Pity the paramilitary process participants The end of the FARC’s “retreat”?
Feb 082005

In an entry dated October 28, I made this bold prediction:

We don’t expect the policy to remain on autopilot for much longer, though. As the next Congress debates the 2006 aid proposal, 2005 will be sort of a "crossroads" year for the U.S. strategy in Colombia, perhaps the first such year since 2000.

OK, maybe it’s not going to be a “crossroads” year, after all. At least not if the Bush administration gets its way.

After six years (2000-2005) and $4 billion in U.S. aid – $3.2 billion, or 80 percent of it, for the military and police – Plan Colombia is set to “expire” at the end of this year. This left open the possibility of a re-framing of U.S. assistance to Colombia beginning in 2006, with the three chief scenarios being (1) an increase in the military component; (2) a greater proportion for economic-aid programs; or (3) an across-the-board cut.

For now at least, it appears that the answer is “none of the above.”

Yesterday, the State Department released the broad outlines of its foreign aid request for 2006. As it turns out, the Bush administration’s plan for U.S. aid in the first post-Plan Colombia year is almost identical to the past few years’ aid packages.

Contrary to what I’d expected (and to what a couple of midlevel officials had hinted in recent off-the-record conversations), there is no shift in military versus economic priorities. We’re looking at a request for roughly $750 million more in aid for 2006, 80 percent of it – yet again – allocated for Colombia’s security forces. The budget document calls for at least $424 million in new military and police aid to Colombia, which rises to nearly $600 million when you include military aid that flows through the Pentagon’s budget. Economic aid remains stuck at $152 million, 20 percent of the total. The aid figures for 2006 are similar, in amount and proportions, to what we’ve seen each year since 2003.

There is no such thing, then, as the “end” of Plan Colombia – the post-2005 plan continues to be the same militarized, punitive approach we’ve seen for years.

We had been holding out a faint hope that the administration’s request would include somewhat more economic aid and less military aid. After all, even some conservatives and drug warriors had begun to talk about the need for economic aid to cement what they perceived to be Plan Colombia’s achievements.

In a late December article indicating that Plan Colombia “is to get a major overhaul once its five-year term ends at the end of 2005, with policymakers looking to give it more of a social and less of a military character,” the Miami Herald’s Pablo Bachelet quotes the assistant secretary of state for antinarcotics, Bobby Charles, calling for a “shift in the direction of greater attention to the social fabric in the country.”

The shift predicted by Charles (who, incidentally, is resigning his position effective in mid-March) did not come to pass. In today’s Herald Bachelet quotes a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, explaining that “The intent is indeed to change the focus as the military phase achieves success. We are achieving success but we’re not there yet.”

The change in reasoning is subtle, but meaningful. Somewhere in the administration’s internal debate, those who argued “we’re not achieving our goals yet, we can’t shift strategy” beat out those who argued “we’re achieving our goals, it’s time to shift strategy.” (Those of us who argue “we’re not achieving our goals, it’s time to shift strategy” don’t have a seat at that particular table.)

The 2006 request, then, is an admission of failure. Instead of a shift toward economic aid “to consolidate our gains,” the administration is proposing continued militarization because “we’re not there yet.”

Indeed, it looks to be a while before we get “there.” Five years into Plan Colombia, cocaine is just as cheap and available now as it was when Plan Colombia began. The conflict is nowhere near resolution, and the guerrillas have proven to be resilient. Areas where the vast bulk of U.S. aid has been focused are not getting less violent. The United States has gotten much closer to the conflict. And not enough is being done to invest in neglected conflict zones.

That last point is a big reason why we’re not “there yet.” A widely held belief here in Washington maintains that helping Colombia to govern itself is a sequential process: first security assistance, then economic aid at some distant future date. The problem here is that while we await the magical day when “security conditions” are finally sufficient to allow the so-called “soft aid” to start, the Colombian state’s neglect of conflict and coca-growing zones continues. The local population’s already low levels of trust and belief in their government deteriorate.

An example: when reporters from El Tiempo visited the “Plan Patriota” zone in December 2004, they found no evidence of non-military aid for the region’s residents. “In part, what’s happening is good because it is getting rid of this disgraceful crop [coca],” a peasant in Cartagena del Chairá told the reporters. “But the government should think about the poverty here. Those who want to stay and work need credit [to plant legal crops].”

I don’t mean that the Colombian government should start building hospitals and setting up elaborate employment-generation programs in dangerous war zones. But it is never too early to set up the more basic conditions that governance involves, such as getting the judicial system working enough to reduce corruption and abuse; giving mayors and governors the skills and resources they need to administrate their territory; mapping out and titling landholdings; protecting human-rights defenders and other reformers; or increasing the coverage of assistance to the displaced.

In an excellent opinion piece that ran last July, Semana magazine editor María Teresa Ronderos explained some of the things that citizens should expect from their government, even when the government doesn’t have full control of the territory.

To establish “institutionality” is not, as the old cliché repeats, to bring in the ethereal and easily manipulated “social investment.” To bring the legitimate state is to de-marginalize the people who live in these regions and make them Colombians once again, with full enjoyment of citizenship. This means that they should have a national ID card, that they may vote in a clean system which guarantees that local powers do not buy their election, that they have legal titles and their properties are registered, that they pay taxes, that there is a judge and a prosecutor with basic work conditions – electricity, fax, paper – so they can mete out justice. Civilization won’t arrive either until minimum development requirements are met: access to a bank, a telephone, and national currency instead of coca base.

Why wait for the moment when “the military phase achieves success,” whenever that is? Investment in these more basic economic-aid priorities can begin anytime, but neither Colombian nor U.S. funds are coming close to meeting the huge need for it.

What a shame, then, that the 2006 request is, once again, mostly military assistance. As the foreign aid bill begins its journey through the Congress this spring, it had better go through some changes.

One Response to “The 2006 aid request”

  1. jcg Says:

    The current February edition of Semana also has a pretty good couple of articles and/or opinion pieces that, to some extent, also address the fact that the conflict can’t be resolved by just military means alone.

    “Those of us who argue “we’re not achieving our goals, it’s time to shift strategy” don’t have a seat at that particular table.”

    And yet one would think, perhaps naively, that at least as far as drug policy is concerned, after more than two decades of failed strategies some people would begin hearing those voices or at least thinking of adopting that opinion themselves.

    I guess that 2005-2006 will just be “more of the same”, if at least a noticeable segment of the U.S. Congress doesn’t believe otherwise.

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