The Latin America Working Group has reported that recent initiatives to bring the humanitarian disaster in Colombia to the attention of policy-makers appear to have been fruitful, at least in deferring U.S. military assistance, which was initially thought to face little opposition.
Colombia Vive, the Boston-based member committee of the Colombia Human Rights Network, took the initiative in circulating and garnering signatures for a letter, released October 20, to mobilize opposition to further U.S. military aid to Colombia. The press release by Colombia Vive, which quotes the letter, reads in part as follows:
In response to the dire current situation, and the further deterioration expected if military aid is further increased, nine national organizations, and 54 individuals have signed a letter addressed to the U.S. Congress (Human Rights Caucus) asking that military aid to Colombia be substituted with humanitarian and economic aid. The signers include human rights organizations from Boston, Washington DC, Iowa and Chicago, and environmental organizations like Amazon Watch and the Rainforest Action Network. These groups and individuals urge support for, humanitarian aid for the refugees displaced by the war, alternative development programs to help small coca growers switch to legal crops, and programs to strengthen Colombia's civilian institutions.
Colombia is now the third highest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, behind Israel and Egypt. This is due to the U.S. War on Drugs, and the increased blurring by many in the U.S., like the Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey, of the difference between support for counternarcotics efforts and support for counterinsurgency efforts. The signers are critical of the U.S. Drug War strategy not only because it is ineffective and even counterproductive, but because, the U.S. strategy of spreading herbicides over Colombias rainforest is an environmental and humanitarian crime. Aerial spreading of herbicides harms not only the rainforest, but the indigenous people who live there. In addition, the letter cites the danger of arming a military that has in the past used U.S. military aid to commit human rights abuses, and that has close connections to paramilitary death squads responsible for most of the political killings and most of the forced displacement in Colombia.
Finally, the letter urges the U.S. to give President Pastranas efforts more time and support. When he first took office last year President Pastrana, who was elected due to his promise to pursue peace, received international praise for his efforts to enter peace negotiations with the largest guerrilla group. However, only a few months later many in the U.S. are criticizing the failure of the peace process, a process that is barely underway. The letter ends, It is precisely because the Colombian government, under President Pastrana, recognizes that this war cannot be "won," that it is pursuing peace.
The following update is from information distributed by LAWG in early December:
Rising public concern over the Colombian human rights crisis slowed down passage of a major US military aid package to Colombia. Lack of foreign aid resources and disputes over the content of the package were other reasons why Congress went out of session without passing it. Colombia needs and deserves substantial economic, law enforcement and humanitarian assistance from the United States, but military aid is not the answer.
A Colombia aid package will be debated once more early next year. The Clinton administrationalthough it can provide substantial training and weapons without congressional approvalis expected to present to Congress a supplemental aid package for Colombia at the beginning of 2000. The exact content of this package, however, has yet to be decided.
Our government has already funded the creation of a 950-troop counternarcotics battalion, which is already being trained to operate in the Putumayo, an Amazonian territory under dispute between Colombias leftwing guerrillas and rightwing paramilitaries, and two more such battalions are in the works. The United States in addition provides intelligence support, training and equipment to other units of the Colombian army, navy and airforce. This marks a growing collaboration with the Colombian army after many years during which the United States focused on police aid due to concerns over the Colombian armys human rights record.
The United States can and should help Colombians in their hour of need, with long-term, peaceful solutions to civil conflict and drug violence. In public forums such as town meetings, you can ask questions such as the following, which is merely a sample:
Im concerned about the human rights crisis in Colombia as well as about drug abuse and drug violence in my community. Id like our country to help Colombia with aid for peace, relief for refugees, and aid to encourage farmers to switch to food crops, not coca, to help stop the flow of drugs into our country. Id also like to see more funding for drug treatment and prevention programs in this country. But I dont want the United States to help an army involved in human rights abuses. What is your viewpoint on this issue?
Despite a 17-fold increase in US drug war spending since 1980, illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent and more easily available than two decades ago. In the United States, emergency room admissions and overdose deaths have escalated. Mandatory sentencing statutes channel minor offenders into the overloaded prison system. Treatment programs dont meet the demand. The drug war at home and abroad not only has harmful side effects: it also doesnt work. There are no easy answers here, but a fresh approach is needed. In Colombia, the United States should support a peace process, strengthen the Colombian governments judicial and investigative capacity, and fund crop substitution programs. In the United States, we should focus on reducing demand through treatment and prevention programs.
For more information, contact the Latin America Working Group, 110 Maryland Avenue NE Box 15, Washington, DC 20002, (202) 546-7010, firstname.lastname@example.org..
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