Congress voted Saturday to allow the number of US military personnel in Colombia to double from 400 to 800 in coming months. The joint conference committee vote on the 2005 Defense Department appropriations bill also allows the administration to increase the number of US citizens working as subcontractors for the US-backed anti-drug and counterinsurgency effort from 400 to 600.
Congress imposed a personnel cap on the US presence in Colombia in 2000 in an effort to avoid a rapid escalation in the number of US troops and civilian contractors involved in that country's four-decade-old civil conflict. The personnel cap was part of the Clinton era Plan Colombia, which, unlike current Colombia policy, at least kept up the pretense that US involvement was an anti-drug effort, not an attempt to intervene in the civil war.
The vote marked a victory for the government of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and its US backers. Uribe has spent his term -- and $3.3 billion in US assistance -- attempting to defeat leftist guerrillas militarily even as he negotiates peace deals with rightist paramilitaries. As part of his campaign against the guerrillas, Uribe has enthusiastically supported US-backed efforts to destroy the country's coca and cocaine economy, which feeds tens of thousands of peasant coca growers as well as funding armed combatants on all sides of the conflict.
But even as Uribe basked in the glow of a fresh commitment from the US, massive demonstrations broke out in Colombia's largest cities this week against his economic policies and his plan to defeat the leftist rebels militarily. According to an Agence France Press dispatch from Bogota Tuesday night, some 300,000 protestors led by student, peasant, labor, and indigenous groups filled that city's downtown Bolivar Plaza, while similar demonstrations were reported in Barranquilla, Bucamaranga, Cali, Cartagena, and Medellin.
While demonstrators in Bogota were demanding new policies from the Uribe government, its US supporters were singing a different tune. "We will stay the course," Gen. James Hill, the commander of American military operations in Latin America, said last week in Bogotá in a farewell address before he retired. According to the New York Times, Hill added that the US would "assist the Colombian people in ways that are necessary to win the war."