Published on Thursday, December 28, 2000 in the Guardian of London
Bush Adviser Talks Tough on Colombia
Aligns the new administration with the Colombian military and the death squads
by Martin Kettle in Washington
George W Bush's incoming administration is preparing for a more aggressive onslaught on guerrillas and drug traffickers in Colombia, a confidential speech by a senior adviser reveals.
Robert Zoellick, who is to be appointed to an international policy post in the Republican administration - possibly chief trade representative - said: "If the Colombian people are willing to fight for their own country, then the US should offer serious, sustained and timely financial, material and intelligence support."
His speech, which was delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations a week before the November 7 presidential election, suggests a big shift in Washington's policy on Colombia, just as President Andres Pastrana appears to be on the verge of making peace with the country's second-biggest leftwing rebel force, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The Clinton administration's tried to stay out of the 36-year civil war while giving multimillion-dollar aid packages intended for action against drugs.
Rightwing critics such as Mr Zoellick say that policy is soft on leftwing guerrilla movements such as the ELN and the larger Farc.
"We cannot continue to make a false distinction between counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts," Mr Zoellick said. "The narco-traffickers and guerrillas compose one dangerous network."
Leftwing critics, on the other hand, say the Clinton policy gives the Colombian armed forces too much leeway to divert US aid to rightwing death squads waging a largely unchecked war against the guerrillas.
Death squads have carried out three-quarters of the 4,000 annual political killings.
One critic, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, said this week that the Clinton administration's refusal to attach human rights guarantees and conditions to Washington's latest $1.3bn (£870m) aid package to Colombia "sent a terrible signal".
When the issue comes up for review next month, Mr Wellstone says, no aid should be given until all human rights terms are met.
But Mr Zoellick's tough speech suggests such that an effort is doomed.
It ignored human rights conditions, and called on the "forces of democracy" to combat "new threats to security" in Colombia.
Such a policy appears to align the new administration with the Colombian military and the death squads against Mr Pastrana and the left.
The prospect of a change in US policy could hardly come at a more delicate time in Colombia's long-running crisis, which has claimed more than 35,000 lives in the past 10 years and creates 300,000 refugees each year.
Thousands of Colombians have also been kidnapped, by both sides.
Last weekend the ELN freed 42 police officers and soldiers, a Christmas gesture which appeared to crown Cuban-brokered talks between Bogota and the ELN aimed at establishing a demilitarised enclave run by the ELN in Bolivar region in the north.
If it is finally agreed, the land-for-peace deal with the 5,000-strong ELN will be similar to a pact two years ago between Mr Pastrana and the Farc.
That deal was criticised because of the continuing claim of human rights abuses by Farc and because the armed forces have never accepted the deal's legitimacy.
That has led Bogota to press for tougher terms in any agreement with the ELN. Residents of Bolivar are demanding such conditions, because they fear a demilitarised zone could lead to increased violence.
The land-for-peace deals with the guerrillas are intended to be a prelude to full-scale peace talks. The deal with Farc laid down two years of peace talks which have not so far led to any hoped-for agreement.
The Farc has until January 31 to return to talks or see the military allowed back into the demilitarised zone.
A deal with the ELN would involve promises by both sides to hold full peace negotiations within nine months, Mr Pastrana said this week.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000