Up Colombia," by CIP President Robert E. White, October 6, 2000
magazine, October 6, 2000
Robert E. White
SHOOTING UP COLOMBIA
U.S. aid will do more harm than good
Presidents who require that
all major foreign policy initiatives undergo detached, searching analysis
by foreign-policy professionals immediately make this world a saner and
more secure place. In most cases, President Bill Clinton has done this.
Overall, his record of confronting international crises with eyes wide
open merits respect, even praise. In Northern Ireland, the Korean peninsula,
and the Middle East, he has achieved solid progress toward peace through
diplomatic support for negotiations and, in the latter two cases, by timely
financial support to guarantee the durability of any agreement. These
promising initiatives owe much of their success to the candor and openness
with which the administration has conducted its diplomacy.
In Colombia, however, the
limits on our power to intervene effectively have been ignored-a victim
of Washington's dotty war on drugs. Clinton may insist, as he did in Cartagena,
Colombia on August 30, that his policy is only a counter-narcotics strategy.
Colombians know better: while more than 2 million square miles of land
is suitable for growing of coca leaf, only 1,000 square miles is needed
to meet the world's demand for cocaine. Thus, aerial eradication makes
no sense except as a weapon to reduce the wealth of the insurgents in
Colombia's long-running civil war, who depend for a share of their income
on the "taxes" they collect from campesino cultivators.
My fascination with Colombia
goes back to the mid-1970s when I served for three years as deputy chief
of the American embassy in Bogotá. As part of my duties, I coordinated
the embassy's counternarcotics program. Despite the considerable risks
run by the highly professional agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency,
our operations seemed always to misfire. We later learned that both the
chief of the national police and the general in charge of the Colombian
counter-narcotics program were in the pay of drug traffickers.
Over the last two decades,
I have returned to Colombia many times, at first in the course of official
duties, more recently as adviser to various congressional and private
delegations. Of the three trips I made last year, one included a visit
to southern Colombia, the area that is soon to be the beneficiary of massive
American security assistance. As I flew over jungle and savannah and drove
across the neglected countryside, I thought about the arrogance of our
government's refusal to take common-sense measures to cut domestic drug
demand. Yet we will casually intensify another country's civil war so
that contract pilots can safely rain down herbicides over the fragile
Amazon ecosystem. As Columbian President Andrés Pastrana said recently,
economic and military pressure on drug-producing countries makes little
sense unless the consumer countries, such as the United States, do their
Four major armies roam over
Colombia, a country of 40 million people. Although the two guerrilla forces
occasionally engage in combat with the Colombian military and its paramilitary
allies, this war is more about massacres of civilians and selective assassinations
than about armed confrontation. All sources agree that it is the paramilitaries
who account for 75 percent of the killings. The conflict is deep-rooted,
complex, and brutal. According to Alejandro Reyes of the National University,
the history of the country can be seen as "a long, drawn-out struggle
between large landowners and small peasants, between cattle-raising and
subsistence agriculture, between [members of] a powerful privileged class
who own most of the land and campesinos who lack any influence, resources,
or access to credit." Of particular importance in assessing U.S.
policy is Reyes's observation that "guerrillas, like illicit crops,
only become more entrenched when they come under attack." He has
developed compelling evidence that "insurgents gather force and strength
from state repression because the campesinos regard these military actions
as directed not only against the guerrillas but against the entire rural
In El Salvador in the 1980s,
the Reagan administration justified its military intervention on the grounds
that the Salvadoran insurgents were not real revolutionaries, that they
took up arms not in their own cause but only as hirelings of Moscow and
Havana. In Colombia, the Clinton administration has proved even more imaginative.
To overcome American reluctance to intervene in another country's civil
war, administration aides have written our drug-war priorities into a
preexisting Colombian plan and represented the radically altered outcome
as a Colombian request for military assistance.
The legislation authorizing
the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package is titled, "Emergency Supplemental
for Plan Colombia"; the key chapter is "Push into Southern Colombia."
It provides funding for sixty attack helicopters, an array of dubious
intelligence activities, and three counternarcotics battalions. In the
explanatory text, Plan Colombia is described as "a counternarcotics
initiative developed under the leadership of Columbian President Pastrana."
