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Published on Sunday, June 18, 2000 in the London Observer
Don't Be Drawn Into The New Vietnam
by Hugh O'Shaugnessy
At a meeting tomorrow morning at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall, Britain and its European Union partners will be urged to take an active part in the twenty-first century equivalent of the Vietnam War.

It is called the Plan Colombia. It involves the United States government spending £1 billion to send troops and yet more weapons to help the Colombian armed forces and their revolting paramilitary allies - all of them guilty of the most terrible atrocities for decades. They are waging an unwinnable war against the decent people of Colombia who want to modernise their country and change it from a place run by spivs and terrorists to a real democracy.

The EU will be urged publicly to side with the Colombian and US generals, find £600 million and assume the impossible task of the role of stretcher bearers trying to prevent one of the largest countries in the Western hemisphere bleeding to death. It is an impossible task because if the Plan Colombia - which I shall henceforward refer to as Colombia Vietnam 2000 - goes ahead, that country will undoubtedly bleed to death.

Hundreds of thousands of Colombians have already died and more than a million have been forced from their homes by violence - 288,000 last year alone. People are streaming out of the country; 200,000 emigrate every year and there were 336,423 applications for visas at the US embassy in 1999. The first appointment to make a visa application there is for some time in May 2001.

The war in Kosovo and the death and misery there were skirmishes when compared with the continuing cataclysm in Colombia: by contrast to the commanders of the Colombian army's Third, Fourth and Thirteenth Brigades, even Augusto Pinochet emerges as relatively harmless scout-master.

The situation in Colombia is inherently complicated and those in Bogota and Washington who are pressing for the Colombia Vietnam 2000 solution have made it fiendishly more difficult for the foreigner to comprehend by pumping out clouds of poisonous and mendacious rhetoric about drugs.

Largely unnoticed by the outside world, Colombia has been one big killing field for half a century. It was one even before cocaine became its most famous export. In the nine years after a popular political leader was assassinated in Bogota in 1948, some 300,000 Colombians died in a conflict which pitched conservatives against liberals.

The conservatives - like the Catholic bishop who declared ballroom dancing was a mortal sin - wanted to keep the old feudal ways: the liberals - supported by a warring groups of Marxists on the fringe - wanted outrageous novelties. They demanded clean elections and an end to the killing and were against such practices - as I reported for The Observer - of five-year old boys being sent down the coal mines in the Cauca Valley.

When in 1957 conservative and the liberal politicians decided they should stop fighting and collaborate, carve up political power between them, kill their opponents and keep the status quo, millions of Colombians lost hope in the political process. Naturally guerrilla movements blossomed.

At the hysterical height of the Cold War in the Sixties and Seventies these movements were, on the basis of no convincing evidence at all, seen as a Soviet threat to Uncle Sam's backyard. The West was therefore expected to back the Colombian establishment. Western governments did nothing to encourage real reporting, one reason why the Colombian horror went largely unperceived in the world. Meanwhile, many guerrillas have since degenerated here into ruffians and kidnappers able to enrich themselves mightily.

In the Eighties the growth in the drug culture in the US created a demand first for marijuana, then for cocaine and now for heroin, all easily grown in this mountainous, empty country. Starting with Richard Nixon, successive US governments opted for a war on drugs abroad rather than social and detoxification programmes targeted at addicts at home. And the war on drugs, US leaders decided, would be fought in distant battlefields, such as Peru and Bolivia, Afghanistan and Burma, and most notably Colombia.

Now, in Washington, a fear of the Colombian Left has got inextricably entwined with an effort to keep the anti-drugs effort offshore. The insurgents in Colombia are referred to as 'narco-guerrillas', despite the fact that there is little evidence that they, like the government side, do more than squeeze money from the full-time drug dealers.

The power of drug money has rotted Colombian society from top to bottom. It is so great that even Colonel James Hiett, head of the US army anti-drug programme in Colombia, and his wife, Laurie, were convicted this year of charges relating to smuggling cocaine in a US diplomatic pouch. The largest guerrilla group, the FARC, has set itself the job of amassing £400 million to buy arms.

Into this morass the US, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank will be trying to tempt the Europeans, the Canadians and the Japanese tomorrow. Sadly, it seems the British Prime Minister and the conservative Prime Minister of Spain are convinced of the rightness of Colombia Vietnam 2000 and will try to sell it to an increasingly sceptical Europe. Even Mo Mowlem, just back from a lightning trip to Bogota, will be there to back this mad plan.

Perhaps Tony Blair should ponder the record of Harold Wilson. Much criticised as he was, at least Wilson never allowed Britain to join the US in the Vietnam maelstrom and the subsequent defeat. Colombia Vietnam 2000 will sooner or later be revealed, too, as a recipe for defeat. Shouldn't Britain and her EU partners withhold the £600 million we are being asked for? Better give it to our pensioners, our teachers, our doctors and our nurses and not just chuck into a South American morass.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000


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