Columbia: New Administration in Washington, Same Old Game? 1/26/01

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Gen. Barry McCaffrey and the other authors of the Clinton Administration's Plan Colombia, the $1.3 billion effort to wipe out the Colombian cocaine business and those pesky guerrillas, may be gone now, but their creation lives on -- and now it is the Bush administration's problem.

President Clinton bequeathed to his successor a policy that has left the United States internationally isolated, emboldened vicious paramilitary death squads in de facto alliance with the Colombian military, heightened the level of political violence, accelerated the flow of refugees both internally and into neighboring countries, and sent tremors of violence and instability shuddering through the region.

It has not had any measurable impact on Colombian cocaine exports, and even in the best case, will not have any impact for three to five years, McCaffrey himself admitted.

But Plan Colombia is starting to have an impact on the poor peasants who grow coca plants in small patches in the Guamuez Valley in conflicted Putumayo province. Press reports from the area tell of thousands of coca plants destroyed by aerial fumigation with the herbicide glyphosate, coca prices rising, and coca pickers being thrown out of work.

Associated Press correspondent Andrew Selsky traveled through the area this week, and here is his description:

"The fields in Santa Rosa looked like moonscapes, with only deadened branches of the formerly robust green bushes sticking above the brown ground. Adjacent food crops were shriveled and yellowed from the herbicide, as well as some of the jungle. Tribal fish farms were also sprayed, the Indians said."

"All my corn, yucca, and bananas died," peasant farmer Jos Melo complained to the Miami Herald. "What am I going to feed my family?"

The recent campaign has so far sprayed 15,000 of the 110,000 acres planted with coca in the valley, and it began in areas softened-up by a murderous paramilitary campaign over the past 18 months. As a result, armed resistance has so far been scarce, but that will change as the spraying moves into areas still dominated by the leftist FARC guerrillas.

"If they fly around here, we'll be throwing lead up at them," vowed a young rebel at a roadblock an hour's drive further up the valley.

As Plan Colombia heats up, Colombian President Pastrana is on the verge of deciding whether to extend the FARC's "safe haven," a Switzerland-sized area of the country where the guerrillas reign supreme. In a decision that could end the sputtering peace talks between the FARC and the government, Pastrana appears poised to end the area's refuge status, a move FARC leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda has vowed will end the peace process.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the Colombian military had rushed hundreds of troops to a staging point just outside the safe haven. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Colombian military C-130 transport planes flew in more than 600 troops to reinforce the 2,500 soldiers already stationed just outside the zone.

This is the steaming dish Bill Clinton left for George Bush and his foreign policy advisors. What they will do with it remains to be seen. Bush made general comments supporting the Clinton Colombia policy during the campaign, and some of his advisors have made noises suggesting an intensification of the US effort.

But if his confirmation hearings are any indication, incoming Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld isn't one of them, nor does he know much about Colombia. He didn't know the US was busy upgrading an airbase in Manta, Ecuador, to surveil drug flights, he told Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

But he did have some thoughts on supply and demand and the drug war. The drug problem is "overwhelmingly a demand problem," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If demand persists, it's going to get what it wants. And if it isn't from Colombia, it's going to be from someplace else."

Rumsfeld has expressed similar sentiments before. At a 1997 roundtable discussion among former Defense secretaries at the Southern Center for International Studies in Atlanta, Rumsfeld called the idea of using the military to fight drugs "nonsense."

If the drug problem is ever solved, he said, it will be solved by "families, and by people, and by schools, and by churches, not by the military."

But Rumsfeld may well just get on board with the existing policy, which is what Colin Powell, the new Secretary of State, appears to have done. To the disappointment of those who had hoped his "Powell Doctrine" -- which calls for the use of US military force only when it is overwhelmingly arrayed against a specific and limited objective with a defined exit strategy -- would guide him away from ever-deepening entanglements in Colombia, he instead supported Plan Colombia during his confirmation cakewalk on January 17th.

In another ill omen, Powell also supported the Clinton Administration's failed effort to develop a regional strategy around Colombia. He might want to talk to Hugo Chavez about that.

While the Bush administration makes up its mind, the drug war continues in Colombia.

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Issue #170, 1/26/01 Strange Days in the Land of Enchantment: Drug Reform Groups Play Key Role as Battle Over Gov. Johnson's Package Heats Up | Pataki Fleshes Out Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Package | Clinton Commutes a Few More Drug Sentences at Last Minute | Columbia: New Administration in Washington, Same Old Game? | Chapare, Bolivia Community Charges Torture and Human Rights Violations by US-funded Anti-Drug Force | New RAND Study Finds Federal Agencies Overstate Drug Treatment and Prevention Spending | Belgium Decriminalizes Marijuana for Personal Use, Users Must Grow Their Own or Buy it in the Netherlands, Says Government | New Zealand Parliament Again Reviewing Cannabis Laws | Bush on Drugs: The New President Speaks Up to CNN | Calling All Activists: Ashcroft, Hemp | The Reformer's Calendar: LA, Philly, Portland, New York, DC, SF, Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Fort Bragg, Miami, Amsterdam, New Delhi
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