Truth is again the first casualty
General Barry McCaffrey, U.S.
drug czar and former commander of the Southern Command, has emerged as
the administration's leader on Colombia, and by his definition the crisis
requires military action to interdict drugs. While all his statements
taken together do not add up to a coherent policy, McCaffrey has repeatedly
insisted that our intervention rests on the bedrock of Plan Colombia.
Although Clinton has yet to make a major policy address on Colombia, he
too has made repeated references to Plan Colombia. On May 17, at the U.S.
Coast Guard Academy, he said that Pastrana "has asked for our help
to finance his comprehensive Plan Colombia to fight drugs, build the economy,
and deepen democracy."
Pastrana was elected to the
presidency on the strength of his campaign promises to end the war by
means of negotiations and to transform Colombia by means of a broad-ranging
reform program. Colombians were inspired by their courageous young president
who, upon taking office in 1998, stated that the "peace policy of
the government rests on four pillars: negotiation, political reform, tolerance
(convivencia), and citizen security." This first version of Plan
Colombia states that "its objective is to contribute to the achievement
of peace through investment that will produce the social, economic, and
cultural transformation of the critical zones of conflict, at the same
time guaranteeing the preservation of the environment."
To the authors of the original
Plan Colombia, the problem of illicit drug crops is inextricably bound
up with the desperate struggle of campesinos to survive in a region of
total government neglect. In their view, a negotiated settlement and the
cooperation of the insurgents is a prerequisite for the transformation
of rural Colombia through programs of land reform, massive investment
in farm-to-market roads, schools, health centers, and access to credit.
With this new cooperative relationship between the central government
and local authorities, the campesinos' dependence on illicit drugs will
diminish and ultimately disappear. Dialogue with the guerrilla organizations
and civil society is crucial to the success of Plan Colombia.
Nowhere in the original plan
is there reference to the eradication of coca and poppy plants through
aerial spraying or any other method that might harm the environment. Nowhere
is there mention of a role for the military in the achievement of a negotiated
solution. In fact, the Ministry of Defense is conspicuously absent from
the list of state institutions with responsibilities for the execution
of Plan Colombia. In both letter and spirit Plan Colombia constituted
a rejection of the drug war and armed combat among Colombians. It can
be read and, according to Colombian officials with whom I have spoken,
it should be read as a declaration designed to bring an end to the national-security
state in which the army, in conjunction with the paramilitaries, treated
the insurgents as subversives, to the point that even revolutionary leaders
who had laid down their arms to enter the political life of the country
were routinely hunted down and assassinated.
In the first year of his administration,
Pastrana's bold negotiating strategy achieved one important success. In
May 1999, the Colombian government signed a pact with the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), clearing the way for formal negotiations.
Termed the Common Agenda, the agreement calls for an end to the cultivation
of illicit drugs and for redistribution of the huge estates purchased
with drug money. It also requires the Colombian military to fight the
paramilitary forces, funded primarily by large landowners involved in
cocaine and heroin traffic. To get FARC to the negotiating table, Pastrana
made a number of important concessions, including establishing a safe
area for the guerrillas by withdrawing government troops from a large
area in southern Colombia. Subsequent negotiations have repeatedly broken
down. FARC's commitment to a negotiated peace is uncertain. Trust between
the two sides is at best fragile. Pastrana's ability to keep the army
in line, for example, remains tenuous.
Nevertheless, this was the
moment for the Clinton administration to have come in with its billion-dollar
aid package: 75 percent for economic and social assistance, and 25 percent
for upgrading and professionalizing the Colombian military. This was the
time to have launched a multinational peace initiative to create a surge
of confidence inside the Colombian government that its plans for healing
and reconciliation had been heard. Above all, this was the time to have
sent a message to the guerrillas that the United States did not intend
to intensify the war by concentrating aid on the Colombian military with
its long history of undermining presidential peace initiatives.
Always distrust policy that
depends for its legitimacy on the demonization of the enemy. The FARC
are guilty of gross abuses of human rights. They kidnap rich Colombians
and hold them for ransom; they attack remote police stations with bombs
and other indiscriminate weapons that have resulted in many civilian deaths;
and they assassinate suspected paramilitaries and people they believe
support them. As a New York Times editorial put it, FARC's "bad behavior
and repeated snubs at peace talks have made Mr. Pastrana look weak and
damaged the public consensus for negotiations." Pastrana, however,
specifically rejects the term narco-guerrilla, used so frequently by McCaffrey
and the Colombian military. To Pastrana, the FARC are authentic revolutionaries
who seek political power through force of arms but who are open to negotiation
and compromise. And he is correct that an insurgency which has acquired
the strength and cohesion to dominate more than 40 percent of Colombian
territory cannot be explained by references to illicit commerce.
