Because Americans are such poor students of history, the Clinton administration's plan to spend $1.7-billion propping up Colombia's weak armed forces sailed through the House with little public outcry.
Have we forgotten the lessons of our involvement in Central America in the 1980s, when, in an attempt to contain Communism, our government provided support to right-wing governments and paramilitary groups that used the aid to slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians? This time, America's stated public interest is stopping drug trafficking. But bolstering Colombia's military will have little impact on the flow of narcotics into the United States. It could, however, draw us into a brutal civil war in which civilians are a target.
The Clinton administration argues that Colombia is the source of 90 percent of the cocaine and 65 percent of the heroin seized in the United States and that the only way to stop it is to intervene in Colombia's civil unrest. Many of Colombia's coca farmers cultivate their crops under the protection of leftist guerrillas who use the drug trade to finance their continued insurgency. To stem the drug flow, the administration argues, Colombia's military has to be given the tools and training to defeat the leftist guerrillas. That's why the aid package includes 30 Blackhawk and 33 Huey helicopters, as well as $470-million for the country's army and $115.5-million for the police.
But the situation in Colombia is not so clear-cut. The country's military has been linked to right-wing paramilitary groups that have been accused of egregious human rights violations as well as narcotics trafficking. According to the watchdog group Human Rights Watch, a substantial portion of the Colombian military's brigade-level units have collaborated with murderous paramilitary groups and death squads. There's an eerily familiar ring to the reports that, in the past few years, dozens of labor activists have been killed or have disappeared.
Even if the humanitarian arguments don't sway those in Washington -- and history shows they rarely do -- maybe the practical ones will. For a country that has touted capitalism around the globe, our leaders don't seem to understand the laws of supply and demand. Trying to reduce the supply of illicit narcotics without eradicating demand will be ineffective. Even if the Colombian military is successful in closing down large coca farms, the economic incentives in drug trafficking are just too great for there to be any serious interruption in the flow of cocaine and heroin to the United States. Narcotics traffickers will simply shift locations, as they did in moving to Colombia after a crackdown occurred in Peru and Bolivia. As the Council on Foreign Relations said about Washington's international drug war: "For 20 years, these programs have done little more than rearrange the map of drug prohibition and trafficking."
The Colombian aid package now faces review in the Senate. If it doesn't get waylaid there, the United States will spend more than a billion dollars to be drawn into a morally ambiguous foreign civil war to advance a drug war strategy that is a proven loser.
© St. Petersburg Times.