David Rabin

Could Colombia Become The New Vietnam?

The United States, under the mantle of its worldwide fight against terrorism, is moving towards yet another increase in military support for the Colombian government, the third largest recipient of United States aid. The House Appropriations Committee has passed a bill that includes an immediate infusion of at least $35 million in military aid for the war-torn country. And more is on the way. Yet critics say the Colombians have failed to stop, or even slow down, grotesque human rights violations in that country's drug-fueled civil war.

Colombia has suffered through a 38-year-old struggle between the government, leftist insurgents and, more recently, right-wing paramilitaries. And the "silent majority," the Colombian people, have been caught in the crossfire. Tens of thousands have been killed, and many more displaced. Adam Isaacson, coordinator of the Center for International Policy's Colombia program, offers the recent example of fighting between the left-leaning FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and right-wing paramilitaries, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, in the village of Bojaya. "About 110 people were killed in this battle, almost all of them civilians, many of them women and children," he says. "A lot of the casualties came when the FARC guerillas launched ... crude propane gas cylinder bombs, basically like you have in your gas grill, but packed with schrapnel. They launched a few of these into a church that was crowded with people.... Even by Colombian standards, what happened in Bojaya is particularly big and particularly shocking."

According to the Associated Press, the fighting occurred near the border with Panama in an area used by both sides to smuggle drugs and illicit arms. Most of the local population are descendents of slaves, living in one of the more remote areas of the country. AP also reports that the FARC says the attack on the church was an accident.

The United States has responded to the long litany of abuses by requiring that the Colombian government, in order to maintain military funding, meet certain human rights requirements: suspend and prosecute military personnel alleged to have been involved in human rights violations, and break ties between the armed forces and right-wing paramilitaries. Late last month, the State Department, although conceding that more needs to be done, certified that Colombia had in fact met the criteria. State says, for example, that the highest ranking officer in the Colombian Marines was restricted to administrative duties because of his poor human rights record. And about three times as many paramilitaries were arrested in 2001 as were detained the previous year.

But critics, including Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, and Amnesty International, aren't buying it. Coletta Youngers, a senior associate with WOLA, says the Colombia military has not done a credible job of suspending suspected human rights abusers among its ranks. "We are told there have been some suspensions of lower ranking officers," she says. "It is not at all a transparent process. It is never clear what they are suspended for, who they are, and they have not been able to deliver on any of the more high-ranking officials that are implicated in more serious human rights abuses."

High ranking officers remain on the job, and are continually promoted, despite their ties with the paramilitaries.

Youngers says General Rodrigo Quinones, implicated in the murders of almost 60 union members and two massacres, is the "poster child" for an unaccountable Colombian military. "This is a man who is responsible for horrendous atrocities," she says. "He should be tried in a court of law and instead the administration has said that the fact that he is being sent to Israel as a military attache is a sign of progress in human rights because he's being removed from a command and control position."

Youngers adds that human rights watchdogs have, year after year, been told that certain numbers of paramilitaries have been captured, but, once again, they are not told who they are, whether or not they remain detained, or whether they were prosecuted. And high ranking officers remain on the job, and are continually promoted, despite their ties with the paramilitaries.

Youngers does believe the Bush administration attempted to leverage reforms. She says "they had several high level delegations go down to Colombia and basically it appeared that the Colombia military thumbed their noses at them. They haven't given anything to them that allows them to go back to Congress with more to offer."

Youngers feels the administration was caught between a rock and a hard place. Either tell the truth about a failed human rights program in Colombia and jeopordize a significant portion of the aid package, or misrepresent the facts. She and other critics say the administration chose the latter. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the man who wrote the certification requirements, puts it this way: "The certification has more to do with the fact that United States aid was running out than with sufficient progress on human rights."

The certification cleared the way for an additional $62 million for the Colombian military, and over $40 million will be released in June, assuming another certification is approved. In addition, the Bush administration wants about $500 million for Colombia military aid next year. And the House Appropriations committee has passed an almost $30 billion immediate increase in anti-terrorism funding that would pump at least $35 million more in the direction of Colombian military.

This "emergency supplemental" is particularly troubling to critics who fear the United States is sliding into a Vietnam-style quagmire in Colombia. They bolster their argument by citing the administration's desire to expand United States support from counter-narcotics to counter-terrorism. That means direct United States aid for the fight against rebels and paramilitaries, both of whom have been labeled as terrorists by the United States.

Lisa Haugaard, legislative coordinator with the Latin America Working Group, says "what we're going to have is a real escalation cycle ... because ... this is not an easy war, this is a very serious and entrenched war that's been going on for forty years. It's escalating right now, both the left-wing guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries are on the rampage. The army is very ill-prepared to deal with this, or unwilling, and the United States is going to be pulled in, year by year." Haugaard sees the possibility, as early as next year, of big increases in funding, more United States advisors, and perhaps even United States troops.

But Charles Barkley, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemipheric Affairs, says allowing the Colombian military to use United States equipment in its fight against drug-supported leftist and paramilitary terrorists isn't a change in mission or an escalation. "This just recognizes the fact that there is a nexus between narcotics activity and terrorist activity," he says. "We are not shifting our assets from one account to the other. We're allowing the government of Colombia a bit more leeway to use some of those assets that are primarily directed against counter-narcotics to counter-terror activities in certain defined circumstances."

Is the United States, in essense, funding terrorist sympathizers?

Critics also assert that Colombia's paramilitaries, the group responsible for the majority of civilian killings in the country, claim to be supported by about a third of the incoming Colombian legislature. The front runner in the upcoming presidential elections also reportedly has right-wing inclinations.

So is the United States, in essense, funding terrorist sympathizers? The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, is concerned about the possibility. Congressman John Conyers (D-Detroit), takes it a step further. "We're funding people that are directly or indirectly tied with what is supposed to be our major foreign policy initiative -- to stop terrorism around the globe," he says. "But we're running into ourselves. This is like a Catch-22 situation."

But Steve Johnson, Latin Amercian analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says just because the paramilitaries claim to have a third of the legislature on their side doesn't make it so. He thinks recently failed peace negotiations between the rebels and the government might have produced more conservative congressional members with a harder line against the guerrillas "largely because of the fact that the peace process didn't seem to get Colombia anywhere," he says.

Despite the prospect of an increased flow of United States military aid to Colombia, opponents are encouraged that at least one potential hot-spot appears to be defused, at least for the moment. Occidental Petroleum had been looking for oil, for several years, in eastern Colombia. It met stiff opposition from local U'wa indigenous peoples and international human rights groups. But the company recently announced it was giving up on the search for "economic and technical reasons."

Kevin Koenig, an organizer with Amazon Watch, believes the truth lies somewhere else. He says "we feel clearly that the resistance of the U'wa, and the pressure of the international solidarity movement ... all these had to play a factor."

Occidental might have lost this battle, but it hasn't lost the war. The company continues to run its 500-mile Cano Limon pipeline despite a record 170 rebel attacks last year. Koenig explains why local farmers, labor leaders and the U'wa oppose further oil exploration and the current pipeline: "They've seen the environmental and social and cultural disaster of the Canon Limon pipeline. And basically what they've always warned is that more oil exploitation will bring Colombia's bloody four-decade-long civil war to their doorstep. And that is rapidly becoming a reality in their province."

The Bush administration has responded to the rebel attacks, and what Koening calls heavy lobbying by Occidental, by proposing close to $100 million to defend the pipeline. Koening says this amounts to about a $24-a-barrel subsidy for the company. But given the anti-terrorist mood in Congress, they're likely to get it.

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