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 itâ€™s not going to be a â€œcrossroadsâ€ 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 â€“ $3.2 billion, or 80 percent of it, for the military and police â€“ Plan Colombia is set to â€œexpireâ€ 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 â€œnone of the above.â€
Yesterday, the State Department released the broad outlines of its foreign aid request for 2006. As it turns out, the Bush administrationâ€™s plan for U.S. aid in the first post-Plan Colombia year is almost identical to the past few yearsâ€™ aid packages.
Contrary to what Iâ€™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. Weâ€™re looking at a request for roughly $750 million more in aid for 2006, 80 percent of it â€“ yet again â€“ allocated for Colombiaâ€™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 Pentagonâ€™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 weâ€™ve seen each year since 2003.
There is no such thing, then, as the â€œendâ€ of Plan Colombia â€“ the post-2005 plan continues to be the same militarized, punitive approach weâ€™ve seen for years.
We had been holding out a faint hope that the administrationâ€™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 Colombiaâ€™s achievements.
In a late December article indicating that Plan Colombia â€œis 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,â€ the Miami Heraldâ€™s Pablo Bachelet quotes the assistant secretary of state for antinarcotics, Bobby Charles, calling for a â€œshift in the direction of greater attention to the social fabric in the country.â€
The shift predicted by Charles (who, incidentally, is resigning his position effective in mid-March) did not come to pass. In todayâ€™s Herald Bachelet quotes a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, explaining that â€œThe intent is indeed to change the focus as the military phase achieves success. We are achieving success but weâ€™re not there yet.â€
The change in reasoning is subtle, but meaningful. Somewhere in the administrationâ€™s internal debate, those who argued â€œweâ€™re not achieving our goals yet, we canâ€™t shift strategyâ€ beat out those who argued â€œweâ€™re achieving our goals, itâ€™s time to shift strategy.â€ (Those of us who argue â€œweâ€™re not achieving our goals, itâ€™s time to shift strategyâ€ donâ€™t have a seat at that particular table.)
The 2006 request, then, is an admission of failure. Instead of a shift toward economic aid â€œto consolidate our gains,â€ the administration is proposing continued militarization because â€œweâ€™re not there yet.â€
Indeed, it looks to be a while before we get â€œthere.â€ 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 weâ€™re not â€œthere yet.â€ 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 â€œsecurity conditionsâ€ are finally sufficient to allow the so-called â€œsoft aidâ€ to start, the Colombian stateâ€™s neglect of conflict and coca-growing zones continues. The local populationâ€™s already low levels of trust and belief in their government deteriorate.
An example: when reporters from El Tiempo visited the â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ zone in December 2004, they found no evidence of non-military aid for the regionâ€™s residents. â€œIn part, whatâ€™s happening is good because it is getting rid of this disgraceful crop [coca],â€ a peasant in Cartagena del ChairÃ¡ told the reporters. â€œBut the government should think about the poverty here. Those who want to stay and work need credit [to plant legal crops].â€
I donâ€™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 MarÃa Teresa Ronderos explained some of the things that citizens should expect from their government, even when the government doesnâ€™t have full control of the territory.
To establish â€œinstitutionalityâ€ is not, as the old clichÃ© repeats, to bring in the ethereal and easily manipulated â€œsocial investment.â€ 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 â€“ electricity, fax, paper â€“ so they can mete out justice. Civilization wonâ€™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 â€œthe military phase achieves success,â€ 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.