Senate Passes Colombia Military Assistance, Marginal Differences With House Version Head to Conference Committee, What Next? 6/23/00

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The US Senate voted Wednesday for a massive escalation in US military intervention in Colombia.  Senators voted overwhelmingly for the package after turning back two amendments supported by Latin American, human rights and drug policy reform groups, including DRCNet.

The Wellstone amendment, which would have diverted $225 million from the Colombian military to domestic treatment programs, lost 89-11.

The Gorton amendment, which would have cut the assistance down to $200 million, was defeated 79-19.

While some differences with the House version of the bill remain, massive US involvement in Colombia is now virtually a done deal.

The vote results sparked harsh criticism from some senators, as well as from human rights and drug policy organizations.

Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) told his colleagues, "The capacity of this body for self-delusion seems to this senator to be unlimited.  Mark my words, we are on the verge... of involvement in a civil war in Latin America, without the slightest promise that our intervention will be a success...  This is a down payment, and a down payment only.  Next year we are likely to hear we need more money and more men."

Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) told DRCNet, "We are deeply disappointed in the superficial debate, the failure to seriously reevaluate failed counternarcotics policies and the failure to develop new strategies for combating drug abuse at home and realistically dealing with Colombia's problems."

Sanho Tree, Drug Policy Director at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) told DRCNet, "In Colombia, the roots of conflict are social, political and economic.  Guns and helicopters won't remedy the problems of poverty in the Andes or addiction in America."

"The region needs a mini-Marshall Plan, and we're sending them Desert Storm," added Tree.

And the storm should arrive soon.  WOLA's Tate said training and hardware shipment will get underway quickly once the bill gets out of conference committee and is signed by President Clinton.  The bill should go to conference committee next week, she said.

Both Tree and Tate still see opportunities for making marginal improvements in a bad bill in conference committee.  According to Tate, the Senate version contains stronger language conditioning aid on human rights accountability and contains less money for the Colombian military than the House version.

The House version contains some funding to assist the 1.5 million Colombians already internally displaced by the decades-long civil war, noted Tree.  But, he added, "The bill contains money for future displacements.  We are now planning to displace additional people, as if 1.5 million people isn't enough."

While the immediate battle has been lost, advocates of an enlightened policy toward Colombia are not giving up.  "Our emphasis will be to continue to educate people about the impact in Colombia," said Tate.  "We are committed to continuing to monitor the situation on the ground there."

And, Tate added, "This is just the first step.  They'll be coming back for more money soon.  There will be many battles down the road, and each one will be an opportunity to renew our questions, our concerns, our activism."

In the meantime, both Tate and Tree concur that concerned citizens should contact their senators and let them know how disappointed they are.  "We are particularly disturbed about the failure of some people who usually champion concerns about civil society to oppose this bill," said Tate.  She nominated Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Joe Biden (D-DE) for particular opprobrium.  "Biden returned from Colombia only to misrepresent the concerns of the Colombian human rights community," she said, "and Durbin reneged on the Wellstone amendment."

Tree, meanwhile, fingered the entire Connecticut delegation.  "Chris Dodd (D-CT) was the biggest whore in the Senate on this," he said, "but the entire Connecticut delegation, usually very good on Latin America and human rights, all marched in lockstep."  The reason, says Tree, is that they were in the pocket of United Technologies, parent company of Sikorsky, a helicopter manufacturer.  Dodd offered a failed amendment to switch from cheaper Huey helicopters to Sikorsky's Black Hawks.

"All of them [the Connecticut delegation] supported giving military aid to the worst human rights abuser in the hemisphere, to their everlasting shame," said Tree.

The following Senators voted in favor of Paul Wellstone's amendment shifting $225 million in military aid funding to domestic drug treatment:  Boxer (D-CA, co-sponsor), Byrd (D-WV), Dorgan (D-ND), Feingold (D-WI), Grams (R-MN), Harkin (D-IA), Leahy (D-VT), Mikulski (D-MD), Murray (D-WA), Specter (R-PA), Wellstone (D-MN).

The following Senators voted in favor of Slade Gorton's amendment slashing the Colombia package from nearly one billion down to $200 million in order to pay down the national debt:  Allard (R-CO), Boxer (D-CA), Collins (R-ME), Craig (R-ID), Crapo (R-ID), Enzi (R-WY), Fitzgerald (R-IL), Gorton (R-WA), Gramm (R-TX), Grams (R-MN), Gregg (R-NH), Harkin (D-IA), Hutchinson (R-AR), Kohl (D-WI), Leahy (D-VT), Mikulski (D-MD), Murray (D-WA), Specter (R-PA), Thomas (R-WY).

If you are represented by any of the senators listed above, please thank them for taking the right stand on this issue.  Visit http://www.senate.gov to find their contact information, or call (202) 224-3121.  If either or both of your senators is not on one of these lists, call them and voice your criticism of their disregard for human rights and common sense.

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