The Colombian Money Pit
by Matthew Knoester
Dollars and Sense magazine Nov/Dec 1999
Colombia received $289 million in military aid from Washington
this year, the most the United States gave out in the hemisphere
and its third greatest outlay worldwide. The Colombian military
wants more though-an additional $1 billion more over the next
two years, to fight the "drug war." Most of that money,
in the form of helicopters, planes, and radar equipment, would
go directly to the Colombian armed forces, which are waging war
against two guerrilla movements that now control 60% of the country's
Anyone familiar with the situation disputes the idea that
U.S. military aid is used primarily to fight the drug trade. Barry
McCaffrey, Clinton's "drug czar," admitted as much at
a July press conference: "It would be silly at this point
to try to differentiate between antidrug efforts and the war against
insurgent groups," he said.
The Colombian government, recipient of all this aid, has overseen
devastating economic reforms and is cited by human rights organizations
for repressing independent labor movements.
Colombia's economy, heavily reliant on exports of raw materials
and coffee, has been shaken by falling world prices for oil and
coal. To make matters worse, an earthquake last January devastated
coffee crops and reduced export earnings. Hoping to revive the
failing export sector, President Andreas Pastrana devalued the
peso by 10% last June. But the devaluation pinched living standards
at home and pushed Colombia's international debt up by $3 billion.
Twenty percent of the workforce is now unemployed.
Half of Colombia's nearly 40 million people live in poverty
and the ranks of the poor have grown by one million people each
year since 1990. Nonetheless, after his election last year, President
Pastrana enacted strict austerity measures and began selling off
state-owned banks and other nationalized enterprises. When some
800,000 state workers struck in protest, Pastrana declared the
strike illegal (as are 99% of strikes in Colombia). During Pastrana's
brief tenure as president, six labor leaders have been assassinated,
including Jorge Ortega, vice president of Colombia's largest union.
In the same week that Ortega was killed, Clinton warmly welcomed
Pastrana on a visit to Washington. Seven more labor activists
disappeared during a massive national work stoppage between August
31 and September 2.
In fact, according to the International Labor Organization,
Colombia holds the record for the most trade unionists killed
this decade. Throughout the 1990s, Colombian unionists made up
over half of those recorded as killed worldwide for organizing.
Other targets of violence include human rights monitors, clergy,
students, community leaders, journalists, and peasants. Those
who commit human rights atrocities enjoy almost total impunity.
Much of the killing is perpetrated by private paramilitary
groups, according to the Intercongregational Commission for Justice
and Peace in Bogota. These are armed civilians, sometimes active-duty
or retired military personnel, paid to protect the interests of
large landowners, including drug lords, and of foreign-owned corporations.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have established
the paramilitaries' close connections to government forces. The
paramilitary actions have effectively increased the holdings of
the largest landholders, who in turn support the paramilitary
groups. There are more than 1.5 million internal refugees in Colombia,
forcibly displaced by paramilitary terror-the fourth largest internally
displaced population in the world. Hardly an achievement for a
country receiving record levels of military aid. Coca production,
meanwhile, increased by an estimated 35% over the past two years,
according to the Washington Office on Latin America, and the guerrillas
have gained in strength. The steady expansion of insurgency groups
nearly parallels the level of forced displacements and killings
unleashed by paramilitary groups. The U.S. government has not
yet agreed to send more military aid, and won't if enough pressure
is brought to bear.
Groups such as the Colombia Support Network (based in Madison)
are lobbying Congress and its chapters are adopting rural sister-cities
in the Colombian countryside where most violence takes place.
Matthew Knoester is a member of the Colombia Support Network,