How did Albert Einstein once put it? Wasn't it something like, "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war"? Perhaps one should relay that little piece of bumper-sticker wisdom to the LA Times staff writer Juanita Darling, who recently wrote a story entitled "Colombia Seeks Peace as It Prepares for War" (August 26th). "In a way," writes Darling, "a new $1.3-billion U.S. anti-drug aid package is also a bid on both war and peace." Darling's concise description of US assistance as "anti-drug aid" is certainly pleasing to the Clinton Administration,
which wants to take away the focus from the fact that approximately 80% of US aid to Colombia is of a military nature. Karl Penhaul, a correspondent in Colombia who writes for Reuters news service, is a bit more honest than Darling, calling the US package an "anti-drug and counterinsurgency plan." Darling leaves out the part about "counterinsurgency," knowing full well that the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá would not be happy with the violent images that terms like "counterinsurgency" conjure up.
Aside from contradicting Einstein's insightful adage, Darling is very vague about the facts that she exposes to the American public. She writes of "frequent massacres" in remote Colombian villages by "armed groups disputing territory."
While one should readily acknowledge that all sides of Colombia's civil conflict
have committed atrocities, it would help for the American public to know which
side is most implicated in the increasing number of massacres . The latest human
rights report by the United Nations indicates that most massacres have been
carried out by right-wing paramilitaries. Human Rights Watch reports that brutal
paramilitary activities have been carried out with "the tacit acquiescence or open
support of the Colombian Army." Considering that the paramilitaries' own leader,
the infamous Carlos Castaño, has openly admitted that his forces garner over 70% of their funds from the drug trade, the portrayal of the Colombian Army as a
valiant drug-fighting force is highly questionable. Yet that is exactly how Darling
casts the army, frequently quoting a Colombian commander of U.S.-trained
"counternarcotics" forces while never even mentioning allegations of links between the army and drug-connected paramilitaries.
Darling cites four observers who don't represent either the guerrillas or the
Colombian and American governments. Yet the statements of three observers are
solely aimed at the guerrillas' abuses and illegal activities, while the quote of the
fourth observer is openly supportive of U.S. policy. Among those cited is
Jeremy Thorp, Britain's Ambassador to Colombia who condemns the guerrillas'
kidnappings, forced disappearances, extortion and "recruitment of children for
'military service'". Given that the current British Government is one of only two
European governments that have openly expressed support for Plan Colombia, it
is questionable whether or not a British diplomat can truly be described as an
independent observer. But even if the four observers that Darling cites were to
qualify as independent, their singular focus on guerrilla abuses and activities would
certainly not represent the opinions of all independent observers of the Colombian
conflict. As was recently revealed in a Washington Post report by Stephen
Dudley, more than 100 Colombian non-governmental organizations have "banded
together to resist the Government's 7.5 billion dollar anti-drug plan, complaining
that it has been co-opted by a U.S. military strategy that would make their
participation unethical and put them in danger if they accept government aid."
Those who strongly oppose Plan Colombia include Colombia's largest labor
confederation, the Unitary Workers' Central (CUT). Given that paramilitaries and
state security forces are implicated in most of the 3000 murders of Colombian
unionists since 1986, it is quite logical that the CUT rejects an analysis that strictly
focuses on guerrilla abuses. Yet the opinions of unionists and human rights groups
receive no mention from Darling, who writes of only the "many Colombians" who
are "discouraged by the slow-moving peace process" and "have begun to turn their hopes to the anti-narcotics base at Tres Esquinas..."
Toward the end of her story, Darling forgoes all pretense of objectivity, writing
that "Colombians desperate for peace are clearly counting on that money and,
perhaps more important, U.S. interest in their drawn-out conflict." What of the
unionists, human rights workers and others who want nothing to do with Plan
Colombia? What of the large number of unmentioned Colombians who are also
"desperate for peace" and fear that the United States' stepped-up "interest" in
Colombia is leading the country into an all-out civil war? In Darling's world, these
people don't exist.
And so the United States dives right into the brutal counterinsurgency fight in
Colombia, where "war" means "peace", "peace" means "war" and "counternarcotics" means "counterinsurgency." Surely the LA Times' Juanita
Darling is receiving high marks at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. One hopes that
other U.S. journalists won't be so concerned about how government officials grade them.
Justin Delacour is a human rights activist and member of the Seattle Colombia Committee. He will be attending a human rights conference in Bogotá, Colombia in early September.