Colombia Legislative Update: February 19, 2003
From Latin America Working Group, Washington, DC <www.lawg.org>
Colombia Military Aid Passed for 2003 Behind Closed Doors; Bush Issues Larger Request for 2004; Time to Gear Up for Next Debate!
In this update: Congress approves 2003 Colombia aid with no debate; Bush's budget request for 2004; Action Needed Now (timeline and action ideas); New resources for grassroots activists available soon.
1. 2003 budget bill approved. On Feb. 13, the House and Senate approved the federal budget for 2003. Usually, the budget is broken up into 13 different bills (the foreign aid bill, defense bill, treasury/postal bill, etc). However, because of delays last year, Congress wasn't able to pass the bills individually before they had to adjourn for the winter. To pass the bills quickly this year, the new Congress lumped them all together into what is called an 'omnibus' bill, and passed them all at once. This bill-- which totals more than $397 billion-- was so massive that they limited the debate and amendments that could be offered to it. In fact, much of the bill was determined by Republican leadership behind closed doors. No amendments on the Colombia aid included in the bill were allowed, and there was no debate on the Colombia issue.
*To make up for the lack of debate on this bill, we need to gear up for the debate on 2004 funding, where we will see amendments offered to change US policy towards Colombia. This debate will happen over the summer. See below for details.*
The omnibus bill that was just passed contains $773 million in aid for the Andean region for 2003, an increase of more than $100 million over last year. The aid-- which is overwhelmingly military-- can be used for both fumigation and Colombia's war. The Bush Administration has signaled that it plans to increase the amount of land fumigated this year to 300,000 acres, and will start large-scale spraying of opium poppy this year in addition to coca. The poppy spraying may have a drastic impact on the environment and legal food crops, since poppy is grown on steep valley hillsides, often near rivers (increasing the risk of water contamination by the herbicides) and is often inter-cropped with food staples such as corn and yuca.
$88 million in military aid will be used to train the Colombian military to guard an oil pipeline owned in part by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum.
2. Bush Issues Request for 2004 Budget. Earlier this month, the Bush Administration released its request for the 2004 budget. Included in the request for foreign aid was $731 million for the Andean region-- most of which is for the Colombian armed forces and police-- plus an additional $110 million for the pipeline protection program. A small portion of the $731 million (about $150 million) would fund alternative development programs, justice sector support, and aid for the displaced. This represents a considerable increase in military aid over 2003 funding, and a decrease in alternative development aid.
3. Next Steps. Our voices-- and the democratic process-- were stifled when debate was restricted on the 2003 omnibus bill. We need to ensure that this will not happen again. Congress will debate Colombia aid for 2004 starting in May or June. Especially because this is a new Congress (many of the new members have not yet made up their minds on the Colombia package), we need to start early and build momentum leading up to this summer's votes. Here are some ideas for how you and others in your community can help change policy:
* Organize a group to meet with your member of Congress or an aide when they are back in their districts for congressional recesses. You can begin by calling your district or state office to set up a meeting for the April recess (April 14-25; meetings should be scheduled a few weeks to a month ahead). Gather a group and go in for a meeting in April. For tips on how to make lobby phone calls or do visits, please see www.lawg.org/lobbytips.htm. To find out who your senators or representative are, or to get the phone number for your members' district or state offices, please see www.house.gov or www.senate.gov.
* Participate in the Colombia Mobilization events on March 23-28. Events are taking place in Los Angeles CA, St. Louis MO, Stratford CT, and Atlanta GA. Lobby packets will be on-hand at events. See www.colombiamobilization.org for more information.
* Participate in the Colombia Mobilization's National Call-In Day on Colombia on Tuesday, March 25. More info at www.colombiamobilization.org.
* Host a Colombian speaker to your community. After the talk is over, have materials on hand so that attendees can write letters to their members of Congress. For House and Senate addresses, please see www.house.gov and www.senate.gov. Contact Elanor Starmer at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in hosting a speaker to your community.
* Organize a letter-writing event to Congress in your place of worship, community group, or university; have your place of worship draft a resolution on Colombia and send it to your members of Congress; or have prominent community leaders send a joint letter to your members of Congress on Colombia. Sample letters to new and returning members of Congress will be available at www.lawg.org/colombia starting February 24.
4. New resources for grassroots activists. The Latin America Working Group is in the process of updating its tools for grassroots activists working on Colombia. Starting the week of Feb. 24, our website, www.lawg.org/colombia, will have sample letters to the editor, letters to new and returning members of Congress, and other helpful resources. Please check our site then for help organizing local events. We also have a concise list of lobby tips now available at www.lawg.org/lobbytips.htm. This information, compiled by the Chicago Religious Leadership Network, will help you plan effective phone calls and visits with your members of Congress.
Thank you for all of your hard work!