When the Pastrana government
approached the Clinton administration to seek funding for this bold but
sound project, sympathetic if embarrassed State Department officials were
forced to explain that the world's richest power lacked the resources
to nourish civil society. However, funds-almost without limit-were available
to fight the war on drugs, and some minor funding for economic and social
development could be subsumed under the overall American strategy of reasserting
Colombian government control over the entire national territory. With
unemployment in Columbia above 20 percent, with foreign investment disappearing
and the credibility of his government sinking fast, Pastrana had little
choice but to secure U.S. involvement on any terms he could get. Many
human-rights activists in Colombia believe that the Clinton administration
simply strong-armed the government to accept the military aid. This may
be too simplistic. It is legitimate for Washington officials to insist
that the receiving government consider U.S. priorities. Yet to secretly
convert a peaceful negotiating strategy in Colombia into a military campaign,
and then to represent the result as nothing more than our contribution
to Pastrana's original Plan Colombia, raises serious questions about the
merits of the policy.
y September 1999, after a
series of meetings between American officials and Pastrana, a revised
English language version of Plan Colombia appeared with chapters on drug
eradication and military force. It would to be months before a Spanish
text would become available. The revised Plan Colombia is estimated to
cost $7.5 billion, with the Colombian government to contribute $4.5 billion
over the next three years. But Colombia's treasury is empty and the chances
of an angry, divided Congress voting for new taxes are nil. At a European
donor meeting in early July, Colombians raised $621 million out of a hoped-for
$1 billion, most of it in loans that must be repaid. That was the good
news. The bad news was that of the twenty-seven nations attending, only
three-Spain, Japan, and Norway-actually pledged support.
Meanwhile, more than three-quarters
of the U.S. contribution to the revised plan is for military aid. The
clearest statement of how completely Washington's priorities have overridden
Colombian policy requirements came from Undersecretary of State Thomas
Pickering who, in October 1999, stated, "The peace process must support
and not interfere with narcotics cooperation."
For the United States to conceal
its role in turning Plan Colombia's priorities on their head is to convince
all who know the truth, including guerrilla leaders, that the Colombian
government cannot stand up to Washington pressures. To fund a military
campaign that involves the United States in another country's civil war
while insisting that the pursuit of a negotiated peace yield to the priorities
of an unwinnable drug war makes neither ethical sense nor policy sense.
Furthermore, by defining the Colombian crisis in largely military terms,
we have undercut Pastrana and destroyed the platform on which he was elected.
In our democracy, controversial
policies can achieve success only if they are made understandable by precision
of language, clarity of objective, and transparency of purpose. Clinton's
Colombian initiative fails on every count. As Linda Robinson writes in
World Policy Journal (Winter 1999/2000): "The U.S. government
using popular backing for the drug war to wage a veiled counterinsurgency
effort, even though past experience teaches that policies founded on duplicity
are bound to fail." Duplicity is not too strong a word. Of the many
important books to come out of Vietnam and Central America, two of the
very best were Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie (Random House, 1989)
and Ray Bonner's Weakness and Deceit (Times Books, 1984). The titles tell
the story. Although our military intervention in Colombia's civil war
is only in its beginning stages, our policy already displays those telltale
patterns of official deception and distortion that presage failure.
Colombia's long-running civil
war and the flourishing drug trade will yield never to force of arms but
only to a strategy that confronts the pervasive corruption of Colombia's
institutions, the intimate working relationship between its army and the
paramilitaries, and the exclusion of the majority of Colombians from the
country's political and economic life.
The Clinton administration
has failed to grasp that its response to the initial Plan Colombia was
a life-or-death decision for the Pastrana government, and very possibly
for the country as well. Instead, Washington treated Plan Colombia as
a bargaining chip that forced Colombia to abandon the only approach that
had any chance of success and replaced it with just another massive counterinsurgency
operation that is already driving Colombia closer to the brink of economic
and social chaos. end
Robert E. White, a former ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president
of the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.
As of October 23, 2000, this
document was also available online at http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/12000/001006/001006st.htm