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COLOMBIA: The Next Guatemala?

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Anyone wanting a vivid snapshot of the rubble of US policy toward Latin America should glance at Colombia, where the Clinton Administration now has one foot over the brink of a military intervention strongly reminiscent of John Kennedy’s initial deployments in Vietnam.

Colombia is in economic free fall and, as Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs remarks, the only comfort its beleaguered inhabitants can seize upon is that the velocity of this collapse is at least slower than that of neighboring Ecuador, now experiencing its worst economic slump in seventy years. Colombia is currently suffering negative growth, has an official unemployment rate of 19 percent and an actual unemployment rate probably more than twice that figure. Austerity programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank have closed off any hope for that half of the country’s population that lives below the poverty line.

It shouldn’t be this way. With a diversity of exports, Colombia could have one of the strongest economies of Latin America. But it’s the same old story. Down the years every US Administration has sent arms and advisers to prop up Colombia’s elites. US-assisted repression in Colombia has been spectacularly appalling. According to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia 3,832 political murders were perpetrated in 1998, the bulk of them done by the army, police and right-wing paramilitaries.

To lend a sense of perspective, this is about twice the death toll in Kosovo that prompted charges of Serbian genocide and that helped whip up sentiment for NATO’s war on Serbia. The US government is now preparing to escalate vastly the money and weapons going to the Colombian military, far beyond the $289 million in already scheduled assistance this year, making Colombia the third-largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt.

Congress has already appropriated another half-billion for the drug war, with much of it going to Colombia. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is asking for a further $1 billion for the drug war over the next three years, said sum to go to the Andean countries, with about half to Colombia alone. The Colombian military is requesting yet another $500 million.

McCaffrey’s request puts an end to any pretense that there is somehow a distinction between US backing of counterinsurgency and of counterdrug activities. A Congressional amendment has forbidden US military aid to go to Latin American army units with a documented record of human rights abuses. But in the pell-mell rush to throw money at Colombia’s military, such niceties are being cast over the side.

The immediate cause of panic is the strength of Colombia’s main insurgency, run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In a peace-feeler several months ago, President Andres Pastrana effectively ceded the FARC control over a 16,000-square-mile slab of south-central Colombia, about the size of Switzerland. The Clinton Administration was not entirely unsympathetic to this overture, at least until a FARC commander made the brutal and summary decision in February to execute the three indigenous rights activists-Ingrid Washinawatok, Lahe’ena’e Gay and Terence Freitas-who were working in the eastern Arauca state on behalf of the U’wa Indians. The FARC did admit responsibility but thereafter refused any of Washington’s requests, such as turning over the relevant commander. The FARC says it has to be vigilant against spies and will regard US personnel as legitimate targets.

Pastrana’s decision to cede de facto control of a slice of territory to FARC infuriated the military, which has been increasingly humiliated by guerrilla strength that recently brought FARC forces as close as twenty-five miles from Bogot?. With a nominal force of 40,000 the Colombian Army currently has around 6,000 to 7,000 frontline troops who are paid only a third of what FARC’s fighters receive. FARC can afford such a military budget because of its taxes on drug cultivation and shipments in the zones it controls.

For their part the FARC’s leaders have questioned whether Pastrana has the ability to deliver on any negotiated settlement. Not without reason. Every single guerrilla group agreeing to lay down its arms and enter the conventional political arena has seen its members slaughtered by the paramilitaries controlled by the army and the police.

There is a powerful lobby in Washington for pouring money into counterinsurgency in Colombia. McCaffrey spouts pieties about separating the drug war from counterinsurgency, but says simultaneously that the United States is duty bound to assist the Colombian government to beat off any threat. Colombian police chief Jos? Serrano has forged close links with Senator Jesse Helms and Represetative Ben Gilman, who head the foreign relations committees considering the requests for big new appropriations to the Colombian military.

Already the Pentagon is sending planes and personnel into Colombia. The US Army’s intelligence-gathering de Havilland RC-7 that crashed into a Colombian mountain in the early hours of July 23 was almost certainly monitoring FARC deployments, with such information being relayed to the Colombian military.

There are two faces to US policy towards Latin America, both repulsive. The first is that of economic neoliberalism, preaching the virtues of uninhibited trade, open markets, privatization, structural adjustment. On the ground, across Latin America, we see the consequence: social devastation in thirty-one kleptocracies, all corrupt, many bankrupt.

The alternate face, whose baleful glare is now fixed upon Columbia, is that of military repression. Bolstered with fresh US cash, the Colombian military is probably planning a direct coup unless Pastrana takes a hard-line stance to FARC and other guerrilla insurgencies. For thirty years the United States underwrote genocide in Guatemala. With 30,000 civilians already killed Colombia could become its successor. The US Congress should veto any aid or comfort.

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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