President Clinton is back from Colombia. His decision to waive
conditions imposed by Congress on his $1.3 billion Colombian aid
package was an admission of the human rights disaster in Colombia
and U.S. diplomatic bankruptcy. The Colombian government has failed
to comply with six of the seven human rights criteria Congress demanded.
Yet hundreds of millions of dollars will start flowing to the army
The waiver was necessary because, like every Colombian government
since the '50s, President Andrés Pastrana's administration
is unable to make its generals obey the Colombian constitution and
disengage from their paramilitary allies. Nevertheless, as a
White House official told an AP reporter recently, "You don't hold
up the major objective to achieve the minor." The U.S. government's
priority objective, explained Bryan Hittle of the White House Office
of National Drug Control Policy, was to "get the aid flowing" to help
Colombian authorities stop guerrilla violence that interferes with
U.S. fumigation of drug crops. Clinton's waiver has achieved that
Most Colombians do not buy Clinton's "counternarcotics" objective.
They believe the United States has embarked on a long-term strategy
to defeat the guerrillas and impose a "Pax Americana" along the
lines of the 10 years of U.S.-supported carnage in El Salvador.
Today in Putumayo, a major coca-growing area in southern Colombia,
U.S. special forces are training Colombian troops who will soon
spearhead an offensive to drive the FARC guerrillas out of their
southern stronghold and make the coca fields safe for aerial fumigation.
Two hundred thousand peasant farmers and coca pickers also live
in Putumayo. They will be caught in the crossfire. The guerrillas
are arming the farmers to defend themselves from anticipated attacks
by a local paramilitary force, 800 strong, which competes with the
FARC for control of the drug crops. The paramilitaries, whose luxurious
headquarters are located in a villa a five-minute drive from the
local army base, are reportedly paying farmers to inform on those
planning resistance. Putumayo is gearing up for civil war. The U.N.
High Commissioner for Refugees has alerted Ecuador, which shares
a border with the region, to prepare to receive 30,000 to 40,000
refugees when the fighting and the assassinations begin.
Clinton's visit put the presidential seal on "Plan Colombia," which
mixes the incompatible aims of counterinsurgency warfare and economic
development. Conceived by the Colombian government to raise funds
from drug-consuming countries for alternative development, Plan
Colombia was then co-opted by the White House and State Department.
The redrafted "made-in-the-U.S.A." version has provided the rationale
for military aid and permitted the United States to enter the war
on the FARC under the cover of the war on drugs.
The plan has been less successful in its second objective: to gain
international backing and financial support for U.S.-Colombian policy.
The international community is unenthusiastic about investing in
development schemes that one European diplomat recently described
as "cleaning up the mess that Americans will make." Among EU members,
only Spain and Britain are on board, and in the Western hemisphere,
only Argentina's support can be counted on. Colombia's Andean neighbors
are scared. They are militarizing their borders and buying arms
they cannot afford to try to protect themselves from Plan Colombia's
Ironically, for a politician as driven as Clinton to enhance the
image of his presidency, Plan Colombia risks leaving a stain on
his legacy and presents a poisoned chalice to his successor. Far
from helping Colombia "strengthen its democracy," as Clinton claims,
his policies have done the opposite. Military aid has strengthened
guerrilla hardliners and convinced the elites they need not worry
about the economic and social reforms necessary for peace. The Pentagon's
alliance with an army that retains its links with paramilitary thugs
has encouraged the expansion of the their alliance. While the U.S.
Embassy cites statistics about the number of Colombian soldiers
who have passed U.S.-sponsored "human rights" courses, Colombian
civilians are being terrorized, driven into exile and slaughtered
However appalling the methods of the FARC guerrillas, it is not
left-wing terrorism, but the rapid rise in the political power of
the extreme right and the military heft of the paramilitaries that
now present the greatest risk to the elected Colombian government.
Only Washington has the political clout with the Colombian military
to insist that the generals cease fraternizing with assassins, order
their forces to arrest paramilitary leaders and begin protecting
civilians from their savagery. Alarmingly, Washington appears to
be moving in the opposite direction.
According to recent reports in the media, the DEA offered to subsidize
notorious paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño in return for
his pledge to combat drug traffickers. This has renewed suspicions
that, unbeknownst to the U.S. Congress and Colombian government,
U.S. intelligence is involved in covert operations in Colombia's
civil war. The story, as revealed by Castaño on national
Colombian television in July, was confirmed the next day by an ex-DEA
agent, who told the Miami Herald he acted as translator at meetings
between U.S. operatives, Colombian narcos and members of Castaño's
paramilitaries where U.S. government support for Castaño
The Clinton administration claims the allegations are "a fantasy."
Yet the State Department has refused to include Castaño's
paramilitary group, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, on its
official list of terrorist organizations; the Justice Department
incomprehensibly has failed to demand Castaño's extradition,
even after he publicly admitted five months ago that 70 percent
of his funding comes from drugs. These disturbing facts have fueled
Colombian fears that, as in Nicaragua and El Salvador a decade ago,
the U.S. government has made a strategic counterinsurgency alliance
with drug-trafficking killers to defeat the FARC. Colombians also
say it is inconceivable the army would collude so blatantly with
the paramilitaries without at least tacit U.S. approval. Their conviction
has been reinforced by Clinton's signature on the human rights waiver.
After Clinton grafted military aid onto Plan Colombia, a coalition
representing the 37 Colombian human rights and humanitarian organizations--the
people whose collaboration is crucial for the Plan's development
component--rejected any funding from the U.S. aid package. Citing
"ethical and political difficulties in receiving aid from this program,"
they told Clinton his money was tainted. The NGO leaders, representing
the spectrum of the Colombian peace movement, say his policies will
wreck the peace process, escalate an unwinnable civil war and risk
driving Colombian drugs, refugees and violence over Colombia's borders.
They have asked European leaders, who will meet this month in Bogotá
to finalize their response to Plan Colombia, to withhold their support
and become actively involved in the urgent search for alternatives.
This is a message that needs to be heard loud and clear by both
Gore and Bush. Their advisers should start paying attention to this
major foreign policy crisis shaping up in the Southern Hemisphere.
They need to listen to other Colombian voices--the burgeoning exile
community would be a good place to start--and, in concert with regional
and international allies and the active involvement of Colombian
civil society leaders, begin the search for saner alternatives.
There is still time--but barely--to protect the next administration
from being dragged into a long-term, multi-billion-dollar quagmire
and embroiled in an uncontainable regional war.
Ana Carrigan reports
regularly on Colombia for the Irish Times and is writing a new book
of Colombian memoirs for Seven Stories Press.
Copyright 2000 In These Times