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by John Neumaier
5 November 2000
Daily Freeman, Kingston, NY
Most Americans haven't the faintest idea of the stark social divisions and bitter strife which mark the history of Colombia and its present crisis, as it experiences its worst recession in 60 years. I have to thank Bard College for having stimulated my own interest with a recent forum on "Colombia's Endless War: Drugs, Guerillas and U.S. Foreign Policy." Government policymakers and the media tell us that the main reason for U.S. intervention in Colombia is to eradicate drug cultivation. Illegal drugs grown in Colombia are indeed a major source of the drug traffic in the United States, but that problem is intricately interlinked with even larger problems - widespread poverty, especially in the countryside, and a civil war that has been raging for many decades.
In support of Colombian President Andres Pastranas' "Plan Colombia," the Clinton administration has persuaded the U.S. Congress to vote a $1.3 billion aid package. And with the help of the media, the public has been given the false impression that U.S. intervention is all about drugs.
LET'S LOOK at "Plan Colombia." Most of the U.S. aid allocation (over 80 percent) is for military purposes -- amounting to a quarter of Colombia's annual total military spending. Actually, however, much of that U.S. money goes directly to the U.S. defense contractors who make the weaponry and aircraft. (It is noteworthy that two U.S. helicopter companies contributed $2.4 million during the last two U.S. election campaigns. Incidentally, I don't recall any talk about the Colombian aid package by the two major presidential candidates.)
As for on-the-ground involvement, there are already more than 300 U.S. military and civilian advisers at work in Colombia, with plenty of supervision from the Pentagon, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Among other tasks, they train Colombian troops, especially in the use of U.S. equipment, such as Sikorsky and Vietnam-era Huey attack helicopters.
COMPANIES in the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership have been actively supporting U.S. military assistance, but Europeans are holding back, especially on military aid. Originally, "Plan Colombia" aimed for an overall $7.5 billion budget, but it's doubtful that the Colombians can come up with some $4 billion to reach that goal.
For those who see danger signs in the huge U.S. military package for Colombia (which has made it the third largest beneficiary of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt) -- not to worry! Pastrana has declared: "As long as I am president there will be no foreign military intervention in Colombia." And President Clinton on his recent trip to Colombia (accompanied by U.S. business executives) assured us: "This is not Vietnam, neither is it Yankee Imperialism." (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.)
COLOMBIA is the fourth largest country in South America, with a population of near 40 million. It has a violent history. The Spaniards decimated most of the native Indian culture. The slave traders brought Africans to replace rebellious Indians. In 1818 came the war of independence from Spain, beginning decades of internal strife which still continues today.
Colombia's horrendous human rights record makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world, particularly for the vast number of poor peasants and their families. The battles of the period called La Violencia (1948-58), when the two main Colombian parties -- the Liberals and the Conservatives -- fought for power, cost over 200,000 Colombian lives. Today's conflict between the various armed groups has brought about the displacement of 1.8 million Colombians within their own country.
THE LARGEST of the guerilla forces is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Founded in 1964 as a rural insurgency in reaction to the ruthless and violent expulsion of campesinos from their lands by large estate owners, agribusinesses, and drug lords, it drew support from a variety of revolutionaries and reformists. FARC operates in the south and is reported to control at least 40 percent of Colombia. One third of its 15,000 fighters are women.
The second largest guerilla group is the National Liberation Army (ELN), estimated to have between 5,000 to 6,000 members. It was founded in the 1960s by Cuban-inspired priests and Maoist students, and operates mostly in the northeast of the country. Among various smaller guerilla groups the largely urban April 19 movement (M-19) should be mentioned. It was founded in the early 1970s, and gained prominence as a result of the 1985 attack on the Palace of Justice and the taking of the Supreme Court justices as hostages, followed by a military assault that ended in a blood bath, killing 11 of 24 justices, the M-19 commando unit, and many civilians. In 1990, the status of M-19 changed as it accepted the government's offer of legal political participation and took part in writing a new constitution.
LINED UP against the guerillas, besides the Colombian army, are the paramilitary counterinsurgency forces, formed decades ago with the support of the landed oligarchy, cattle ranchers, drug traffickers, local political bosses, and, significantly, with the backing of elements of the Colombian military.
In fact, the military organized some of the paramilitary groups at the very time in the 1980s when the government was seeking to negotiate peace with the guerilla groups. The largest, now nationally-coordinated paramilitary umbrella organization consists of the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC), with 4,000 to 5,000 combatants (though paramilitaries were declared illegal in 1989).
AUC leader Carlos Castano, widely denounced for right-wing death-squad killings, has admitted that 70 percent of paramilitary funding comes from the drug trade. In the ongoing violent encounters in the struggle to control land and drug profits, whole villages have been destroyed and "in 1999 alone more than 1,865 people -- mostly peasants -- were slaughtered in 403 documented massacres" (NACLA Report of the Americas, Sept./Oct.).
SINCE THE U.S. government and the mass media have concentrated our attention on the violence of the left-wing guerillas and on how they are financing their operations with drug trafficking, few Americans are aware that, according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2000, 76 percent of political killings in Colombia in 1999 were perpetrated by the paramilitary formations, and 21.3 percent by the guerillas. In the current year, 78 percent were by the paramilitary and 19.6 percent by the guerillas.
The point is not to ignore the terrorism by guerillas, but to be aware of the conditions of the conflict. For example, at one point the government and civil society encouraged the guerillas to go public and start their own political parties. FARC did so, organizing the Patriotic Union in 1985. In the next seven years more than 2,000 of its political leaders were assassinated.
THERE IS NO space here for details about the vast cultivation of coca and opium poppy fields in Colombia. Some is done by corporate drug lords, some by farmers and poor peasants, who see only starvation as an alternative. Nor is there room to consider the consequences of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of herbicides and experimental fungus that have been introduced and which endanger families living near the fields in Colombia and in neighboring states.
What should be the role of the United States? Our country should change course and end its military interference in Colombia. A heightened civil war and more intense anti-drug strategies in Colombia threaten to shift cultivation elsewhere and to destabilize parts of Brazil and four other border states. Instead, let's use the billions of dollars for humanitarian assistance and for solving our own drug and welfare problems.
In addition to nearly 60,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans, and millions of Vietnamese might have lived had the U.S. government not interfered in their internal struggles for a better life.
If we forget that history, we may indeed be condemned to repeat it with "Plan Colombia."
Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-72 and of Moorhead (Minn.) State University from 1958-68. He is philosophy professor emeritus of Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month, and is broadcast by short-wave station Radio for Peace International, 6.975, 15.050, 21.460.
© Daily Freeman 2000