History is repeating itself in Latin America, where an American administration is once again becoming involved in a decades-old civil war. The conflict this time is Colombia’s; and if the U.S. government’s recent performance during the Venezuelan coup is any indication, its policy is certainly a farce.
Last week, the State Department gave the Colombian army the official human-rights certification needed to free up tens of millions of dollars in military aid. In Colombia, leftist guerrillas are battling the Colombian military and a right-wing paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), whose close ties to the army and the Colombian business elite are well-known, even in Washington. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the AUC are implicated in assassinations, kidnappings, and drug trafficking, though the AUC are by all reports worse on all counts. The smaller leftwing National Liberation Army (ELN) have also been implicated in abductions and political killings. Otto Reich, America’s Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, called last month for increased military aid to Colombia, arguing that its much- maligned military has made progress towards improving its record. "Our human-rights message is making a difference," Reich claimed. However, according to American and Colombian rights groups, the message hasn’t gotten though.
The five-year "Plan Colombia," signed two years ago by President Bill Clinton, was intended to target coca production in the country to reduce cocaine traffic and compromise an important source of income for criminal cartels, guerrillas, and the paramilitaries. U.S. military aid to the country has been restricted to counter-narcotics assistance, however; that is, training, weapons, and equipment are to be used only in the anti-drug campaign, not military operations. The Bush administration, however, is now pushing Congress to officially remove these restrictions on military aid to the nation. As early as 1997, senior U.S. officials like Barry McCaffrey, Clinton’s drug czar, were already contending_to the fury of their superiors then_that the drug interdiction and the counterinsurgency effort were indistinguishable. Now, however, that claim is practically gospel on the U.S. right, as Colombian and American leaders clamor for concerted U.S. involvement in the war against "narco-terrorism."
The Bush administration does include many high-ranking officials from the period when the U.S. directly inserted itself, with disastrous results, into Central America’s civil wars and revolutions. Reich, Elliot Abrams, John Negroponte, and John Poindexter among others, all helped direct Ronald Reagan’s Latin American policy, and all were implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly brought down the administration. And while the language may have changed_"terrorism," not Cuban-Soviet communism, is the specter that now haunts Latin America_the repertoire of the Colombian counterinsurgency is all too familiar. Political murders like the shooting of a Catholic archbishop in Cali (he was a sharp critic of the paramilitaries, guerrillas, and the government, and his death remains a mystery), and the mass killings and disappearances of peasants, trade unionists, human rights activists, leftists, and anyone suspected of sympathizing with these have characterized the conflict, which has exhibited marked similarities with the political violence that tore apart El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica twenty years ago.
Colombia has not yet sounded those depths, but it is getting close. Then as now, "human rights" were meant to be a condition of U.S. aid, but again appear to be little more than a public-relations shibboleth in the ever-deepening Colombian quagmire. In his aid plea last month, Reich outlined both the "narco-terrorist" threat and the Colombian and American governments’ joint commitment to human rights. In fact, Reich went on, "two senior officials traveled to Bogota late last month to underscore the importance we attach to human rights." The military itself is not directly responsible for many of the country’s political killings_a fact proudly pointed out by the State Department_which are instead committed by guerrillas and, in 75% of the cases, the paramilitaries who operate with the compliance and often the assistance of the armed forces. In 1997, a declassified CIA report noted, "We see scant indications that the military is making an effort to directly confront the paramilitary groups," but with last week’s certification, the U.S. government now reasons that the armed forces are breaking their paramilitary links.
Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, reported that a systematic pattern of collaboration with the AUC continues in the Colombian armed forces, and says there is still "no credible evidence" that the government or army have taken action against death-squad sympathizers in its ranks. "The Colombian government’s progress against paramilitary groups," the report asserts, "has amounted to little more than rhetoric, unsupported by actions in the field designed either to break existing ties between the military and paramilitary groups, prosecute the officers who support these links, or pursue those groups and their leaders effectively in the field."
Nevertheless, it is rhetoric that impresses an American public and government eager to see easy results in Colombia, a nation that has been torn by violence and severe underdevelopment for generations. The real targets of U.S. and Colombian policymakers are, of course, the FARC and the ELN. While the AUC is also listed as a "terrorist organization" by the State Department, U.S. officials have proven unable to grasp either the immensity of its crimes or the complexity of the country’s civil war, now crudely shoehorned into the Bush "war on terror." And while Colombia is nominally a democracy, its government is riven with corruption and patronage, and many honest officials are paralyzed by fear of retaliation from the military, the AUC, or the guerrillas. In making a case for the newly reformed Colombian military, Reich cited the arrests of some paramilitary leaders and the recent punishment of Navy General Rodrigo Quinones, the figure to whom Reich was apparently referring when he noted that a "senior Colombian naval official’s career was recently ended because of allegations that he collaborated with paramilitaries." Quinones was in fact promoted twice after Colombian government investigators linked him to at least fifty-seven murders of trade unionists, human rights workers, and community leaders in 1991 and 1992. Government investigators also determined that the general gave safe passage to AUC death squads who executed 26 people with sledgehammers in the village of Chengue. Despite what Reich says, however, Quinones has not recently been punished, as if a career change could be considered punishment. He has simply been reassigned as a military attache abroad.
The State Department’s obstinate interest in purely symbolic actions like the reassignment of Quinones is hardly surprising to those who remember the Reagan administration’s almost surreal capacity to detect "progress" in the behavior of the Contras and the Central American military juntas_even when that progress consisted of, as it once did in El Salvador, of renaming a death squad, just to say in a human-rights report that it no longer existed. The absurd_in the literary sense_belief that a thing can be brought into being simply by naming it, that democracy can be conjured out of ballot boxes, press releases, and a well-articulated "human rights message," continues in the Bush administration. Reagan once described Guatemalan General Efrain Rios Montt, whose dictatorship killed at least 15,000 innocent people in its own campaign against guerrillas, as "totally committed to democracy," a claim that flew in the face of every available fact about the man. Reich himself listed several "human rights programs" sponsored by millions of U.S. aid dollars_but none of these programs appear to be devoted to reforming the Colombian military and punishing its rights abusers, addressing the extreme poverty in the countryside, or successfully breaking the Colombian farmer’s dependence on the coca crop with sustainable alternative development. Simply throwing military aid at political problems will not by itself bring peace or equity_especially when the recipients of that aid are the problem. This is a lesson the U.S. should have learned. It is mistake America appears prepared to repeat.
John Patrick Leary is an activist and writer in New York City. E-mail: email@example.com