Colombia: Our Next Guatemala?
by Alexander Cockburn
The Nation magazine August 23/30, 1999
Anyone wanting a vivid snapshot of the rubble of US policy
toward Latin America should glance at Colombia, where the Clinton
Administration l now has one foot over the brink of a military
intervention strongly reminiscent of John Kennedy's initial deployments
Colombia is in economic free fall, and, as Larry Birns of
the Council on Hemispheric Affairs remarks, the only comfort its
beleaguered inhabitants can seize upon is that the velocity of
this collapse is at least slower than that of neighboring Ecuador,
now experiencing its worst economic slump in seventy years. Colombia
is currently suffering negative growth, has an official unemployment
rate of 19 percent and an actual unemployment rate probably more
than twice that figure. Austerity programs imposed by the IMF
and World Bank have closed off any hope for that half of the country's
population that lives below the poverty line.
It shouldn't be this way. With a diversity of exports, Colombia
could have one of the strongest economies of Latin America. But
it's the same old story. Down the years every US Administration
has sent arms and advisers to prop up Colombia's elites. US-assisted
repression in Colombia has been spectacularly appalling. According
to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in
Colombia, 3,832 political murders were perpetrated in 1998, the
bulk of them done by the army, police and right-wing paramilitaries.
To lend a sense of perspective, this is about twice the death
toll in Kosovo that prompted charges of Serbian genocide and that
helped whip up sentiment for NATO's war on Serbia.
The US government is now preparing to escalate vastly the
money and weapons going to the Colombian military, far beyond
the $289 million in already-scheduled assistance this year, making
Colombia the third-largest recipient of American aid, after Israel
and Egypt. Congress has already appropriated another half-billion
for the drug war, with much of it going to Colombia. Gen. Barry
McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of National Drug
Control Policy, is asking for a further $1 billion for the drug
war over the next three years, said sum to go to the Andean countries,
with about half to Colombia alone. The Colombian military is requesting
yet another $500 million.
McCaffrey's request puts an end to any pretense that there
is somehow a distinction between US backing of counterinsurgency
and of counter-drug activities. A Congressional amendment has
forbidden US military aid to go to Latin American army units with
a documented record of human rights abuses. But in the pell-mell
rush to throw money at Colombia's military, such niceties are
being cast over the side.
The immediate cause of panic is the strength of Colombia's
main insurgency, run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC). In a peace-feeler several months ago, President Andres
Pastrana effectively ceded the FARC control over a 1 6,000-square-mile
slab of south-central Colombia, about the size of Switzerland.
The Clinton Administration was not entirely unsympathetic to this
overture, at least until a FARC commander made the brutal and
summary decision in February to execute the three indigenous rights
activists-Ingrid Washinawatok, Lahe'ena'e Gay and Terence Freitas-who
were working in the eastern Arauca state on behalf of the U'wa
Indians. The FARC did admit responsibility but thereafter refused
any of Washington's requests, such as turning over the relevant
commander. The FARC says it has to be vigilant against spies and
will regard US personnel as legitimate targets.
Pastrana's decision to cede de facto control of a slice of
territory to FARC infuriated the military, which has been increasingly
humiliated by guerrilla strength that recently brought FARC forces
as close as twenty-five miles from Bogota. With a nominal force
of 40,000, the Colombian Army currently has around 6,000 to 7,000
front-line troops who are paid only a third of what FARC's fighters
receive. FARC can afford such a military budget because of its
taxes on drug cultivation and shipments in the zones it controls.
For their part the FARC's leaders have questioned whether
Pastrana has the ability to deliver on any negotiated settlement.
Not without reason. Every single guerrilla group agreeing to lay
down its arms and enter the conventional political arena has seen
its members slaughtered by the paramilitaries controlled by the
army and the police.
There is a powerful lobby in Washington for pouring money
into counterinsurgency in Colombia. McCaffrey spouts pieties about
separating the drug war from counterinsurgency, but says simultaneously
that the United States is duty bound to assist the Colombian government
to beat off any threat. Colombian police chief Jose Serrano has
forged close links with Senator Jesse Helms and Representative
Ben Gilman, who head the foreign relations committees considering
the requests for big new appropriations to the Colombian military.
Already the Pentagon is sending planes and personnel into Colombia.
The US Army's intelligence-gathering de Havilland RC-7 that crashed
into a Colombian mountain in the early hours of July 23 was almost
certainly monitoring FARC deployments, with such information being
relayed to the Colombian military.
There are two faces to US policy toward Latin America, both
repulsive. The first is that of economic neoliberalism, preaching
the virtues of uninhibited trade, open markets, privatization,
structural adjustment. On the ground, across Latin America, we
see the consequence: social devastation in thirty-one kleptocracies,
all corrupt, many bankrupt. The alternate face, whose baleful
glare is now fixed upon Colombia, is that of military repression.
Bolstered with fresh US cash, the Colombian military is probably
planning a direct coup unless Pastrana takes a hard-line stance
against FARC and other guerrilla insurgencies. For thirty years
the United States underwrote genocide in Guatemala. With 30,000
civilians already killed, Colombia could become its successor.
Congress should veto any aid or comfort.