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Published on Tuesday, July 25, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
What Have We Bought With Colombian 'Aid'?
Editorial
 
SOMEDAY, PEOPLE will look back and ask, ``What were they thinking?''

Why, indeed, is the United States entering a 40-year-old civil war in Colombia?

The situation is turning surreal. The United States is about to plunge into an undeclared war, yet Colombia barely registers on the political radar and has been mostly ignored by the major-party candidates for U.S. president.

Yet the war in Colombia is heating up. Even before Congress voted $1.3 billion in military aid to the Colombian government last month, a precarious peace process was floundering. Elected two years ago with a popular mandate, President Andres Pastrana had stepped-up the spraying of the country's coca farms and even gave the country's major armed guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia, known as FARC, a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland.

Now, his popularity has sunk to an all-time low and Americans are left to prop up a terminally weakened government.

Within the year, the United States will fund, train and equip three shiny new mobile battalions to fight leftist guerrillas. Aware that American aid, soldiers and helicopters will irreversibly alter the military landscape, all those involved in the civil war appear intent to expand whatever territory they now control. In the words of one rebel leader, Ivan Rios, the stepped-up U.S. involvement is like ``throwing fuel on the fire.''

Since 1990, 35,000 people have died in Colombia's civil war. According to a report released in April by the U.S. Committee for Refugees, violence committed by guerrilla and paramilitary forces, accompanied by multinational attempts to clear land to mine gold and extract oil, have turned tens of thousands of rural people, mostly women and children, into displaced refugees.

And that was before Congress passed legislation to fund the so-called war on drugs in Colombia. Since then, FARC has launched a series of attacks on isolated police headquarters, killing more than 200 people. As they await for American military intervention, they are also carving up corridors to other regions they control. They also have the resources to endanger both soldiers on the ground as well as those in military helicopters. Make no mistake: American soldiers are going to be engaged in combat.

To protect the nation's capital, the Colombian government has put 7,000 troops on alert. Emboldened by the prospect of increased U.S. military aid, paramilitary forces entered the tiny village of La Union just a few weeks ago, ordered all 63 families into a village square, and executed six people suspected of guerrilla sympathies. Meanwhile, a government military helicopter hovered above.

The Senate's final package cut funding for and conditions on human rights, removed restrictions on the use of herbicides, and decreased aid for displaced Colombians. ``You don't hold up the major objective to achieve the minor,'' said Brad Hittle of the White House office of National Drug Control Policy.

Once again, the United States is committing huge sums of money, military aid and advisers to a foreign civil war.

But only a political solution will end this civil war, which is what a large contingent of European nations is trying to broker. It has requested that the United States and Colombia end their ties with paramilitary troops, call a military cease fire with guerrilla troops and bring all warring parties to Costa Rica in September to forge a democratic reconstruction of Colombia.

From the United States and Colombia, however, there is only silence.

In March 1999, President Clinton apologized to the Guatemalan people for America's support of a military that ``engaged in violent and widespread repression'' that resulted in the death of 100,000 civilians. ``That policy was wrong,'' the president said. But that war, as well as the one in El Salvador, only ended when the United States acknowledged that both conflicts were unwinnable and threatened to cut off aid to government forces.

When will we ever learn?

2000 San Francisco Chronicle

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