Appeasement, complicity, slander, opportunism… Colombia displacement resolution in the House today
Jul 102007

We’re still awaiting final word from the Senate about its version of the 2008 foreign aid bill. In broad terms, though, it appears that the Senate bill makes changes to U.S. aid to Colombia that are similar to – but smaller than – those in the bill that the House of Representatives passed last month.

[Note added 7/11: the Senate Committee report - but not the bill text - is now available online. Note the big Colombia table under "Andean Programs" - it's easier to read in the PDF version.]

The Senate bill probably cuts military and police aid in the Bush administration’s request by about $90.7 million, to about $359.5 million; the House had cut military and police aid by about $160.4 million, to $289.8 million. The aerial fumigation program would be cut significantly, with an increase in funding for manual coca eradication.

It also appears that the Senate increases economic-aid programs by about $61.9 million over the Bush administration’s request, to about $201.4 million; the House bill would increase economic aid by $101.3 million, to about $240.8 million.

Overall, the Senate bill would decrease aid to Colombia by about $28.8 million, a slightly shallower cut than the $59.1 million foreseen in the House bill. The military-to-economic aid split would be 64 percent to 36 percent, compared to 76-24 in the administration’s request and 55-45 in the House bill. (As always, about $150 million in military aid from the Defense budget must be added to the final total.)

These numbers are not completely final, there may be – but probably won’t be – changes to the final bill once it’s made public. We have no sense yet, either, of how the Senate bill would condition or earmark aid.

Here is some interesting language from the Appropriations Committee report, though:

The Committee notes that after spending in excess of $5,000,000,000 in support of Plan Colombia since 2000, some areas of the country are safer and Colombia’s economic indicators are, for the most part, positive. However, reports of unlawful killings by the army have increased in the past 2 years, and impunity for such crimes remais the norm. After predictions 6 years ago that Plan Colombia would cut by half the amount of coca production by 2005, the avaiability and price of cocaine on America’s streets remain unchanged. There is no indication that the abilty of Colombian drug traffickers to meet the demand for cocaine in the United States and elsewhere has been appreciably diminished. Coca is now grown in small, hard to eradicate plots in every department of the country, as coca growers continue to adapt to aerial eradication and destroy more forest as they replant.

The Committee is convinced that the majority of coca growers would voluntarily shift to licit crops in order to avoid the dangers and difficulties of growing coca, if provided viable alternatives. Specialty vareties of coffee and cacao offer such alternatives, but require considerable training and support. To date, far too few resources have been devoted to such programs.

The Commttee has also been disappointed with the paltry support for justice programs in a country where impunty poses a serious impedient to peace, security, and economic and political development. The Commttee has included additional funds to support the Office of the Colombian Attorney General and other justice programs, including the Human Rights Unit, the Justice and Peace Unit, the Procuraduria General de la Nacion, and the Defensoria del Pueblo.

Now that we have seen results from both houses, it’s safe to say that the Democratic-led Congress is determined to take Plan Colombia and U.S. aid in a new direction.

And according to some recent reporting from the Washington Post’s Juan Forero, it looks increasingly like the Colombian government wants to make some similar changes. Stories that appeared Saturday and today show some Colombian officials way out ahead of their U.S. government donors in their desire to change course and try something new.

Saturday’s piece focused on the Uribe government’s rapid embrace of manual coca eradication, which grew from almost nothing in 2004 to over 40,000 hectares uprooted in 2006. While we’ve heard some top Colombian officials express private dissatisfaction with the U.S.-supported fumigation program before, Forero’s front-page story was the first to cite this official criticism on the record.

“We are convinced of the advantages of manual eradication over spraying, and that’s why we want to give more importance to manual eradication,” Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview, echoing the views of other officials. … Although U.S. officials have not publicly criticized manual eradication, they have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to aerial fumigation. Officials here in Colombia, meanwhile, from Vice President Francisco Santos to officers in the National Police, which carries out anti-drug operations, are publicly taking a stand that contradicts that of the Bush administration.

