Colombia: Our Next Guatemala?

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, August 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

Colombia: Our Next Guatemala?


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


Anyone wanting a vivid snapshot of the rubble of US policy toward Latin America should glance at Colombia, where the Clinton Administration now has one foot over the brink of a military intervention strongly reminiscent of John Kennedy's initial deployments in Vietnam.

Colombia is in economic free fall, and, as Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs remarks, the only comfort its beleaguered inhabitants can seize upon is that the velocity of this collapse is at least slower than that of neighboring Ecuador, now experiencing its worst economic slump in seventy years. Colombia is currently suffering negative growth, has an official unemployment rate of 19 percent and an actual unemployment rate probably more than twice that figure. Austerity programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank have closed off any hope for that half of the country's population that lives below the poverty line.

It shouldn't be this way. With a diversity of exports, Colombia could have one of the strongest economies of Latin America. But it's the same old story. Down the years every US Administration has sent arms and advisers to prop up Colombia's elites. US-assisted repression in Colombia has been spectacularly appalling. According to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia, 3,832 political murders were perpetrated in 1998, the bulk of them done by the army, police and right- wing paramilitaries. To lend a sense of perspective, this is about twice the death toll in Kosovo that prompted charges of Serbian genocide and that helped whip up sentiment for NATO's war on Serbia.

The US government is now preparing to escalate vastly the money and weapons going to the Colombian military, far beyond the $289 million in already-scheduled assistance this year, making Colombia the third-largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt. Congress has already appropriated another half-billion for the drug war, with much of it going to Colombia. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is asking for a further $1 billion for the drug war over the next three years, said sum to go to the Andean countries, with about half to Colombia alone. The Colombian military is requesting yet another $500 million.

McCaffrey's request puts an end to any pretense that there is somehow a distinction between US backing of counterinsurgency and of counterdrug activities. A Congressional amendment has forbidden US military aid to go to Latin American army units with a documented record of human rights abuses. But in the pell-mell rush to throw money at Colombia's military, such niceties are being cast over the side.

The immediate cause of panic is the strength of Colombia's main insurgency, run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In a peace-feeler several months ago, President Andres Pastrana effectively ceded the FARC control over a 16,000-square-mile slab of south-central Colombia, about the size of Switzerland. The Clinton Administration was not entirely unsympathetic to this overture, at least until a FARC commander made the brutal and summary decision in February to execute the three indigenous rights activists-Ingrid Washinawatok, Lahe'ena'e Gay and Terence Freitas-who were working in the eastern Arauca state on behalf of the U'wa Indians. …

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