Colombians scapegoats for U.S.
By William Pfaff
PARIS - The Clinton administration has put before Congress an
"emergency" $1.6 billion program to expand military assistance to the
Colombian army and security forces, fighting both an insurrection and
the drug trade.
Administration officials say this program will be part of what
will 'probably be a huge effort, lasting for years," whose objective is
"to strengthen Colombian institutions and help the government reach a
peace" with the leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary
forces responsible for years of chaotic violence in Colombia.
The guerrillas claim to defend peasants evicted from their land,
and have a program of social revolution. The main rebel group currently
has a delegation in Europe - which visited the Vatican last week -
looking for support.
The guerrillas are subsidized by coca dealers operating in the
regions they control. The militias are backed by land owners and
supposedly have ties to the army, whose own record displays a lack of
efficiency and poor regard for human rights.
The ingredients in this story are classic in recent Latin
American history. Washington's is the classic U.S. response, which in
the past has invariably failed.
Washington alleges that Colombia now produces more than half the
world's coca, most of which, when turned into cocaine, reaches the
Its alarm rests on a new CIA and Drug Enforcement Administration
study, which claims that Colombia's current coca production is some
three times greater than American analysts had previously thought:
about 480 tons, compared with the 182 tons Colombia supposedly
pro-duced in 1998.
One must ask if it is the reality that has changed, or the
accuracy of Washington's analyses. Politically, it makes little
difference. The administration has convinced itself that new American
trained mobile army battalions (originally five, with three years'
training, cut back to two with eight months of instruction), and a new
fleet of 30 highly expensive Blackhawk helicopters, are needed for the
The government of Colombia wants to increase U.S. involvement,
although President Andres Pastrana insists that he will not allow
active U.S. military intervention - which, according to some polls, is
what a majority of Colombians want.
There are many in the U.S. government (notably the Pentagon,
allergic to counter-insurgency wars) to whom all this seems
depressingly familiar. The White House policy chief on drug policy,
General Barry McCaffrey, replies that some of this criticism merely
comes from agencies that lost out on funding.
The U.S. Coast Guard and
the DEA insist that they have demonstrated better ways to deal with the
drug trade than subsidizing civil war inside Colombia. Other
critics make the usual argument for social and economic reform in
Colombia, rather than a bigger war (Colombia is experiencing its worst
economic conditions in a half-century).
Whatever the criticisms, the program is expected to be approved
by Congress. Its popularity reflects an understandable but
ultimately vain wish to solve an American domestic problem somewhere
other than in the United States.
biggest market for drugs exists in the United States. As any of
the Clinton administration's apostles of trade globalization could
explain, when the rewards of a market are very great (in this case,
because official repression creates an artificial scarcity of cocaine),
the demand will be met.
Even if this U.S. financed extension and intensification of the
Colombian government's effort to eradicate coca production should
succeed (which is not likely, but never mind), coca production would
simply move someplace else. The demand would still be there.
The venture capitalists on the dark side of the globalized
economy are willing to finance new sources of drug supply. For them,
the risks are negligible. The real risks of the drug trade are
off-loaded onto lower-ranking functionaries in the busi-ness, including
the U.S. street dealer, who now overburden American prisons.
problem is inside the United States, not outside it. Why
reinforce a Colombian army with a poor record, which operates in the
social and political environment of a country that has been at war with
itself for most of its modern history, while refusing funds to the U.S.
Coast Guard to expand surveillance and interdiction of drugs coming
into the U.S. -- which Washington is doing?
Some critics of U.S. drug policy want legalization or even
nationalization of drug supplies, in order to take the profits out of
the trade. Others oppose so radical a policy shift, citing some of the
unforeseen consequences of Dutch, Swiss and other experiments with
legalization. However, this is a legitimate debate dealing with the
source of the problem. It does not project the solution elsewhere.
The drug trade
responds to U.S. demand. Colombia's drug production and exports
are merely a sideline in an indigenous political and social struggle
whose causes have nothing to do with drugs and for which the U.S. has