Today’s article features a new Colombian government push to increase social services in remote, conflictive rural areas – an effort that has received only very modest support from the U.S. government, whose aid to date has been 80 percent military.

[I]n an ambitious government program here and in 52 other towns nationwide, a multi-agency task force operated out of Bogota has built schools and roads and introduced public institutions such as courts. In essence, President Álvaro Uribe’s administration is trying to create a functioning state, essential if the government is ever to erode the power of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country’s biggest rebel group.

If expanded, the program would amount to what Colombian officials describe as a logical second phase of a U.S.-backed campaign, called Plan Colombia, that combines military offensives with aggressive aerial fumigation of coca and opium poppy crops to weaken rebels. With the U.S. Congress now in the hands of Democrats, who have promised to shift more aid from the military to social and economic programs, Colombia may be better positioned to secure funds for nation-building in regions practically devoid of any government presence.

Both articles discuss some rather recent and forward-looking Colombian government initiatives that, so far at least, have received relatively little support from Washington – but are likely to get more generous support from the Democratic congressional majority.

The financial shifts in the House and Senate bills are important, but the Bush administration may not be fully in sync with the Colombian government on these new efforts. U.S. officials say they do not oppose manual eradication, but are not enthusiastic about it. They remain heavily, rigidly wedded to aerial fumigation, which they argue covers more land area and poses less risk to eradicators – even though it has utterly failed to reduce coca cultivation in Colombia. The spray program has been operating since the mid-1990s; left to their own devices, it’s likely that U.S. officials would just keep on fumigating like … well, like it’s 1999.

(It’s worth noting, though, that manual eradication is no panacea. If not combined with generous economic assistance to affected areas, manual eradication can do more harm than good. Look at Bolivia, where President Hugo Banzer’s late-1990s “Dignity Plan” vastly increased manual eradication. Coca-growing did decline, but eradication greatly outpaced development aid while confrontations with coca-growers were frequent and brutal. Without the Dignity Plan, it would have been inconceivable for Evo Morales to have made such a quick leap from coca-grower-federation leader to president of Bolivia.)

Meanwhile, the Colombian government’s inter-agency “nation-building” effort in rural zones, the Center for Coordinated Integrated Action (CCAI), looks good on paper – a more cohesive combination of security and non-military projects than anything the United States has attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan. The CCAI seems to recognize that if the Colombian government expects to control historically conflictive zones like the Caguán or Catatumbo, the effort must be mostly non-military.

How this will play out in practice is another question, of course. The CCAI could still end up being a mostly military boondogle. Promised investments might never arrive, further disillusioning the population. Soldiers might team up with paramilitaries and abuse the local population while occasionally paving a road. But at least on paper (or powerpoint), the CCAI seems to make sense.

While the CCAI has received some U.S. support since its 2004 inception, mostly from Southern Command, amounts have been small. Motes of dust, really, compared to the amount that has gone to such “hard side” military efforts as aircraft maintenance, fumigation, pipeline protection or “Plan Patriota.”

That is why it is so encouraging to see the Colombian government moving in its own, more promising direction, just as the U.S. Congress encourages similar changes.

Vice-President Francisco Santos said that Colombia may have to undergo “a fundamental rethinking” of its relations with the United States. He was speaking out of anger at congressional Democrats’ unwillingness to ratfy the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.

Still, though, a rethinking might not be a bad thing. True, it could mean less U.S. leverage on issues like human rights or combating paramilitaries. But it may be good for the bilateral relationship if Colombia feels able to say “no” more often.

The Uribe government has spent years saying “yes” to almost anything the Bush administration has asked of it. Fumigate massively? Support the Iraq war? Sign a cookie-cutter free-trade agreement? Exempt our troops from the ICC? Sure, no problem.

It would be great to see the Colombian government gain a little distance and step out of the “yes-man” role. When Washington keeps pursuing policies that aren’t working – fumigation, a mostly military approach to insurgency – it is up to the Uribe government to say “no.” To save us from ourselves.

That, after all, is what a real friend and ally does.

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