Thursday, May 31, 2007

Truly Frightening

From the Dallas Morning News:

What's more, there is not much real give in the administration's policies. True, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other American diplomats met Memorial Day weekend with the Iranians in Baghdad (a good first move but limited, since the Iranians have most of the power because of our incredible stupidity in Iraq). But by all reports, President Bush is more convinced than ever of his righteousness.

Friends of his from Texas were shocked recently to find him nearly wild-eyed, thumping himself on the chest three times while he repeated "I am the president!" He also made it clear he was setting Iraq up so his successor could not get out of "our country's destiny."


This reminds me, when I get home, I´m going to thump my chest three times and repeat, "I am the man!" just to put my wife in her place.

(This would be funny if it weren´t so, so scary.)

(Note to self: Don´t elect kindergartners to the presidency.)


Meetings in Spanish

So we had a meeting yesterday at work that could end up reconfiguring my position more towards an outreach/communications direction. While a lot is still up in the air, one thing that this program clearly doesn’t do very well is market its successes and it looks like they’re planning on addressing that, at least internally (there are security concerns with external marketing). I would consider this a positive development as I am interested in writing (obviously) and it could actually get me into the field every now and then to conduct interviews and things of that nature.

We’ll see. Given how things are organized around here, I’m not holding my breath. But at the least, it’s a glimmer in the near distant future of something positive.

Anyway, meetings in Spanish are always fun and my comprehension varies depending on who attends. For example, on Tuesday I went to a meeting (by semi-accident) that I wasn’t really supposed to be at, but I found it to be interesting and I feel that I understood probably 80% or more. Of course, when there is a USAID guy at the meeting, the Spanish is more formal, people wait their turn to speak, and it the proceedings are better organized and easier to follow.
Yesterday, however, was an internal meeting. That means everyone yells over everyone else (a bit of a madhouse, really), things are less organized, and there is much, much more colloquial Spanish.

For example, yesterday at one point the boss said, “como un sanduche” or “like a sandwich”. I was a bit confused. What’s like a sandwich? How does that metaphor fit in this context? Hmmm. What type of sandwich? I’m thinking roast beef and Munster on rye with a bit of mustard, lettuce, and tomato. Or perhaps a chicken parmesan sub. That would be delicious. And then I’m jolted back to the conversation, completely lost, and suddenly hungry and desiring a sandwich.

Well, little by little, right? Maybe someday I’ll have sufficient Spanish that my mind doesn’t wander so much during our “meetings”. Wars, morelike. Internal meetings are a cacophony of voices and noise that drowns out reasonability. I know that the fights are evidence of a cultural difference, but I find it rude all the same. Let people speak, let people finish, then make your point. Of course, I fault the manager. He doesn’t take control; he’s way too laid back. Cultural learnings.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A dangerous world

Apparently, I live in the 116th least peaceful countries in the world.

(Or 6th most dangerous, depending on how you look at it.)

Must not have gotten that memo.



Nothing like a migraine on the hump day. Someone slap me with a wet salmon.

Anyway, the "Law and Order" candidate looks like he´s jumping in the race on July 4th (as reported by CNN). Not sure what his appeal is aside from the fact that he´s not any of the other guys.
Looks like I need to update yesterday´s casualty graph.

Kobe wants to be traded. I love it when unlikely events stir up a fan base.

Someone get this guy a haircut.

And finally, as I read the other day, looks like 2008 could actually bring real changes in America´s health care system. As to what form, that remains to be seen. But essentially, big businesses are starting to rally around federal action because the absence of federal action has led to a pathwork state system that drives up costs for national employers. This is a start. I won´t get started here, but America isn´t the leader of jack-squat if it doesn´t have adequate health care for its citizens. Leadership is more than just military might and economic power.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Coalition Casualties Since May 2005

As you can see the casualties were actually dropping a year ago. Now, they´ve been on the upswing since last May. Just sayin´.

Friday, May 25, 2007

End of the Semester

Well, today was the end of the academic semester. We had final exams this week and now I have some papers to grade and final marks to deliver.

I would have to say I have mixed feelings about the end of the term. One the one hand, I really enjoyed teaching the International Relations class. It was a rewarding experience and I felt like I revisited some of the basic concepts in a satisfying way. My students were all very pleased with the course and they hope that I keep teaching at the university so that they can take a class with me again. Now I know that some of that affection is due to the fact that I’m a native speaker and English students vastly prefer native speakers to non-native teachers. But some part of that is that they really appreciated the opportunity to experience a new genre and improve their English skills as well.

I also enjoyed one of my English classes. It wasn’t the easiest thing to teach as I don’t consider myself an expert in that capacity, but I know that I gave a good effort and that I improved as a teacher over the course of the semester. It helps to have a good group with a fairly decent level of English. It was nice to see the improvement in some of my students. With all things, there were some that worked hard, some who did the minimum, and some who did less than nothing. I was satisfied with the ones who worked hard as I could see their improvement and I felt good about that. The ones that were lazy or didn’t show up, et. al, I cared not about.

On the other hand, however, was my class of professors. This was a very trying class with the least motivated, lazy, and indignantly ignorant group of students I have encountered. It was flabbergasting to read the answers to the exam question “How many hours a week do you study English?” (there was a gimme section on the exam which the reason everyone passed). Several students who had previously told me they don’t study at all put down between 6-10 hours per week. I laughed out loud when grading that section.

