BETWEEN THE LINES: Colombian Aid Package Will Deepen Civil War

The U.S. Senate, at the urging of the Clinton administration, recently joined the House in approving a $1.3 billion aid package to fund Colombia's government and military in its war against leftist rebels and narco-traffickers. The assistance will include helicopters, funds for drug crop eradication and intensive training by U.S. military advisers. Other Andean countries will also receive a portion of this aid.

The assistance, as framed by the White House, will help Colombia more effectively fight the drug war by interdicting supplies of cocaine and heroin destined for America. But critics warn that the U.S. position ignores the danger of becoming entangled in Colombia's decades long civil war that pits two well-armed rebel groups against an army and paramilitary units accused of corruption and gross human rights abuses.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Winifred Tate, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, who just returned from a fact-finding mission to Colombia. She assesses the impact the U.S. aid package may have on peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas and the likelihood that a military approach will solve that nation's complex social and economic problems.

Winifred Tate: I have to say that Colombian President Andres Pastrana and the Clinton Administration have been very effective in their disinformation campaign in saying that this aid package is economic and development assistance, and downplaying the military aid. Even the governor and municipal authorities in the (conflict zones) are very unaware of the scale of military operations and the (herbicide) spraying and fumigation that will take place. The general population, when they learn about this -- information is beginning to trickle down -- are very concerned. Most of the people in this region make a living from small-scale coca farming. (Cocaine is derived from the coca plant.) This is a very remote and poor region, one that is beset by violence from all sides. It's traditionally a guerrilla stronghold. There is also increasing and dramatically escalating violence by paramilitary groups that are operating with the support of the Colombian security forces in the region.

It's a very, very complicated situation on the ground and one that will only be exacerbated as the U.S. begins to pour hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid into this region.

Between The Lines: Explain to our audience the breakdown of this U.S. Colombian aid package. What will the money be spent on?

Winifred Tate: The major point of contention is the push into southern Colombia, which is basically a counter-insurgency campaign that's being called a counter-narcotics operation by U.S. officials. But really, it involves elite jungle warfare battalions of the Colombian army trained by U.S. special forces, with extensive air support, helicopters -- again, we don't know the exact division because there is some difference between the House version of the bill, which had many more Black Hawk helicopters, while the Senate version had Huey helicopters. There's a slight difference in their capabilities.

But essentially, it's going to be a major counter-insurgency offensive with massive herbicide spraying over much of the land that's being cultivated in coca right now. There is about $140 million in alternative development funding, about $100 million for human rights programs and about $50 million for humanitarian aid for the internally displaced.

But it's worth pointing out that these programs are really just on paper at this point. Pentagon officials have been working on their strategy for several years. But the USAID office in Colombia, which is in charge of carrying out these soft side programs for humanitarian assistance, etc. have been in Colombia for only a few months. They have three staff people and they're not allowed to travel outside of Bogota. They really have no way of assessing what the state of the population is now, much less what it will be once these military operations begin.

Between The Lines: What are some of the concerns you've heard expressed during your recent trip to Colombia about where the U.S. involvement in Colombia's war will eventually lead?

Winifred Tate: The biggest thing we've heard over and over again from everyone -- church representatives, local government authorities, peasants -- was that people are willing to give up growing coca but they have no other choice.

The economic crisis in Colombia and the concentration of land that's been exacerbated by the drug trade, has really made it so that much of the population has no other choice but to be involved either in very poorly paid wage labor or to move into these jungle areas and begin cultivating coca. They want people to buy other crops, but there's no market.

So our concern, first of all, is for the basic welfare of the people in these regions over the next 18 months as these programs develop. But the longer term impact of these programs is really what is truly terrifying. When you look at the past 40 years of the civil war in Colombia, we have a significant window of opportunity for the peace process that is going on right now. (The negotiations are going) very slowly, very frustratingly, but there are people sitting at the table, there are talks and there are reforms that are on the table.

What the U.S. is essentially doing with this Colombian aid package is saying that they're going to bankroll a war. We really don't have any sense of the dimensions of this war in the U.S. The fact is that (Colombia) has a very strong financially independent insurgency. (The country) also has increasingly strong paramilitary groups financed by the drug trade in a very significant way, backed by Colombian security forces. This really could be a very, very long war if we don't back the opportunities for peace right now. I think it's really tragic that the U.S. is going to be taking Colombians down this road of war for what could be another several generations.

Contact the Washington Office on Latin America by calling (202) 797-2171 or visit their Web site at www.wola.org to see the Washington Office on Latin America Web site.

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