"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 March 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Peace Dividends

Cali, Colombia — The more you talk to officials, on-the-ground campesinos, and everyone in between here, the more you realize that Plan Colombia, the name given to a magical realist sort of Marshall Plan for this Andean nation, worth some $7.5 billion all told, is whatever you want it to be.

It's been that way since it was first tossed around as a hot potato fund-raiser by newly-elected President Andres Pastrana in 1998. Two years later, after a lot of spin and shifting personnel, Horacio Serpa, leader of the opposition Liberal party, went to Washington, whereupon he declared, "It's much easier to understand in English." This seemed to confirm worries that the plan was made in USA, in large part to protect oil and other interests, and to give work to weapons manufacturers. But Washington, from Clinton (and now Bush) on down, insists to this day that this is a plan made by Colombians, and that the US is simply supporting them.

In all the debate over Plan Colombia and its yanqui origins, one point that gets lost is that a portion of the operation is designed for civil, rather than military, operations. Of the $7.5 billion total, President Clinton signed off on $1.3 billion. The rest is to come from banks, Peace Bonds — a figure created from corporate taxes in Colombia, and, supposedly, Europe and Japan. Most of the Washington money is for helicopters, herbicide, and military training, to drive back the guerrillas and opposing paramilitaries protecting the country's coca and poppy crops and then spray the hell out of the plants. This military weight has everyone from American media to Colombian non-governmental organizations screaming, "Vietnam." Meanwhile, Pastrana jets around the world insisting that some of the dollars — and most of the pesos, Euros, and yen — are for helping the Colombian people, especially the campesino.

Whom to believe?

If you look back to when Pastrana was elected, you find that he called Rodrigo Guerrero, a former Mayor of Cali, Colombia's third city, and asked him to work on a plan for increasing democracy and development — including substituting legal crops for the 200,000-plus acres of illegal ones. The idea was to get at some of the roots of Colombia's ongoing violence and increasing dependence on drug trafficking. Pastrana chose Guerrero knowing he was a World Bank consultant on these sorts of things with a good reputation.

But something happened on the way to the forum, and months later, Guerrero couldn't get the president to come to the phone. The plan itself began to morph into more of a blow against the illegal crops, while at the same time supposedly retaining the "social side." By 1999, Guerrero retreated to his hometown and region in Colombia's southwest to set up his own Plan Colombia on a local scale, as Martha Restrepo, director of the NGO they founded, put it.

Ironically, in talking to this NGO now, you see the challenges Plan Colombia faces if it is to create a country free of coca and poppy, where campesinos can live a decent life and in peace. Restrepo's organization has projects for helping communities learn to govern themselves and grow crops like grapes instead of coca. But six months ago, people in these same mountain and valley communities started receiving fliers that accused the NGO of taking "gringo" money from Plan Colombia. This made them a "military objective" for the FARC — the guerrilla army with an estimated 17,000 soldiers that protects much of the coca the US wants to wipe out.

A source at USAID said this problem — trying to reform Colombia's countryside while guerrillas, or even their enemies, the paramilitaries, point a gun at your head — is "one everyone will be watching very closely." This agency will be overseeing the $109 million Washington is putting towards what is called "alternative social development" — less than 10 percent of the total plan. But the official also said he had been given assurances from FARC leadership that their projects are seen with favor, and that "the State will be providing security for the farmers when needed."

Of course, this problem stems from the bad name guerrillas have given the US and its dollars. The European Union might be able to sidestep this, especially since they have recently declared themselves "totally apart from Plan Colombia," according to EU advisor Jocke Nyberg. "We avoid the word," he said in a phone interview from Bogot‡, the capital. "We just had a technical mission here to develop our own European Plan. Plan Colombia is stigmatized now, because police and military intervention is too heavily emphasized. Europe has a different standpoint, including backing manual eradication of coca and poppy instead of spraying, and promoting social processes linked to the peace talks." (Pastrana's government recently resumed talks with the FARC, now in their third year.)

At the same time, Nyberg is also concerned about spending any of the estimated $800 million the EU will decide on at an April 23 meeting in Brussels while bullets are flying. "We're going to do feasibility studies first," he said. "What's the sense of building a water treatment plant somewhere if it's blown up a week later?"

Another source of funding for projects not involving helicopters and guns is Colombia itself, with its so-called Peace Bonds. But two years after the law was passed that imposed this corporate tax, Olga Lucia Echeverry, charged with overseeing the funds, admits the program won't be what was hoped. "We were authorized to collect up to $1 million. But we're going to receive less than we thought. And the program will probably get set back three to six years."

Delays in implementing the social side of Plan Colombia underline another key issue to any of these plans or moneys — the time frame. And the time frame is connected to the plans themselves, and they're both connected to the political climate. For example, how long does it take to figure out what other crops might grow and sell in a place like Putumayo, ground zero for Plan Colombia's spraying campaign, and a region with "bad soil, climate, and market access," according to the same USAID official.

When asked about this, the official assented: "Of course development doesn't take place overnight. Everywhere I've been, we're talking about five to 10 years of commitment at least." But political pressure exists to get rid of coca and poppy sooner. "Of course," he says, "you have to think short-term, too. There need to be results within a year on the illegal crops."

This is a sort of Catch 22 for several veterans of Southern Hemisphere research and development work. Mark Lundy is an American sociologist who has worked in community development in southwestern Colombia for years, currently under the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT, based near Cali.

"These processes work best when they're organic and grow out of existing projects," he said. "Now we're talking about people who have come to places like Putumayo from afar, looking to escape poverty through coca or poppy. This is a situation of flux, even anarchy. When you add in the political climate, with its agenda for quick results, it could be a recipe for disaster."

To Lundy, even a decade is just a beginning. He suggested putting the money into fiduciary accounts spread out over 20, 30 years. "The worst thing you can do is rain money down. Everyone will ask, What's my take?" said the sociologist. More than one columnist has advanced the thesis that corruption damages the country more than the war involving guerrillas, paramilitaries and the State, now in its fourth decade. This is a country where 1999's Congressional budget included $49,000 toilet seats and Y2K repairs signed off on December 31.

The USAID official also recognized this hurdle, and referred to an "anti-corruption component" of Plan Colombia, including the country's comptroller and general auditor, and "local training." The US aid also includes $119 million partially aimed at reforming the legal system here, including moving from what's called an inquisitorial judicial process to a more open, accusatorial one — similar to the US system. "But the culture of corruption will take a long time to change, many years," said the official.

In the end, fighting back guerrillas in a jungle with helicopters and ground troops is relatively straightforward, thought not necessarily easy — as Vietnam showed. But trying to tackle issues like hunger, rural development and sustainable agriculture definitely ain't easy — as 30 years of trying to improve on the Green Revolution have taught CIAT And other research centers and aid programs in the developing world. And if the Black Hawks serve to make a decades-old conflict worse in the short term, and pressure is on to wipe out coca and poppies, then you can bet the social part of the deal, the supposed carrot, will be still harder to come by.

courtesy of Tim Pratt

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