PRESIDENT CLINTON went to Colombia on Wednesday to build support for his new war effort there. In July Congress approved $1.3 billion for Clinton's ``Plan Colombia,'' a massive U.S. leap into the big muddy of anti-drug and anti-guerrilla warfare in the hemisphere's longest-running civil war. As the presidential campaign at home focuses on whose tax cut -- Al Gore's or George W. Bush's -- is the better deal, few are watching Clinton's lame-duck launch into a new Latin American quagmire with its haunting echoes of quagmires past.
The goal of Clinton's aid package is to bring an end to Colombia's longstanding cocaine trade to the United States. However, that aid will land right in the middle of Colombia's bloody 40-year-old civil war, in which both left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries tap into the drug trade for financing and support. The bulk of the aid package goes to the Colombian military -- 60 helicopters, training for a new anti-narcotics army brigade and other support for a massive incursion into southern Colombia's coca-growing region.
When Congress agreed to Clinton's aid request, it also recognized the human rights abuses committed by Colombian military and paramilitary units. Democrats and Republicans joined together to place important human rights conditions on that aid. They mandated that Colombia's president issue a written decree that soldiers who commit gross violations of human rights would be tried and punished in civilian court, that the country's armed forces cooperate in the investigation of human rights abuses, that any soldier involved in human rights abuses be immediately suspended and that the Colombian government prosecute leaders of paramilitary groups, the source of the majority of human rights abuses.
Congress' message was clear -- no action on human rights, no money.
How many of these conditions has the Colombian government met? ``Not a single one,'' reported Human Rights Watch last month.
Nevertheless, two weeks ago, in preparation for his Colombia visit, Clinton announced that he knew better. Better than the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and better than human rights workers on the ground in Colombia. Clinton used his executive authority to waive all those human rights requirements and put that $1.3 billion in the pipeline to Colombia's war zones.
Black Hawk and Huey-2 helicopters. Cash for machine guns and bullets. A billion-plus dollars buys a lot of killing.
Why did Clinton waive the protections imposed by Congress? ``Since the legislation is fairly recent, it's understandable the Colombian government has not had sufficient time to meet all the conditions,'' explained Clinton spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Chilling echoes of 20 years ago and the United States' first steps into the Central American quagmire of the 1980s. In 1981, during his final week in office, President Carter fretted over a new guerrilla offensive in El Salvador. U.S. aid to El Salvador's military had been suspended because of the record of horrendous human rights abuses committed by the Salvadoran military and paramilitary groups, among them the murder and rape of four U.S. churchwomen and the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Six days before leaving the White House, Carter used his emergency powers to send a package of aid to El Salvador's military. Soon after, President Reagan would boost that aid by massive amounts, always reminding his Democratic critics that it was Carter, not he, who began the policy. Over the next 10 years, more than 70,000 Salvadorans would die, and one of six would become refugees.
Now, using his executive powers to sidestep Congress, Clinton justifies his action by saying the Colombian government just needs more time to take action on human rights. ``We do think there is a good-faith effort under way in Colombia,'' said the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. More echoes from the 1980s.
``Good-faith efforts,'' the same words Reagan's people used to describe El Salvador's human rights record when he certified their generals as appropriate recipients for U.S. aid. ``Good faith efforts'' such as the 1981 massacre at El Mozote, where an elite army unit trained by U.S. advisers killed up to 926, more than half of them under the age of 14.
Here's a taste of Clinton's new Colombian version of ``good-faith effort'' -- an eyewitness account of murders carried out in February in the town of San José de Apartado, passed on to me by a young American who was there and watched as gunmen did their work:
``They split into four groups: One went into a billiard bar and ordered the men inside to lie on the floor and not look at them. When Edgar Mario Urrego did not obey, and reportedly said that he recognized some of the gunmen as soldiers, they shot him dead. Another group went to the Pentecostal church, where they forced José Ubaldo Quintero out of the building and shot him several times in the head, killing him instantly. Lus Ciro Aristizabal and Alonso Jiménez were forced out of their homes and shot dead. Albeiro Montoya was killed in the town square.''
Murder in a Pentecostal church. ``Good-faith effort''?
The war we funded in El Salvador was a war against ``communists.'' The one we are getting ready to fund now in Colombia is a war against ``drug dealers.''
No doubt, the United State's anti-drug effort in Colombia is paved with good intentions. The roads into quagmires always are. But the violence our money buys will likely have little effect on the drug trade and far too often be directed at the innocent.
San José de Apartado was a self-declared ``peace community,'' which pledged neutrality in the civil war, asking only to be left to live. No such luck. The people killed that day weren't drug dealers, or guerrillas. And townspeople identified those who did the killing as soldiers, just like the ones to whom Clinton will now send U.S. helicopters, guns and cash. How short our memories.
In Colombia today, in the face of war, there are powerful movements for peace and brave peacemakers. It is a tragedy for Colombia, and the United States, that President Clinton did not listen to them. They know that the guerrillas are not the only ones with their hands in the drug trade; right-wing paramilitaries linked to the army also participate.
`Could escalate the war'
The peacemakers also know that the path to peace is not made easier by a $1.3 billion transfusion for war. Says Ana Teresa Bernal, coordinator of a national network of grass-roots peace efforts, ``Those of us in Colombia who are convinced of the need for international assistance for peace believe there is an extremely high risk that Plan Colombia, the current U.S. aid package, could escalate the war.''
I was in El Salvador in May, eight years after that country's civil war ended. The conflict stopped only when international pressure forced the government into peace through negotiation and only after public opinion in the United States made it clear that the easy flow of heavy aid would not continue much longer. Time and again during my visit people told me that social conditions and poverty were worse than before the war.
What did all that U.S. assistance buy, other than a decade of killing, torture and suffering? Why do we think it will buy anything different in Colombia?
Soon Clinton will be retired and writing his memoirs. If Gore succeeds him, he will be locked into his former boss's Colombian adventure. If Bush sits in the Oval Office and hawkish advisers push him to continue or even increase aid, he will be able to shake a finger at critics and remind us: ``I did not start this, Bill Clinton did,'' just as Reagan cited Carter.
As the American political season focuses on issues closer to home, there are echoes in the air. Echoes of human rights being set aside, of ``good-faith efforts'' with blood on them, and of a lame-duck president funding yet another violent clash in a faraway country. A battle in which the real victims will be innocents.
Jim Shultz, executive director of the Democracy Center (www.democracyctr.org), lives and writes in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The center provides training and support to citizen democracy projects in the United States, Mexico, Central and South America. Shultz wrote this article for Perspective.
© 2000 Mercury Center