A Blank Check from Washington for Colombia's Dirty War
Buffalo News, April 9, 2000
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, March 30, 2000
One of the problems with deleting our government's worst crimes from America's historical hard drive is that they tend to recur. How many people even know the hideous story of how we supported and financed the slaughter of tens of thousands-- innocent civilians, teachers, health care and church workers-- in Central America in the 1980s?
Apparently not enough, or we wouldn't be doing the same thing, little more than a decade later in Colombia. The Clinton administration has been lobbying furiously to send another $1.6 billion to fuel an ugly, brutal war whose main victims are once again civilians.
Sure, there's a new excuse-- now we're fighting "narco-terrorists" and "narco-guerrillas" -- but it's even more transparent than the old one. Not to mention that the drug war has been a total failure, on both the domestic and international fronts. We now spend nearly $40 billion annually on drug enforcement, and have 400,000 people languishing behind bars for drug crimes, and what are the results? Cocaine and heroin are available as cheaply and in purer form than they have been for decades, and the number of people who die from illegal drug use is at record levels.
It has long been known that drugs are a demand-side problem, and so long as there is demand for cocaine, someone will grow the coca and find a way to get the product here. But our intervention in Colombia is not about drugs anyway, and U.S. officials are increasingly abandoning the pretense that it is.
If this were really a war against drugs, we wouldn't be spending billions in a futile attempt to destroy the FARC and the ELN-- Colombia's main guerilla groups, who have been fighting for decades against a violently repressive government. While the guerrilla groups have provided protection for coca growers, many of whom are poor peasants struggling to survive, the really big involvement in trafficking is by people on our side-- the paramilitaries allied with the Colombian armed forces.
As bad as our allies are on drug trafficking, they are even worse when it comes to murdering their opposition. Last year AFL-CIO President John Sweeney wrote to the Clinton administration, calling attention to the murder and "disappearance" in just the last few years of hundreds of Colombian labor activists. In the last five years, not a single murderer responsible for the death of a trade unionist has been arrested or tried.
For all its talk of including "labor rights" in new trade and commercial agreements, the Clinton administration doesn't seem to mind financing a dirty war that has killed more trade unionists than in any country in the world.
According to Human Rights Watch, half of the Colombian army's brigade-level units are linked to the paramilitary death squads. Together they are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the political murders and human rights abuses in Colombia.
The Cold War may be dead, but the military-industrial complex is alive and well. You could almost hear the grunting and squealing as United Technologies shoved aside Textron at the trough for the biggest chunk of the Colombia aid package: 30 Sikorsky UH-60L Blackhawk helicopters for a whopping $390 million. So what if they cost six times as much as the next best alternative? More pork, more help getting the package through without those cumbersome human rights conditions. Consolation prize for Textron: $66 million for 33 of its much cheaper Huey II's.
United Technologies gave more than $700,000 to Democrats and Republicans over the last two election cycles. More proof that it's not only the dot.coms that can turn small amounts of venture capital into big bucks in a fairly short time.
The Administration's drug policy director Gen. Barry McCaffrey had opposed the exorbitantly expensive Blackhawks but recently came around. "These are the best helicopters in the world. The next time you see me, I'll probably be peddling them, I hope," he joked at a recent Congressional hearing.
Sadly, there was a peace process in Colombia that looked much more hopeful until the Clinton administration opted for its "let them eat bullets" strategy. As in Vietnam, they are trying to tell us there is light at the end of the tunnel, if we just commit more money and weapons. But they are destroying Colombia in order to "save" it.
Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.