In their own words WOLA’s John Walsh: what the drug czar didn’t say
Feb 172006

Álvaro Uribe is having a difficult time on his visit to Washington this week. Not only is he suffering from a high fever even as he goes from meeting to meeting, he can’t seem to get much of what he is asking for.

He has so far been unable to get the Bush administration to budge on the agricultural component of free trade talks, the main purpose of his visit. Today’s editorial in the Washington Post goes embarrassingly far in its hero-worship of Uribe, but its main argument is right on: the U.S. government must give significant ground to Colombia on agricultural trade in order to avoid dealing a strong blow to a countryside already ravaged by coca and conflict.

Uribe’s pleas appear to be going unheard. He was unable to get President Bush to say that the U.S. government is committed to reaching a trade agreement soon (“espero que sí” and “vamos a ver” were Bush’s Spanish replies). Upon emerging from his White House meeting, noted the Associated Press, “The jovial and even joking Uribe of the past had been substituted by an evidently tense Uribe.”

Meanwhile, despite the protestations of House International Relations Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), Uribe has been unable to convince the Bush administration to increase military and police aid to Colombia beyond current levels. Since at least the middle of last year, Uribe has been asking for $150 million in new assistance, in the form of spray planes and facilities, helicopters and boats. That additional funding appeal did not make it into the 2006 foreign aid funding bill, nor does it appear in the administration’s 2007 aid request to Congress, which would basically hold aid to Colombia at approximately the same level as it has been since 2003.

With no additional aid foreseen in the regular 2006 or 2007 budgets, Uribe’s only hope would have been to have his package of planes and helicopters put in an additional, or “supplemental,” funding request. Usually, such supplemental requests are submitted to Congress once or twice a year, for unforeseen “emergency” expenses like the “war on terror,” Iraq, or Hurricane Katrina; funding for additional priorities, like aid to Colombia, is sometimes thrown in. (Back in January 2000, Plan Colombia began as a supplemental budget request to Congress.)

Yesterday, the White House sent to Congress its latest supplemental request for Iraq and the terror war [PDF format]. Despite President Uribe’s efforts, this request does not include any new funding for Colombia. (Or anywhere else in Latin America, as far as I can tell from reading it.) That pretty much closes the door on the possibility of any new money for Colombia in 2006.

The failure to secure new U.S. aid goes beyond spray planes. It also means no significant U.S. funding will ever go toward Colombia’s paramilitary demobilization process.

The 2006 aid law allows the State Department to spend up to $20 million this year on the reintegration of ex-paramilitaries, but only (1) if it finds that money by cutting other existing aid programs – no new money was appropriated; and (2) if the State Department certifies that the Colombian government is cooperating with paramilitary narcotraffickers’ extraditions, and asking demobilizing paramilitaries for information necessary to dismantle their networks. (Neither condition appears to be being met.) The 2007 aid request includes no increase in assistance to Colombia, which means little new money for the paramilitary process. And no demobilization money is in yesterday’s supplemental request.

With only a trickle of U.S. money forthcoming, Colombia will have to look elsewhere to pay for a demobilization and reintegration process that is appearing to be ever more expensive. Nobody really knows how expensive, but here is a back-of-the-envelope estimate that probably misses much:

  • Income support, job training, psychological counseling and other aid to demobilized individuals: perhaps $8,000 each for 26,000 people = $208 million
  • Disarmament, background checks, legal processes, monitoring and location of arms caches, investigation into asset holdings, and verification to ensure that individuals remain outside of paramilitarism: $2,000 each for 26,000 people = $52 million
  • Reparations to victims who come forward, in excess of whatever assets are recovered: $1,000 each to 500,000 people or more = $500 million or more
  • Providing security in zones previously dominated by paramilitaries: add 10 percent to Colombia’s defense budget, $400 million x 2 years = $800 million

This gives a very rough, very preliminary, very conservative total of $1.56 billion, $260 million without reparations and security. Obviously, $20 million per year from the U.S. government hardly makes a dent.

Does the U.S. human rights community get the blame for the lack of U.S. funding for the paramilitary process? Only to the extent that we have raised strong concerns about the process (and the UN has been at least as effective in expressing the same concerns). More credit goes to the Uribe government for passing a “Justice and Peace law” that displeases even many conservative U.S. legislators. Most were unenthusiastic about giving leniency to people who may even now be sending tons of drugs to our shores, while depriving Colombian authorities of the tools needed to guarantee that paramilitary criminal networks are disappearing.

As a result, the Bush administration did not push hard to get Congress to be generous. Nor is it responding to President Uribe’s appeals in Washington this week.

The outcome is that Colombia will have to pay most of the demobilization and reintegration costs itself, by collecting more resources from its wealthiest citizens. They can bear these costs by organizing a well-planned, well-financed program of job creation, asset seizure and reparations (and soon – time is running out). Or, they can bear these costs by seeing investors scared away, local economies depressed, and the judicial system overwhelmed by tens of thousands of unemployed, low-skilled young men experienced in the use of violence – as well as their impoverished, embittered victims.

2 Responses to “Washington says “no” to President Uribe”

  1. Manuel Says:

    I’m from Colombia, and I can’t believe how naive President Uribe is, why does he still believes that the United States is giving him millions of dollars in exchange of nothing ?? I mean, the US military aid is not free, we have to pay them back one way or the other, and what the US wants is a trade agreement that benefits them more than us.

    What can we do ?? The US economy is more powerful, we can’t negotiate in equal terms, so we have to just “suck it up”. But our stupid president still believes that Bush is “his pal”. WRONG !! Businness is bussines. PERIOD.

  2. jcg Says:

    Perhaps, but it seems to be a bit more complex than that, Manuel.

    Business may be business, but even from the perspective of the U.S. government, it’s still bad business for it to be alienating both its political allies and a sizable number of Colombian peasants, who may eventually turn to other options as a result, options which won’t exactly benefit the U.S. politically or economically, to say the least.

    Now, about the lack of funding for the demobilization and reintegration process…it was to be expected, all things considered.. Mr. Isacson’s fundamentally right, in that the Colombian government shares most of the responsibility for settling for a lesser legal framework. But still, I personally don’t believe that making a bad process even worse is going to benefit many Colombians, and in that sense I can’t say that the critics are totally blameless either.

    To paraphrase a bit, the less funding, support and aid that the process receives, the more likely that Colombian authorities will be increasingly “deprived of the tools needed to guarantee that paramilitary criminal networks are disappearing”.

    And if that happens, if Colombia doesn’t manage to make the most out of the process as it currently stands, that won’t help the victims nor the human rights community much, even if some of its members may later claim a “moral victory” by simply boycotting the entire thing…at the cost of what may well be a practical defeat.

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