Legislative Advocacy Update from Latin America Working Group, October 13, 2004

Dear Colombia Advocates,

As the New York Times reported on Monday, members of Congress over the weekend approved the Bush Administration's request to double the number of US troops and increase by 50% the number of US-based private military contractors in Colombia. Many of you worked hard this year to oppose the increase, and we are all disappointed and disturbed by this escalation of US military involvement. I want to give a brief run-down of some of the victories that we did achieve this year, and look ahead to what we might expect in Congress next year on Colombia.

Beating back the extremistsWhen the House Armed Services Committee first debated the troop cap issue this summer, activists all around the country rallied behind an amendment offered by Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) to cap the number of troops at 500 and the number of contractors at 400. Rep. Taylor offered the amendment in response to a radical proposal by committee chair Duncan Hunter (R-CA) which would have removed the troop cap entirely, going one step further than even the Bush Administration was willing to go. Your hard work, and the passage of the Taylor amendment, ensured that lifting the cap entirely on US troop presence in Colombia was not an option for Congress. Grassroots advocates also rallied their representatives to sign a House letter in support of the lower cap, which 35 members signed (see http://www.lawg.org/docs/Troopcapsigned.pdf for a copy with signatures).

-->Next Steps on this issue: Reps. Gene Taylor (D-MS), Ike Skelton (D-MO), and Sam Farr (D-CA) championed the effort in the House to keep the troop cap low this year. Senator Byrd (D-WV) offered a similar amendment on the Senate side. If you live in one of their districts, please drop them a line or an e-mail to thank them for their work. You can find their phone numbers and e-mail addresses at http://www.house.gov. On the other side, senators Warner (R-VA) and Rep. Hunter (R-CA) pushed for the troop cap to be raised (Sen. Warner) or eliminated entirely (Rep. Hunter). While Senator Levin (D-MI) did vote for the Byrd amendment, he did not make the troop cap a priority issue in his negotiations with the rest of the conference committee on the bill, resulting in the higher Senate cap being included in the final version. Please give them a call or drop them an e-mail expressing your concerns about the escalation of US military involvement in Colombia. We need to show them that we're paying attention! You can find their contact information at http://www.house.gov or http://www.senate.gov.

Keeping the pressure on the Bush and Uribe AdministrationsGrassroots advocates and organizations in DC also worked hard this year to keep several important restrictions in place on the US aid package to Colombia. The 2005 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill contained conditions that require the Secretary of State to certify that Colombia is working to protect human rights and is making progress at cutting ties between the Colombian armed forces and outlaw paramilitary groups. Conditions also require that the Secretary certify that US fumigation efforts are not having an "adverse impact" on human health or the environment. While these conditions are difficult to enforce, they do give us a number of opportunities throughout the year to educate Congress about the rights violations and environmental damage taking place in Colombia. They helped delay aid for a time this year while the US embassy put pressure on the Colombian government to prosecute the military officials implicated in the killing of three union leaders. They can also be important pressure points on the Bush and Uribe Administrations, who both oppose the inclusion of the restrictions in the bill. Each year, advocates have worked with Congress to put pressure on the Secretary of State not to certify that Colombia has met the conditions. This work keeps the heat on the Bush Administration and shows that Bush and Uribe can't take congressional support for the policy for granted.

Firsts in our work with the SenateThe US Senate has been slow to realize the devastating nature of US military policy in Colombia, and except for noble efforts by a few notable senators-- particularly Senator Leahy (D-VT) and the late Senator Wellstone-- most senators have turned a blind eye to the human rights and environmental impact of US involvement. This year, grassroots advocates and DC groups worked together to educate and pressure senators on the reality of US policy. The result was a historic letter led by Senators Feingold and Dodd, and signed by 23 senators, including Kerry and Edwards, to President Alvaro Uribe. The letter expressed serious concerns about the human rights record of the Colombian military and threats to the lives and work of union leaders and human rights defenders. The letter had a significant impact in Colombia, where it was covered for several weeks in Colombia's major media, and reminded the government that US aid could not be taken for granted. This is the first time so many members of the Senate have expressed vocal concern with Colombia's record, and it's a crucial step in pressuring Congress to change the nature of US policy. See http://www.lawg.org/countries/colombia/senate_ltr_7_26.htm for the letter and list of signers. In addition, the Byrd amendment was a step forward-- the first such amendment in the Senate on Colombia in several years.

The outcome of our hard work on the troop cap was disappointing, of course. As always, though, I hope that the tireless efforts of human rights defenders, peace and religious workers, and union leaders in Colombia, and of advocates across the United States, can inspire all of us to continue our efforts to transform US-Colombia policy. We have an important year ahead of us: in 2005, the US's five year commitment to Plan Colombia, set during the 2000 congressional debates, will expire. There are indications, however, that the next administration-- be it a Bush or Kerry administration-- may request an extension of the US commitment in Colombia. A new administration will offer a window to push for a thorough reevaluation of Colombia policy. We may see new allies come onto our side next year as more members of Congress become concerned with the escalation in US involvement.

We'll keep you updated. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you: what would you like to see from us in the coming year? Please let me know what was helpful for you this year, what you'd like to see more of, and what additional resources we can provide to help you advocate more effectively with your members of Congress. The alerts and other resources are created for you, and your feedback and input are crucial.

I want to thank all of you for the work you've done this year and for your unwavering commitment to human rights, peace with justice, and a transformation of the relationship between the United States and the world community. Best of luck with all of your work leading up to the elections, and afterward.

Take care,Elanor

PS. Hot off the press-- the Latin America Working Group has several new publications available on post- 9/11 US-Latin American relations. September's Shadow examines how the US response to 9/11 has affected US-Latin America policy. Using polls, op-eds, aid trends, cartoons, and case studies of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia and Cuba, the report details the fallout of the Bush Administration's foreign policy as well as Latin American governments' cooperation on counterterrorism measures. ($6.00)http://www.lawg.org/docs/SeptembersShadow.pdf

Blurring the Line: Trends in US Military and Training Programs in Latin America is our latest analysis of military training and aid trends. The research shows that the number of Latin American troops trained by the United States jumped 52% in one year, and that US training increasingly blurs the line between military and civilian roles. This short, graph-filled publication gives you a snapshot of U.S. military programs in the hemisphere. (LAWGEF/CIP/WOLA publication) ($3.00)http://www.lawg.org/docs/BlurringTheLines.pdf

You can order these and other publications on-line at www.lawg.org or send checks payable to LAWGEF to: Latin America Working Group Education Fund, 110 Maryland Avenue NE, Box 15, Washington DC 20002 (prices include shipping; lower bulk rate available).



-- Elanor Starmer

Associate for Colombia and Central America

Latin America Working Group



Latin America Working Group

Action at home for just policies abroad www.lawg.org