Wednesdayâ€™s hearing of the House International Relations Committee didnâ€™t leave very much to write about. The witnesses, all from the Bush Administration, and the Reps from the Republican majority stayed close to their script of unqualified praise for Plan Colombia. The several Democrats who attended offered polite criticism in the few minutes available to them, though they did offer several tough questions (i.e. why are there no fewer U.S. cocaine and heroin addicts today than there were when Plan Colombia began?). Letâ€™s hope they follow up on plans to submit much more in writing.
From my notes, here are a few things that were new, or at least noteworthy:
- The Committee Republicans, who had strongly encouraged the administration to give several old DC-3 airplanes to the Colombian National Police, now want to see those planes used to transport guerrilla and paramilitary deserters to sites where they will manually eradicate drug crops.
The committeeâ€™s Chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), and committee staff are pushing hard for this proposal. Whatâ€™s stopping them is a still-unresolved debate between the State and Justice Departments about whether a program like this could be construed as â€œmaterial support for terroristsâ€ under current law (like Section 803 of the PATRIOT Act). This bizarre interpretation â€“ which apparently considers ex-terrorists to still be terrorists â€“ makes it impossible for the U.S. government to fund the demobilization and reintegration of any foreign terrorist groupâ€™s members, anywhere in the world.
â€œSome in the executive branch hold the misguided view that putting defectors on these planes to engage in manual drug eradication would somehow constitute material support for terrorism,â€ said Rep. Hyde. This was never the intent of Congress. We are needlessly and unwisely tying our own hands. How could having former members of a terrorist organization eliminate the very drugs that help finance the terrorist organization they have turned against possibly constitute material support for terrorism?â€
We have no strong views about this proposal, and we agree that the current legal interpretation â€“ which fails to admit the possibility that a terrorist can stop being a terrorist â€“ is silly. We have four observations, however:
1) A guerrilla or paramilitary considering turning himself in might be discouraged by the prospect that he may find himself forced to eradicate crops in dangerous areas dominated by armed groups.
2) Proponents of fumigation in Colombia argue that the spraying is necessary because security conditions donâ€™t allow manual eradication. So why are we proposing a big new manual eradication effort? Can we begin to reduce fumigation?
3) Why canâ€™t this program operate now, even in the absence of demobilized guerrillas or paramilitaries? Colombia has double-digit unemployment, greater underemployment, and a huge displaced population â€“ probably hundreds of thousands who would gladly participate in a make-work project like this in order to feed their families.
4) No matter what, forced manual eradication â€“ just like fumigation â€“ will fail unless itâ€™s closely coordinated with a real effort to help the affected communities to make a living in the legal economy. Eradication without development assistance will increase rural residentsâ€™ anger at the state, push them into the arms of illegal groups, and lead many to re-plant after the eradicators leave.
- The committee also appears to be pushing the administration to do more to interdict drugs leaving Colombia by sea, noting that â€œmarine air patrolsâ€ in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific slowed after September 11, when many patrol planes were called back to the â€œhomeland.â€ Itâ€™s not clear what they expect the interdictors (mainly Defense Department, Coast Guard, and Customs) to do, since they are not appropriating money for those agencies to buy new planes.
- House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), who gave a statement as a witness but didnâ€™t stay for questioning, made the remarkable claim that â€œAreas like Putumayo used to be like the wild, wild westâ€¦outlaw villages thriving off of the drug trade. Today, Putumayo has been reformed.â€ This is nonsense, and I address it in the last posting.
- Rep. Burton pushed Drug Czar John Walters very hard on the issue of mycoherbicides â€“ fungi like Fusarium oxysporum that kill coca plants. (Burton, however, called them â€œmicro-herbicides,â€ both at the hearing and in a written statement published in the Inter-American Dialogueâ€™s daily â€œLatin America Advisorâ€ newsletter.) We have been concerned that the Bush administration would push to use these fungi in Colombia, with potentially disastrous environmental effects. We were pleased, then, to hear Walters strongly refusing to consider even spending money to test mycoherbicides. Iâ€™m paraphrasing here â€“ taking dictation is hard â€“ but Walters said â€œWeâ€™re not sure that the mycoherbicide is specific to coca. If we were to drop it [from planes], it could cause significant environmental damage.â€
- In his oral testimony, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics Jonathan Farrar said that fumigation was discouraging coca-growing. A minute or so later, he said that lots of new coca was being planted â€œas the narco-terrorists plant more plants in an attempt to negate our record spray efforts.â€ Well, which is it? Are the growers discouraged, or are they planting more than ever?
If you guessed â€œmore than ever,â€ youâ€™re right. According to State Department figures, attempted coca-growing â€“ the amount of coca eradicated plus the amount of coca left over â€“ has skyrocketed in Colombia as fumigation has increased, from 166,000 hectares (415,000 acres) in 1999 to 251,000 hectares (627,500 acres) last year.
- Farrar also defended the idea of spraying coca in Colombiaâ€™s national parks â€“ a proposal that Colombiaâ€™s government appears to be on the verge of adopting â€“ by estimating that 6,000 to 12,000 hectares of coca are grown in parkland. Thatâ€™s 5 to 10 percent of all coca grown in Colombia.
Why canâ€™t this fraction be manually eradicated? Surely the government can maintain control over its own national parks long enough to allow manual eradication to take place instead of chemical spraying. Especially since, as indicated above, increased spraying has been shown to bring increased attempted coca-growing, which involves increased cutting down of forests â€“ much of it, probably, in parks.
- I was confused â€“ no, disturbed â€“ by an exchange between Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega. McCollum cited the arrest last week of two U.S. Special Forces non-commissioned officers for allegedly running guns to the paramilitaries. She then asked a simple question (Iâ€™m paraphrasing): â€œCan you categorically deny that no U.S. government agency is in contact with paramilitaries, or gives support to paramilitaries?â€
The correct answer would have been a flat â€œyes,â€ but for some reason â€“ was he confused by the question? â€“ Noriega never offered a denial. Instead, he gave an answer at least fifty words long, at the end of which (paraphrasing, again), he said that the U.S. government is â€œcategoricallyâ€ rooting out any activity that goes against U.S. policy.
- In his testimony, Noriega indicated that, instead of committing itself to a multi-year Plan Colombia II, the State Department is keeping its options open post-2006: â€œWe have made no decisions about specific funding assistance levels beyond FY 2006, but will continue working with the Congress as planning is further developed.â€
- It is interesting to note what was not mentioned. Nobody uttered the words â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ or referred in any way to that large, year-long U.S.-supported military offensive. There was almost no mention at all of the Colombian governmentâ€™s request for $130 million to create a new herbicide-fumigation base in NariÃ±o, complete with 4 new spray planes and eight new helicopters (2 Blackhawks and 6 Hueys), described in detail in Tuesdayâ€™s El Tiempo. Though Barbara Lee (D-California) asked about the human rights conditions on military aid â€“ no approval has been forthcoming because thereâ€™s no human rights progress to certify â€“ she hardly got any answer.