August 31, 2000
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 31, 2000
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, August 30, 2000
When President Clinton announced his trip to Colombia, he said his purpose was “to seek peace, to fight illicit drugs, to build its economy, and to deepen democracy.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Clinton administration seeks not peace but rather a military solution to the 40-year old civil war in Colombia. About three-quarters of its record-breaking aid package to Colombia is for the military and police. Like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam, Mr. Clinton is convinced that superior firepower can destroy a deeply entrenched, armed insurgency.
If this requires the continuing murder of 3000 civilians each year, or creating 300,000 refugees annually, that is a price that Mr. Clinton is willing to pay.
The term “human rights abuse” is a euphemism– let’s be honest about what our tax dollars are paying for in Colombia. “They drank and danced and cheered as they butchered us like hogs,” reports a survivor of a recent massacre described in the New York Times. He was describing the slaughter of 36 people in the town of El Salado, by 300 paramilitary troops in February. The troops began bringing their victims to the town square on a Friday, and according to the Times, “ordered liquor and music, and then embarked on a calculated rampage of torture, rape and killing” that lasted until Sunday. The victims included a 6-year old girl and an elderly woman.
The Colombian army stood by a few miles away, setting up roadblocks that prevented human rights and rescue workers from trying to help the villagers.
Last month another mass killing of six people took place in northwest Colombia while an army helicopter hovered overhead and soldiers were on patrol nearby.
Nonetheless, President Clinton has now waived most of the human rights conditions that Congress attached to his military aid package, making it clear that these types of massacres would not affect US policy.
This war is not about “illicit drugs,” and it never has been. According to our own Drug Enforcement Administration, there is drug-related corruption in all branches of the Colombian government, including its armed forces, which are now the third largest recipient of US military aid in the world (after Israel and Egypt). The paramilitary death squads, which are closely linked to the Colombian military and– according to human rights groups– responsible for the vast majority of political murders, are up to their necks in drug trafficking. Their leader recently admitted in a TV interview that 70 percent of their funding was from the drug trade. But our tax dollars will not be used to go after them.
Our money for Colombia will not help “build its economy,” which is suffering through its worst recession in more than half a century. More than a fifth of the labor force is unemployed, and millions of peasants have no marketable alternatives to growing coca if they are to survive. Poisoning their land, rivers and other crops with aerial spraying of herbicides only adds further injury and more recruits for the armed conflict.
The same is true for the budget austerity ordered by the International Monetary Fund: with Washington’s backing, these policies are likely to worsen the recession and increase unemployment in Colombia.
Widening the war will not “deepen democracy,” but will further destroy what little is left of it. By giving the Colombian government and armed forces another enormous blank check, the Clinton administration simply encourages more massacres as well as impunity for the perpetrators. There is no reason for Colombian officials to make the necessary concessions to negotiate an end to the conflict if they know they have unlimited support for war, including massacres of civilians.
The guerrilla groups are understandably wary of a situation in which they have no guarantees that they or their supporters could survive without their own armed forces. Their last attempt, in the mid-eighties, to put down their arms and participate in elections was met with the slaughter of thousands of their supporters as well as candidates.
Meanwhile, 37 human rights and other non- governmental organizations in Colombia have stated that they will not accept any funds from “Plan Colombia,” the program that our massive aid package– $1.3 billion, with $860 million for Colombia– is partially funding. And neighboring states– including Ecuador and Peru– are beginning to worry that continued escalation of the war will spill over into their territories.
We can only hope that the backlash against the Administration’s pursuit of a violent solution to Colombia’s civil war will continue to grow. When Colombia’s fate is left to the Colombians, then there will be a chance “to seek peace, build the economy, and deepen democracy.”