FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Aiding Colombia

by John Patrick Leary

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: johnpatrickleary@yahoo.com

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail