Colombia House

If there isn't much debate about "Plan Colombia" in Colombia, there isn't much support for it in America. Despite McCaffrey's claims to be on the side of our kids, the nation's press doesn't seem to be buying it. A review of this year's editorial and opinion pages in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Examiner and Salon shows, first, that the aid package is commented on nearly three times a week, and that with the notable exception of the Post editorial page, 80% of the columns and letters come down against the plan as it is now pitched. Most of the writers use the words "Vietnam," "El Salvador," or "prevention and treatment" — the last phrase in reference to the on-going tendency to fight the Drug War against supply much more than demand (evidenced by the fact that two-thirds of McCaffrey's $18.9-billion annual budget goes to arrests, spraying crops, and chasing capos). Notably, those few in favor include Bush-era National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Sen. Paul D. Coverdell (R-Ga.); and McCaffrey himself.

Despite this show of opinion against "Plan Colombia," the House vote in March on a bill containing the aid was 263 to 146 in favor. This included a defeat of California Democrat Rep. Nancy Pelosi's amendment to aim more money at treatment. As for the upcoming Senate vote, Defense Secretary William Cohen assured reporters at the Pentagon last week that "this issue of funding [Colombia] will be resolved fairly quickly." Anybody following this turn of events can't help but agree with one letter writer in the Post — a retired Army officer to boot — who compared the whole situation to a 1960's novel, "Everybody Knows and Nobody Cares."

Meanwhile, the situation in Colombia — sometimes called Locombia in local parlance — couldn't be more loco. As the 16-month-old FARC-government peace talks limp along, the other two armies — the ELN and the anti-guerilla paramilitaries — keep insisting on their own right to talk peace. In fact, President Andres Pastrana just set aside a DMZ of 4,727 square kilometers for the ELN to do so. This despite protests by the natives, who fear the guerrillas will use the measure to replace the State completely, as the FARC seems to have done in the huge region to the south where their talks take place.

The paramilitaries, meanwhile, support the natives, and some even say they're making the natives march. In the northern part of the country, paramilitaries control their own coca and poppy crops, having recently admitted for the first time that some 70% of their funding comes from taxes and protection. But, as Senator Córdoba, who heads the Senate Human Rights Commission, told me in a recent interview, "the Plan Colombia doesn't mention the north, or the paramilitaries. [It] focuses only on eradicating the drugs from the south, which is under rebel control, and ignores coca crops under paramilitary control."

These are the same paramilitaries linked to the Army and human rights abuses in recent reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the U.N. Does more money for the Army equal more paramilitary massacres? Stay tuned and see!

As for the FARC, they've announced a reversal of their decision to wait until they've ticked off 80% of their 12-point wish list before considering a cease-fire and an end to kidnappings and extortion. In other words, they're willing to talk about it. They've even announced the launching of a political "movement" — which must be clandestine for now, they say, to avoid what happened the last time they tried to enter politics, in the mid-eighties. Back then, thousands of FARC supporters were killed including two presidential candidates from the FARC spinoff party Union Patriotica.

But the same week, they also read off A "Resolution 002" on national TV (nobody I consulted could remember "Resolution 001"), which is a "tax" on all Colombians worth more than a million dollars. And an Army walkie-talkie interception revealed that Jorge Briceño, the FARC's biggest hawk, called for a mass recruitment drive, hoping to double their forces. "With 32,000, we can turn this country into shit," he said, according to a Reuters cable. Finally, the country's leading daily, El Tiempo, reported two Sundays ago that the FARC have actually stopped all coca trafficking in Putumayo, the region targeted by Plan Colombia. Doesn't that make them pals of McCaffrey? No, it's just that they're pissed at the peasants for doing business with the paramilitaries, who are offering about $1,300 a kilo, while the rebels have been paying only a grand (Just to reiterate, these are the same paramilitaries linked to the Army that stands to gain most from the $1.6 billion in American aid). One of the peasants interviewed for the article said they're also being bullied into military training, to "prepare for war, when the United States government approves Plan Colombia."

The sad thing about all this is that there's very little debate going on in the U.S. about the War on Drugs, begun three decades ago, about the same time President Nixon began his fake winding-down of another war (which recently marked its silver anniversary). This despite the truism noted by San Francisco Chronicle writer Lewis Dolinksy — "You don't have to like the rebels (or drugs) to think that U.S. military aid is a blunt instrument in a complex situation."

Amid these events, consider one of the flood of recent stories recalling the end of that other war, in the New York Times. The story drew the scene of a class at West Point that asked, "What are the Lessons of Vietnam." In it, professor Cole C. Kingseed, an Army colonel, asked his cadets how "could the most powerful nation on the face of the earth be defeated by a second-rate agricultural third-world country?" Frustrated by the uncertain replies, Kingseed told the Times reporter, "I might as well be teaching the Peloponnesian Wars." And the reporter commented on the "startling frankness" of the question, explaining that West Point is "aware these days that their young charges, commanding platoons and companies, might soon be plunged into ambiguous, perhaps ill-conceived missions ... elsewhere."

Could Colombia be elsewhere?

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Timothy Pratt

Terry Colon

Timothy Pratt