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Barry McCaffrey and Jose Miguel Vivanco

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

No sane person believes in the “war on drugs” any more. This implies of course that our nation’s affairs are being directed by madmen, but you knew that anyway. Besides, there are signs that sanity may be seeping slowly through the halls of Congress. Three times the Clinton-Gore administration has tried to push through a billion-plus aid package for the Colombian military and security forces. Twice Congress has rejected the White House request. At the start of this week reports from the battlefield suggest that there’s more than an even chance the senate may once again deliver a rebuff to White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

McCaffrey, accused last week by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker of having been involved in war crimes in 1991 at the end of the war in Iraq, has been the most conspicuous advocate for deepening US military involvement in Colombia. In his comic-book scenario, the cocaine and opium that undermines America is being cultivated by Colombian peasants under the supervision of communist narco-traffickers, who use their drug profits to buy guns to undermine Colombia’s government. Send down money and advisers to the Colombian security forces to wipe out the guerillas and the drug war will be won.

No surprises here, since McCaffrey used to head US Southern Military Command, which has a prodigious institutional self-interest in the drug war, since it provides a nice updated rationale for the old, old business of counter-insurgency.

McCaffrey and his prime ally in the House, Rep Ben Gilman of New York, prepared themselves for the obvious objections to the comic-book scenario, which are that the Colombian military is run by criminal torturers either identical to, or closely allied with the drug Mafias; that years of “drug interdiction” have never had the slightest impact on shipments of cocaine and heroin to the US; and that demands for $1.7 billion in military aid would be followed by further demands, then by requests for a bigger commitment of military forces and then, all of a sudden and without having noticed, we’d be right there in the middle of another quagmire.

Those with memories stretching back to the 1980s might note a certain resemblance between the fight over Colombian aid and the fight about aid to the Nicaraguan contras and to the government of El Salvador. Back then, there were similar protests about sending money to the butchers who murdered Archbishop Romero as he preached in his cathedral in San Salvador, or to the drug-running contras. The US Congress rebuffed Reagan’s request for direct military assistance to the Contras, thus prompting the illegal supply line supervised by Col. Oliver North. Meanwhile, the Reagan White House issued glowing reports about amazing progress in imparting a profound respect for human rights in the minds of Salvadoran officers best noted for the courage with which they ordered the rape and murder of nuns and unarmed peasants.

The strategies are unchanged. McCaffrey has been strenuously wooing human rights groups. So close have been the contacts that amid McCaffrey’s strenuous efforts to counteract Hersh’s New Yorker article, the deputy general counsel and human rights officer at McCaffrey’s Office of National Drug Control Policy sent a fax to six human rights activists, asking them to help “discredit the Hersh article from your perspective”. Of course this fax from David Shull was speedily leaked, causing people to ponder why Shull should have assumed that he might get support fronm human rights activists in protecting a possible war criminal.

It’s clear that some groups would have nothing to do with Shull’s invitation. Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International told AP, after Shull’s bizarre fax had been made public, that appeared that Amnesty International was being asked to help bury a story and that “it’s one thing to refute charges or refute informationquite another to ask for participation in a preemptive strike to discredit.” But Shull was probably quite correct in assuming his fax might get a friendlier reception at another human rights organization, namely Human Rights Watch.

On May 18 Salon, the online mag, published a hero-worshipping piece by Ana Arana about Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch Americas. In tones breathless with na?ve admiration Arana described how Vivanco had concluded that McCaffrey’s $1.7 billion aid package was bound to clear Congress and that outright opposition was useless. The only strategy, according to Vivanco, was to install in the bill language ensuring that the Colombian military would be forced to respect human rights. Already, Vivanco told Arana, the Colombian military have cleaned up their act and are responsible for only 2 per cent of all human rights violations.

“If Human Rights Watch has its way,” Arana wrote in her Salon piece, “the new bill will clearly call for an end to all connections between paramilitary groups and some sectors of the Colombian armed forces.” This Salon-sponsored drivel meandered on past all the familiar verbal landmarks, the “difficult middle course” being steered by Vivanco, the necessity for pragmatism in “balancing politics in Washington with the realities of the Colombian conflict.”

Back in the 1980s there were people just like Vivanco making the same strenuous claims about new found respect for human rights in the Salvadoran forces. The claims mounted in lockstep with reports of killings by death squads and paramilitaries. Year after year the US press here mostly went along with the charade that these death squads were somehow beyond the control of Salvadoran military or intelligence.

The fact that Human Rights Watch should lend itself vigorously to the effort to push the military aid package through Congress is bad enough. What makes it even worse and even more stupid is the fact that the premise of Vivanco’s “pragmatism” is nonsense. The $1.7 billion package is not a done deal. Congress may either seriously amend it, and the Senate may yet sink it altogether.

Sanho Tree, who directs the Drug Policy Project for the Institute for Policy Project tells me that as of the start of this week the Senate could reject its version of the House aid package that unexpectedly draw 183 votes in opposition. This would make it the third rejection of Colombian military aid. Last year’s package was stopped by Republican Trent Lott on procedural grounds. Earlier this spring a House version got so laden with billions in pork that the Senate threw it out. And now the Senate has already cut the appropriation down to $1 billion, with serious amendments by Senators Paul Wellstone and Arlen Specter further cutting it and one by Leahy maybe sinking it once again.

The friendly reception of Wellstone’s amendment shows which way the wind is blowing on the Hill, as regards the War on Drugs. The Minnesota liberal is proposing to transfer $225 million in the package from its present proclaimed purpose of financing an attack by the Colombian military on guerilla strongholds in southern Colombia. Instead, the $225 million would go into drug treatment programs here in the US. Arlen Specter is expected to offer a more drastic version of the same idea.

No legislator, particularly one in an election year, likes to be caught out on a limb, charged by opponents with somehow being soft on drugs. But amid the obvious realities of a war on drugs that’s gone nowhere, legislators are happy to be given ammunition allowing them to say that the money is being spent unwisely. One such piece of ammunition Tree and others have been circulating is a study by the Santa Monica-based Rand think-tank of cocaine markets. The study found that provision of treatment to cocaine users is ten times more cost effective than drug interdiction schemes, and 23 times more cost effective than eradication of coca at its source. Yet one half of adults in immediate need of treatment are not receiving it, and many treatment programs have long waiting lines. The easiest place for poor people to get treatment remains prison, which is also one of the easiest places to get drugs.

If the McCaffrey package prevails, it’s easy enough to predict what will happen, because it’s happening already anyway. US dollars, personnel and equipment will flow south. There will be reports of a spirit of confidence in the Colombian military. People like Vivanco and unscrupulous outfits like Human Rights Watch will testifying glowingly to great progress in imparting respect for human rights in the Colombian police and military. The killings of labor organizers, peasant leaders, church workers and any other threat to the right wing drug lords in Colombia will go on, done by the paramilitary death squads supervised by the army and the drug lords (very often identical) with extra direction from the CIA.

If the McCaffrey package is beaten back yet again, it will a heartening sign similar to those heartening signs in the early eighties when Congress tried to kill aid to the contras: that our national affairs are not entirely run by madmen. We don’t need to be fighting a decade long counter-insurgency war in Colombia. Colombia needs loans and capital investment. It doesn’t need McCaffrey’s legions, any more than its farmers need the bio-viruses McCaffrey has also unleashed upon them.

Now, do your bit, and call your senators today, and urge them to reject the McCaffrey package. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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