The president's seat of approval seals Colombia's
by Ana Carrigan
In These Times magazine, October 2, 2000
President Clinton is back from Colombia. His decision to waive
conditions imposed by Congress on his $1.3 billion Colombian aid
package was an admission of the human rights disaster in Colombia
and U.S. diplomatic bankruptcy. The Colombian government has failed
to comply with six of the seven human rights criteria Congress
demanded. Yet hundreds of millions of dollars will start flowing
to the army anyway.
The waiver was necessary because, like every Colombian government
since the '50s, President Andres Pastrana's administration is
unable to make its generals obey the Colombian constitution and
disengage from their paramilitary allies. Nevertheless, as a White
House official told an AP reporter recently, "You don't hold
up the major objective to achieve the minor." The U.S. government's
priority objective, explained Bryan Hittle of the White House
Office of National Drug Control Policy, was to "get the aid
flowing" to help Colombian authorities stop guerrilla violence
that interferes with U.S. fumigation of drug crops. Clinton's
waiver has achieved that priority.
Most Colombians do not buy Clinton's "counternarcotics"
objective. They believe the United States has embarked on a long-term
strategy to defeat the guerrillas and impose a "Pax Americana"
along the lines of the 10 years of U.S. supported carnage in El
Salvador. Today in Putumayo, a major coca-growing area in southern
Colombia, U.S. special forces are training Colombian troops who
will soon spearhead an offensive to drive the FARC guerrillas
out of their southern stronghold and make the coca fields safe
for aerial fumigation. Two hundred thousand peasant farmers and
coca pickers also live in Putumayo. They will be caught in the
crossfire. The guerrillas are arming the farmers to defend themselves
from anticipated attacks by a local paramilitary force, 800 strong,
which competes with the FARC for control of the drug crops. The
paramilitaries, whose luxurious headquarters are located in a
villa a five-minute drive from the local army base, are reportedly
paying farmers to inform on those planning resistance. Putumayo
is gearing up for civil war. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
has alerted Ecuador, which shares a border with the region, to
prepare to receive 30,000 to 40,000 refugees when the fighting
and the assassinations begin.
Clinton's visit put the presidential seal on "Plan Colombia,"
which mixes the incompatible aims of counterinsurgency warfare
and economic development. Conceived by the Colombian government
to raise funds from drug-consuming countries for alternative development,
Plan Colombia was then co-opted by the White House and State Department.
The redrafted "made-in-the-U.S.A." version has provided
the rationale for military aid and permitted the United States
to enter the war on the FARC under the cover of the war on drugs.
The plan has been less successful in its second objective:
to gain international backing and financial support for U.S.-Colombian
policy. The international community is unenthusiastic about investing
in development schemes that one European diplomat recently described
as "cleaning up the mess that Americans will make."
Among EU members, only Spain and Britain are on board, and in
the Western hemisphere, only Argentina's support can be counted
on. Colombia's Andean neighbors are scared. They are militarizing
their borders and buying arms they cannot afford to try to protect
themselves from Plan Colombia's fallout.
Ironically, for a politician as driven as Clinton to enhance
the image of his presidency, Plan Colombia risks leaving a stain
on his legacy and presents a poisoned chalice to his successor.
Far from helping Colombia "strengthen its democracy,"
as Clinton claims, his policies have done the opposite. Military
aid has strengthened guerrilla hardliners and convinced the elites
they need not worry about the economic and social reforms necessary
for peace. The Pentagon's alliance with an army that retains its
links with paramilitary thugs has encouraged the expansion of
the their alliance. While the U.S. Embassy cites statistics about
the number of Colombian soldiers who have passed U.S.-sponsored
"human rights" courses, Colombian civilians are being
terrorized, driven into exile and slaughtered with impunity.
However appalling the methods of the FARC guerrillas, it is
not left-wing terrorism, but the rapid rise in the political power
of the extreme right and the military heft of the paramilitaries
that now present the greatest risk to the elected Colombian government.
Only Washington has the political clout with the Colombian military
to insist that the generals cease fraternizing with assassins,
order their forces to arrest paramilitary leaders and begin protecting
civilians from their savagery. Alarmingly, Washington appears
to be moving in the opposite direction.
According to recent reports in the media, the DEA offered
to subsidize notorious paramilitary leader Carlos Castano in return
for his pledge to combat drug traffickers. This has renewed suspicions
that, unbeknownst to the U.S. Congress and Colombian government,
U.S. intelligence is involved in covert operations in Colombia's
civil war. The story, as revealed by Castano on national Colombian
television in July, was confirmed the next day by an ex-DEA agent,
who told the Miami Herald he acted as translator at meetings between
U.S. operatives, Colombian narcos and members of Castano's paramilitaries
where U.S. government support for Castano was discussed.
The Clinton administration claims the allegations are "a
fantasy." Yet the State Department has refused to include
Castano's paramilitary group, United Self Defense Forces of Colombia,
on its official list of terrorist organizations; the Justice Department
incomprehensibly has failed to demand Castano's extradition, even
after he publicly admitted five months ago that 70 percent of
his funding comes from drugs. These disturbing facts have fueled
Colombian fears that, as in Nicaragua and El Salvador a decade
ago, the U.S. government has made a strategic counterinsurgency
alliance with drug-trafficking killers to defeat the FARC. Colombians
also say it is inconceivable the army would collude so blatantly
with the paramilitaries without at least tacit U.S. approval.
Their conviction has been reinforced by Clinton's signature on
the human rights waiver.
After Clinton grafted military aid onto Plan Colombia, a coalition
representing the 37 Colombian human rights and humanitarian organizations-the
people whose collaboration is crucial for the Plan's development
component-rejected any funding from the U.S. aid package. Citing
"ethical and political difficulties in receiving aid from
this program," they told Clinton his money was tainted. The
NGO leaders, representing the spectrum of the Colombian peace
movement, say his policies will wreck the peace process, escalate
an unwinnable civil war and risk driving Colombian drugs, refugees
and violence over Colombia's borders. They have asked European
leaders, who will meet this month in Bogota to finalize their
response to Plan Colombia, to withhold their support and become
actively involved in the urgent search for alternatives.
This is a message that needs to be heard loud and clear by
both Gore and Bush. Their advisers should start paying attention
to this major foreign policy crisis shaping up in the Southern
Hemisphere. They need to listen to other Colombian voices-the
burgeoning exile community would be a good place to start-and,
in concert with regional and international allies and the active
involvement of Colombian civil society leaders, begin the search
for saner alternatives. There is still time-but barely-to protect
the next administration from being dragged into a long-term, multi-billion-dollar
quagmire and embroiled in an uncontainable regional war.
Ana Carrigan reports regularly on Colombia for the Irish Times
and is writing a new book of Colombian memoirs for Seven Stories
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