In a sit-down last week with reporters, the outgoing head of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. John Craddock, said that reductions in aid to Colombia were on their way. Added the Associated Press, "Craddock said Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is in agreement with reductions in U.S. military funding."
This was the latest repetition of the idea that reductions in aid to Colombia – the first reductions in about fifteen years – would be forthcoming in the administration’s 2008 budget request to Congress (which comes out next February). We have been told to expect less aid in the 2008 request during recent meetings with U.S. officials, and we have read it in recent press coverage, including a piece in Saturday’s edition of El Tiempo:
An initial cut of a bit more than 50 million dollars is being discussed, which would go against accounts for the Police Carabineros program, the demobilizations and others. And while this is a small amount, compared to the annual total that is delivered (some 700 million dollars), it will increase with each passing year. In other words, from here to 2010 – the year in which Uribe will finish his second term – the country will be receiving a bit more than half of what it gets today.
And these are not speculations. The director of Narcotics Affairs at the Department of State, Anne Patterson, and the "drug czar," John Walters, said it in an interview with this newspaper. And the head of the Southern Command, John Craddock, repeated it this week.
The theory is that Colombia has begun "to turn the page," and that it is time for it to take on more responsibilities. "We have sustained aid levels for six years. It is logical to suppose, and this was the plan from the beginning, that we would arrive at a point where there would be reductions," says a source at the State Department.
Well, maybe not. It appears that plans to begin reducing U.S. aid next year have been shelved for now. That, at least, was the message of Nicholas Burns, the acting number-two official at the State Department, who is leading a seventeen-member delegation to Bogotá that arrived yesterday and leaves tomorrow. "’We intend to ask our Congress to maintain the current level of funding’ for 2007 and 2008," Burns told reporters yesterday.
That apparent change of direction is the big story – so far – of the Burns visit, which is the biggest and highest-level U.S. delegation to visit Colombia in quite a while.
Also noteworthy are strong indications that Burns, Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon, Drug Czar John Walters and others are not in Bogotá just to praise and celebrate Uribe and Plan Colombia. The U.S. officials also appear to be voicing some serious concerns about the policy’s results, the human-rights climate, and the paramilitary process. Note these excerpts from a Reuters interview with Burns, which went on the wires a couple of hours ago.
"We think the counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts have been very successful but there could be further progress."
"If the military is responsible for human rights violations then those people need to be held accountable, they need to be prosecuted."
"We think this [the "Justice and Peace" Law] is a necessary law … we are in favor of the effort but there are some questions about whether some of sentences are too lenient, whether people who are responsible for horrible crimes are getting off too easily. … It is up to Colombia to work through that but as we are funding some of these programs these questions are being asked."
Especially significant is that the U.S. officials did not come to Colombia bearing a new certification of improvements in the Colombian military’s human-rights performance. By law, the State Department must issue two such certifications each year; 25 percent of that year’s military aid remains frozen – it cannot be spent – until the certifications occur (each one frees up half of the frozen aid). No certification for any 2006 aid has yet been issued, largely due to concerns about military abuses and the inability to punish past cases.