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 territory.

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, (608) 257-8753.

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