U.S. treading water in South America

For the first time in Colombia’s bloody civil war, the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC, has captured U.S. government workers and deemed them “prisoners of war.” In Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest oil supplier, violent political struggle between President Hugo Chavez and his opponents has caused serious international implications. And in poverty-stricken Bolivia, the government’s austerity plans recommended by the International Monetary Fund were met with deadly protests and unrest that, if continued, could erase the free-market gains made by that country over the last 20 years.

Even as the world’s attention turns to Iraq and the Korean peninsula, these events showcase the need for the United States to engage Latin America and carefully apply a combination of measures to address the unique problems of each of these countries.

Colombia’s situation is particularly grim. In 1997, the United States began supplying Colombia with funds and military assistance for the purpose of squashing drug production and fighting leftist rebels who – while leading an insurgency against the Colombian government for the past 39 years – became intimately involved in the country’s drug trade. Since then, the original purpose of the U.S. mission – known as Plan Colombia – has changed. The first shift occurred after Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States designated Colombia’s two leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary army as terrorists. This placed the intractable problems of drugs and Colombia’s civil war within the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.” The next shift came after FARC rebels kidnapped three federal workers contracted by the Defense Department. Coming off the heels of military buildups in the Persian Gulf and the Philippines, the Bush administration is now planning to send close to 150 troops to Colombia to aid in the rescue of the kidnapped Americans.

In attempting a rescue, the United States must be careful not to go beyond the scope of the legislation permitting U.S. troops in Colombia. Congress voiced this sentiment in 2001 due to concerns the United States might end up in a protracted conflict similar to Vietnam. Therefore, restrictions were put in place on the number of military personnel in Colombia at any given time. In the most recent report delivered by Bush to Congress for the period ending in mid-January, there were 208 military personnel and 279 contract workers in Colombia. The saving grace in all this is a restrictive clause in the legislation allowing the president to “carry out emergency evacuation of U.S. citizens or any search-and-rescue operation for U.S. military personnel or U.S. citizens.”

Meanwhile, in Venezuela bombs recently ripped through the Spanish and Colombian diplomatic missions. The attacks followed a series of often-violent protests in Venezuela, as well as a two-month-long strike that failed to oust Chavez. In Bolivia, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s Cabinet resigned en masse Tuesday after violent protests of economic policies left 29 people dead.

Although the United States used the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 to stake out its claim to the countries of Latin America, it was not until the late 19th century that it had the economic and military might to pursue its interests there wholesale. The United States must not lose sight of South America – its strategic and economic importance, as well as the plight of its people – as it pursues its agenda elsewhere.