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From San Juan Hill to Chengue

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

What else did Bill Clinton do in those final hours of his presidency? Let’s see, he gave Teddy Roosevelt the Medal of Honor and boasted in the accompanying speech on January 16 that in 1993 he’d broken with the usual policy of incoming Democratic Presidents, who would pull the portrait of TR off the wall above the mantelpiece in the White House’s Roosevelt Room and put up FDR instead. Then the incoming Republican Commander in Chief would reverse the process. Not our Bill. He kept TR up on the wall, triangulating right from the start. On January 16 Bill said it was high time to give TR the medal for which he had been recommended right after the charge up San Juan Hill. Exit Bill, enter the new team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who now has a chance to live up to those fine words of his to the Republicans massed in Philadelphia for their convention last August. Powell told the plump delegates they should not forget the poor and the afflicted.

How might Powell distinguish himself from his predecessor Madeleine Albright? The latter’s final act in office was, with the approval of Clinton, to insist that a slab of US military aid to Colombia should not be held up out of any pettifogging concerns for human rights. The Colombian military and its death squads have a documented record for bestial carnage unrivaled in the entire world, and so, in admiration for this pre-eminence, last August Clinton waived four of the five human rights criteria laid out by Congress to release the first chunk of $781.5 million. A certification or waiver was also required for the second installment, of $56.4 million. While conceding that the record of the Colombian military was not all that it could be, the Clinton Administration nonetheless decided that because the second slice of aid was not included in “regular funds” but rather in an emergency spending bill, the certification and waiver process did not apply.

On January 17, the day after Bill honored the imperialist hero of the Spanish-American War, and when Albright and the others were still chortling at their ingenuity in circumventing the human rights provisions, the BBC’s correspondent in Bogot?, Jeremy McDermott, reported that “alleged right-wing paramilitaries” had attacked a village on Colombia’s northwest coast, killing twenty-five people. “Fifty men in military uniform arrived in Chengue in the early hours of the morning,” McDermott told his audience. “They rounded up 25 men whom they accused of being guerrilla sympathizers and hacked them to death with machetes. They then set fire to thirty houses of this village in the northern province of Sucre.” McDermott added that the massacre had all the hallmarks of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary army of 8,000 fighters “deeply involved in the drug trade.”

For months the inhabitants of Chengue had a pretty good idea of what might lie in store for them. On October 6 they wrote a letter to Colombian President Andr?s Pastrana, detailing the threat of violence and human rights abuses that the people of the Municipal de Ovejas feel could occur at any moment on the part of paramilitary groups operating in the region. The terrified townsfolk urged Pastrana to do something “to avoid a massacre,” explaining that the government’s presence was minimal in the area and that the people live in “anguish and tension” because of the documented barbarism. Attached to the letter were the signatures of ninety-nine residents of the town.

While the villagers were appealing to Pastrana to save their lives, the Clinton Administration was putting spurs to “Plan Colombia,” a strategy straight off the Pentagon’s Vietnam and Central American drawing board. Beefed up by US training, “advisers,” arms and intelligence, the Colombian military has been planning to overwhelm guerrilla bases in southern Colombia, simultaneously eradicating the coca and poppy fields, which are the peasants’ only resource, the option of legal crops long since sabotaged by US economic policies. Pretenses that the Clinton Administration is strongly supportive of a peaceful solution to Colombia’s troubles has become increasingly ludicrous, as dollars and kindred practical support for the Colombian military and its death squads have flooded from Washington to Bogot?.

As a man who started his career in a counter-insurgency unit in Vietnam, Powell knows all about such campaigns of pacification. And since he’s not dumb, he knows that Plan Colombia will merely augment that country’s misery, which has more than half the population below poverty level, internal refugees by the million and no prospects for improvement. He knows too that “drug interdiction,” partly the official US rationale for Plan Colombia, is a farce. He knows where the $1.3 billion should have gone: into the drug education and rehab programs here in the United States. The Clinton Administration and its Republican allies successfully beat back an effort by Senator Paul Wellstone to get about $225,000 of the package reserved to that end.

What’s the chance of Powell pressing for a different approach in Colombia? Zero, probably. But at least once we should remind him of his rhetoric in Philadelphia, just as we should remind Bush at least once of his eloquent inaugural speech about helping the poor. Why collude with these folks in their degradation of language and morals?

And Bill? He’s in Chappaqua glad-handing the locals and contemplating the memoirs that will doubtless be as mendacious as those of Teddy Roosevelt, like Clinton a Force Ten blowhard and self-inflater. In a couple of weeks Bill will be ogling the girls in the bank and suggesting sorties to the local hot-mattress motel, if such sanctuary is available in the purlieus of the Saw Mill River Parkway. If she’s called Gennifer we’ll have come back to the beginning, just as, on the larger canvas, we do year after year with San Juan Hill. 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: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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