U.S. aid influences Colombian politics

by Sascha Matuszak

Colombia has not had a single peaceful day in 50 years.
There’s hope that a peace process initiated Jan. 7 between the government and the country’s largest guerrilla group will yield calm and an end to the bloodshed.
But for those familiar with Colombia and its violent past, peace remains a long way off.
“I’m not very optimistic,” said a former resident of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, who now lives in Minneapolis. She asked to be called “Isabel” out of fear for her life.
The government, led by Colombian President Andres Pastrana, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, revived the peace process in October, shortly after the revolutionary group froze talks.
No concrete steps have been made, but talks continue, which is more than anyone expected.
Who’s who
From 1948 to the mid-1960s, political violence claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Colombians. Out of la violencia, as it is called, two powerful guerrilla groups emerged, FARC and the National Liberation Army, or ELN.
The guerrillas have since fought for agrarian and political reform with support from the farmers of southern and eastern Colombia.
With no government representation or support, many peasants felt the guerrillas could provide a good governmental alternative, Isabel said.
“The guerrillas created their own government,” she said.
In response, wealthy landowners created right-wing paramilitary units to protect their interests and destroy the peasant uprising.
“People who represent ideologies different from the government were doing so legally,” Isabel said. “So the (paramilitaries) were formed to kill them.”
According to several human-rights groups, the paramilitaries have been responsible for thousands of cases of torture, kidnapping and politically motivated killing.
Amnesty International estimates that paramilitary groups such as the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia are responsible for more than 70 percent of politically motivated killings in Colombia. Paramilitaries were declared illegal in 1989.
“My best friend was killed for his political views,” Isabel said.
Her friend was a member of the Patriotic Union, an independent party formed in the 1980s to represent the opposition.
The government made the party legal to find out who the leaders were, and then they began killing them, Isabel said.
“All the leaders of that party got killed,” she said. “The only people who survived went to Europe.”
The guerrillas and paramilitaries are also linked to the drug cartels that virtually control the cities of Cali and Medellin.
Although not necessarily involved in trafficking, the guerrillas protect and tax peasant-grown poppy and coca crops to generate income.
The United States became involved in Colombia because cocaine and heroin streamed across U.S. borders while American money flowed in the opposite direction.
“There was money for everyone but not for the government. That was the problem,” Isabel said.
The situation rapidly progressed into a national conflict between guerrillas, paramilitaries and the Colombian military supported by the U.S. government.
The U.S. State Department lists FARC and ELN as terrorist groups but does not mention the right-wing paramilitaries.
But the paramilitaries are Colombia’s terrorists, said Robin Kirk, Colombia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“We must pursue the paramilitaries the same way we pursue the guerrillas,” she said. “If we are truly about drug trafficking, why aren’t we going after the paramilitaries?”
U.S. role
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement gave at least $57 million to the Colombian government for narcotics control in 1998, with more than $54 million going separately to the police and the military, according to the Center for International Policy.
The State Department bureau contributed more than $200 million in 1999 to fight drugs. An estimated $40 million more is requested for 2000, not including about $1.7 million in military education and training or millions more in foreign-military sales agreements.
The U.S. operates numerous training facilities, deployments and bases inside Colombia.
For the last several months, the Clinton administration and Congress have been debating the content of an aid package for Colombia.
The package was proposed by Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and would provide $1.5 billion to Colombia and the surrounding area over three years.
The funds would be directed primarily at the military.
“You cannot send money to an abusive army,” Kirk said. “We are bound by law not to fund units which have an abusive record.”
She said the key to peace is directing aid to public services that the majority of Colombians don’t have, such as hospitals, roads and health care.
“Any human being who doesn’t have the basic needs solved cannot act in a peaceful way,” Isabel said.
She said drugs and violence are not the problem but the effects of the real problem — financial and political inequality.
“It makes sense to me to build roads and give the farmers a chance to move their product out,” said Robert White, president of the Center for International Policy.
But that isn’t what happens. Instead, the United States has predominantly supplied military aid to Colombian armed forces.
“The U.S. military has too much money, and they spend it on the wrong things, ” White said. “If you put 95 cents of each foreign-policy dollar into the military, every foreign-policy problem will be treated as a military problem.”
Peace process
“The chances for success in the short-term are bleak, but in the mid- to long-term, I am optimistic,” White said.
A lot depends on whether the United States is prepared to send the right kind of aid, he explained.
The United States has stated in the past that aid to Colombia would be denied if the Colombian military pulls out of FARC-controlled areas.
“The U.S. Congress has basically tried to torpedo the peace process,” Kirk said. “The whole point of the peace process is for FARC to feel comfortable coming down to talk with the government.”
The military, a powerful political force in Colombia, has sabotaged past peace processes, often rendering the government ineffective in talks with the guerrillas.
“It’s impossible to talk of the government as a unified force,” Kirk said. “The government and the military are two different things.”
The Colombian people are skeptical of the peace process because of a history of double-crosses between the guerrillas and the government.
“Pastrana is the son of an ex-President of Colombia who was terrible,” Isabel said. “They represent the conservatives … They have never done anything good for my country.”

Sascha Matuszak covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]