in the short range context.
Part 2 of your proposal raises the question of whether a new opposition party is really desirable. In this regard, we are not yet prepared to accept fully the possible argument that the two traditional parties have lost their usefulness and must necessarily be replaced by a new party or parties in order that Colombia may have a democratic system capable of stability and progress. If the National Front system were discarded and if real competition between the Conservative and Liberal parties were once again possible, it is our hope that one or both of these parties (but more likely the Liberal party) might assume the role of a progressive reform party sufficiently to meet popular aspirations, keep the support of labor, and win new support from the middle and lower classes.
Consequently, it would seem that a major goal which we should try to pursue during the coming Lleras administration should be modification of the National Front to permit such competition, preferably a modification permitting the free participation and competition in the political system of all parties. Such a development should benefit the traditional parties more than the opposition, we think, if the traditional parties concentrate on reform and if the modification of the system were undertaken soon. Basically, traditional parties would have an advantage over the opposition because of tradition, existing organization, [Page 698] capable leadership, and an apparent continuing appeal to a significant segment of the Colombian people. As long as the restrictive ground rules of the National Front prevail, the traditional parties will suffer from the lack of competition and the lack of meaningful alternatives.
Nevertheless, the idea of a new opposition party such as you suggest has several positive aspects. First, it would fill the void in the democratic left, if the traditional parties can’t. Second, it would channel the existing opposition, particularly ANAPO, along more responsible lines and prevent a default to extremism. Third, it might help to pressure a modification of the National Front.
Possible negative aspects of such a party might include the following. First, such an opposition party led by Ruiz might be more likely to heighten discontent than to clarify issues and might well make it more difficult for Lleras to govern. This would be particularly unfortunate if there is a good chance that Lleras’ economic and social program will be good. Second, it is not clear that Ruiz’ ideas and programs would be all that good. Certainly it is highly doubtful that they are as good as those of Lleras at this stage. Third, there is some room for doubt whether an effective opposition party such as you envisage could really get very far at this time. It is quite likely that even with Ruiz such a party might not remain cohesive and effective for very long. A struggle for control between Ruiz and Rojas5 might well take place. A presidential campaign of one month duration might be insufficient to strengthen Ruiz’ position enough to effectively challenge Rojas. In addition, there is some question whether Colombia is really ready or much interested in a new party. The congressional elections seemed to support this argument to a certain extent. It would probably take a strong charismatic figure, like a Betancourt or a Frei or even a Gaitan,6 to generate such a movement. At this point, there is not much on which to base such a party in Colombia except for ANAPO and possibly the UTC.
In sum, while your proposal has much merit [2½ lines of source text not declassified], the case is just not strong enough [1½ lines of source text not declassified]. I should add that my own view was influenced by knowledge of operations of this sort in the past which, despite being advertised as secure and effective, proved to be neither. Nevertheless, all agree that it is to your credit to have made such a proposal and shows your alertness to the situation as it is developing.
Actually, it would be more appropriate for the FTN to finance Ruiz as an opposition candidate. If the FTN recognizes this as advantageous, and if the FTN is astute and Machiavellian enough, it may do so. I was glad to see from paragraph 6 of Embtel 12857 that this may be the case.

If you have any comment with regard to any of the above, please let us know.

With best regards,

John Calvin Hill, Jr. 8
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA/NC Files: Lot 72 D 235, Eyes Only. Secret; Official–Informal; Eyes Only.
  2. April 4.
  3. In paragraph 3 Oliver agrued: “As I see it, a determined, vigorous, plausible candidate of opposition within constitution would be a good thing for Colombia. It would mark beginnings of a new party alignment related to twentieth century issues. It would call attention to specific alternative lines of development-related action that could be asserted and debated on their merits. It would canalize protest into proposals for democratic action; and these would (1) help Lleras with less open-minded power groups in his entourage and (2) keep masses from buying dialectical shibboleths out of ignorance and dissatisfaction with their alternation from government processes.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA/NC Files: Lot 72 D 235, Eyes Only)
  4. In telegram 1258 from Bogotá, March 25, the Embassy described a meeting between Ruiz and an Embassy officer, March 24; paragraph 2 concluded that Ruiz was “still undecided but seemed inclined run,” while paragraph 3 reported that Ruiz had “discussed great vacuum extant on Colombian democratic left owing failure MRL.” (Ibid., Central Files 1964–66, POL 14 COL)
  5. General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, former President of Colombia (1953-1957), was the founder and leader of ANAPO.
  6. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, leader of the Liberal Party until his assassination in Bogotá on April 9, 1948.
  7. According to paragraph 6 of telegram 1285 from Bogotá, March 30, there was speculation that the National Front was “asking for further contributions from followers in order finance opposition candidate if money proves only obstacle.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 14 COL)
  8. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.