Clinton's Quagmire

The president's seat of approval seals Colombia's fate

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 Press.

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