Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrives in Colombia today, the highest-level US official to visit in a decade, for talks that will spell out proposals for massive military aid in the name of the war on drugs. [includes rush transcript]
Earlier this week, President Clinton unveiled a $1.6 billion aid package to Colombia, the largest ever proposed for the country, which the administration says is needed to fight the drug war. The two-year plan must still be approved by Congress.
Critics say the aid risks dragging Washington deep into Colombia’s three-decade-old civil conflict that has claimed more than 35,000 lives in just ten years.
- Daniel Garcia-Pena, former Peace Commissioner of Colombia and current visiting scholar at the American University in Washington, D.C.
- Winifred Tate, from the Washington Office on Latin America.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrives in Colombia today, the highest-level US official to visit in a decade, for talks that will spell out proposals for massive military aid in the name of the war on drugs. Well, earlier this week, President Clinton unveiled a $1.6 billion aid package to Colombia, the largest ever proposed for the country, which the administration says is needed to fight the drug war. The two-year plan must still be approved by Congress. Critics say the aid risks dragging Washington deep into Colombia’s three-decade-old civil conflict that’s claimed more than 35,000 lives in just ten years.
We’re joined right now by Daniel Garcia-Pena, former Peace Commissioner of Colombia, and current visiting scholar at the American University in Washington, D. C. Welcome to Democracy Now!
Thank you very much.
What is your response to this $1.6 billion unprecedented aid package from the United States to Colombia?
Well, unfortunately, it’s going to be very negative, in fact, because the aid package, even though the emphasis is on the counter-narcotics, it is seen in Colombia as a way of escalating the armed conflict and allowing more emphasis to be given on the military aspect, and this is going to have a very negative message in Colombia, because we are in the middle of a peace process, and this is all seen as a way of the United States supporting the escalation of the war and not the supporting of the process.
Winifred Tate is also on the line with us. She’s from the Washington Office on Latin America. Winifred Tate, your response?
Unfortunately, this package is exactly the wrong thing for Colombia at a time when the support for the peace process from the international community is desperately needed. What the US is basically doing is getting involved in restructuring the Colombian armed forces, ostensibly for counter-narcotics purposes, but really what they’re doing is creating an elite counterinsurgency battalions, along the lines of what they did in El Salvador, and really preparing for a major offensive in the southern part of Colombia, which is of course the major area of guerrilla presence in Colombia. So what we’re going to see over the coming year is unfortunately most likely going to be an escalation of violence and fighting in Colombia, rather than support for movements for peace.
Daniel Garcia-Pena, former Peace Commissioner of Colombia, what does the US have to gain by giving this amount of money to Colombia?
I think there’s a lot of internal politics that determined this aid. I think, on the one hand, the administration did not want to open itself up to criticism from Republicans that it had been somehow soft on the drug issue, that it had not done sufficient enough to stem the flow of drugs. And with the elections coming up, they simply wanted to play the hard line, and I think that had a lot to do with determining the aid.
Unfortunately, it is a misguided policy, because these counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia have failed to really lower the amount of drugs that are produced. The aerial fumigation, the increased military presence does not guarantee whatsoever the success on the drug field, so I think that there’s more playing politics than anything else.
What would make the difference? What would stop the flow of drugs?
There’s no doubt in my mind that the first step towards any successful counter-narcotics effort has to be in supporting the peace process. While there is a war going on in Colombia, there is no real policy that can really affect the production of drugs. The flow of drugs is in many ways helped by the fact there is an ongoing conflict, and so the peace process that is still in its very early stages offers really the only scenario of truly looking at the social roots, at the causes that are behind the different aspects of the drug trade. The Colombian peasants that grow coca do so not because they like to grow coca, but because there really is no alternative. And only through a peace process that can really look at and address those alternatives could the flow of drugs be affected in a different way.
We’re talking to Daniel Garcia-Pena and Winifred Tate. Daniel Garcia-Pena, former Peace Commissioner of Colombia and current visiting scholar at the American University in Washington, D.C. Winifred Tate, you’re in Washington, the Washington Office on Latin America. You’re involved with educating Congress members and their staffs about what’s going on in Colombia. What is their response? What is the disconnect, or is there one? Or is it the intention of the US government to not end the war on drugs, but shore up a military with a very serious problem with human rights?
Well, I think that the US policy towards Colombia is being held hostage to certain very misguided voices in Washington. The first is obviously the interest of the military forces to increase their presence in Latin America, to justify their mission now that the Cold War is over, and Cold War — drug war politics are really being used for that purpose. They are increasing the presence of US military forces not just in Colombia, but throughout Latin America, to levels that are actually higher than they were during the Cold War.
We also have many members in Congress who do think that the US should be supporting Colombian government’s efforts against the guerrillas, that the FARC have been very abusive against the populations in the areas where they operate, and there’s a real misunderstanding about their role in the drug trade. They’re portrayed as narco-guerrillas, as a fundamental part of the drug industry, when in fact they’re involved in taxing drug production in the areas they control, but really aren’t involved in drug trafficking in the way Barry McCaffrey describes publicly, for example.
So that’s really allowed a lot of different kind of counterinsurgency, as well as misguided counter-narcotics efforts, to be blended together in a policy that’s going to achieve really none of its stated objectives. I think it’s clear that this is not going to stop the flow of drugs into the United States, and it’s also not going to help Colombian democracy. It’s not going to help regional stability. I think it’s really time for a hardheaded look at what’s going on in Colombia, but given this is an election year in Washington, that’s going to be very difficult, unless there’s more public pressure on politicians in Washington.
Daniel Garcia-Pena, can you describe the Colombian military that the US is pouring this $1.6 billion into?
Well, the Colombian military has been involved throughout the last years in very different levels of violations of human rights, and although their direct participation in human rights violations has decreased over the years, over the last few years there has been a — there are still a lot of questions as to the links the army has to rightwing paramilitary groups that are responsible for close to 70 percent of human rights violations that target almost exclusively civilian populations and that have really increased the violence in the war against the peasants.
So, by shoring up the military, by emphasizing the military, in many ways what the United States is doing is helping to foment these links and to at least ignore the fact that the military effort has been — has not really — has not only not been successful in defeating the guerrillas but has on all counts helped to worsen the situation, because let’s not forget that whether you look at the internal armed conflict or whether you look at the drug trade as such, these are not military questions. These are all social and political questions that have been unresolved for many decades. And so, by increasing the military pressure by simply focusing on escalating the war, those social causes are not being addressed and, to the contrary, they’re being worsened.
Finally, Winifred Tate, if people want to get involved in this issue, what is the Washington Office on Latin America recommending?
Well, we’re urging people to contact their congressional representatives as soon as possible. You can reach the switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and speak out on this issue. If you want to get involved in activities around solidarity with Colombia, you can contact the Colombia Human Rights Committee here in Washington at (202) 232-8148 or check out our website, at WOLA’s website at www.wola.org.
Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America and Daniel Garcia-Pena, former Peace Commissioner of Colombia and current visiting scholar at the American University in Washington, D. C. Thank you.
Thanks a lot.
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