But really, the most frustrating thing about the examination of my professors was the fact that only 5 of 14 accurately answered the following question on the oral part of the exam: If you were to take up a new exercise activity or routine, what would it be and why? The word they didn’t understand was “exercise” which is downright galling since we spent about 25% of the class on an exercise unit of the book. To not know the word is either to accept a fundamental level of stupidity or laziness (or both).

In fact, I felt that the exam was really very easy and my “students” class backed that up. I taught the same level to both classes – the exact same material, lesson plans, pace, etc – yet only the students group actually improved and did well. Fundamentally, I thought that many of my professors had placed too high to be successful and suggested to several earlier in the semester that they go down to a lower level. Apparently, pride is not just in the name of love.

At any rate, I really hope I never see that group again. To think that there are about 10 English students entering the “intermediate” level who fail to correctly conjugate the “to be” verb more than 60% of the time.

More than just the relative differences between my groups, however, I’m also a bit troubled by the uncertainty for the next semester. Assuming I can change jobs before then, I can continue to teach IR classes (two Intros and Humanitarian Affairs) but that’s in serious doubt. In my current job, it will be impossible to continue teaching. They don’t want me to and I understand their position.

So, I’m looking for a new job anyway, but that is a dodgy game at best. I am hopeful that I can work something out between now and then as it would be a shame to lose out on this opportunity.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It’s a beautiful day for a mugging

No joke, it’s gorgeous outside. Just the beautiful sort of day that makes one want to pass away the afternoon lazing away in a park or aside a river. A full four star day. Few clouds, topaz blue sky, and a warm sun that’s just south of hot.

That’s why I was so shocked to see someone get mugged right in front of me. On a busy street. With hundreds of people around.


Of course, I didn’t realize what was happening until after the fact at which point it was too late to do anything. But then again, I’ve been told explicitly to never do anything because you never know who has a gun or a knife.

Still, I felt a little bad for not being a bit quicker on the uptake.

At any rate, there was a young couple walking together toward a restaurant, hand in hand, minding their own business. Two gents approached them from behind. I thought they were friends trying to catch up as they were closing fast. One of them reached out, put his hand in the young woman’s bag, and pulled out something small and black (I imagine a cell phone). They laughed!! And, as I realized a minute later when I looked back over my shoulder, they split out of there quick.

The whole thing flashed in front of me in about 4 seconds. I was right next to the thief at the time of the robbery. No further than an arms length (my arm size, not Greg Oden size arms). Maybe that’s why I couldn’t believe it was really a robbery. It looked more like friends playing a prank. But, as it turned out, it was a blatant, middle of the day, out in the open, robbery.

Mind your belongings is the lesson of the day.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The type of explanation that means our only solution is to kill all them “crazy Muslims”

“Look, it's real simple what happened. These people came here and killed us because of our freedom of religion, because of our freedom for women, because they hate us...If you're confused about this, I think you put our country in much greater jeopardy. The reality is, these people are planning to kill us…”

- Rudy Giuliani, May 15, 2007, Fox News Channel Interview

Suspend the Spurs Too

I don’t like to put a lot of sports related information up on this forum because I know that it bores a significant portion of my readership. However, I feel compelled to express a bit of outrage over the events following Game 4 of the Suns-Spurs series (NBA for the anti-sports crowd).

The details: At the end of Game 4, Robert Horry (Spurs) leveled two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash (Suns) in a clearly vindictive and reckless foul. That started a bit of a skirmish that went nowhere and was essentially little more than harsh words and an after-the-fact elbow.

However, during this little mini-skirmish, two Suns players (Amare Stoudemire and the Frenchman) walked onto the floor something that is prohibited and carries a punishment of a 1-game suspension.

On that basis, the NBA suspended two Suns players for Game 5, a decision that essentially gives Game 5 to the Spurs as Stoudemire is Phoenix’s best player.

The analysis: This is a terrible decision by the NBA for two reasons. First, both Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen (Spurs) left the bench and came onto the court in the 2nd Quarter after an altercation between a Sun and a Spur. If the NBA is going to suspend the Sun, they got to suspend the Spurs. Now, the NBA answered this issue by stating that the rule states that players have to enter the court in the midst of an altercation (rough quote). In their view, the incident in the 2nd Quarter didn’t constitute an “altercation” and thus the rule shouldn’t have been invoked.

This makes some sense although it is a highly subjective interpretation of events. Who is to say that their intrusion on to the court wouldn’t have escalated the “confrontation”? And if what was occurring on the court at the time wasn’t an “altercation”, then why did Duncan and Bowen both walk onto the court in defense of their man? Were they only concerned with the health of their teammate?

Consider the end of the 4th Quarter situation. The NBA has already established, by not suspending Duncan and Bowen and with the above explanation, that there is some margin for interpreting the rule. It’s essentially a hard rule in terms of suspension, but relatively flexible, at least on the issue of “altercation”.

What I don’t understand and think can’t be reconciled is that it’s equally possible the Suns got off their bench and walked onto the court to see if their PG (and Stoudemire’s best friend on the team) was ok. They never got near the actual “altercation” nor did that altercation escalate past the guys still on the court. Frankly it’s difficult to tell from the video if they ever actually walked onto the actual “court” as they walked clearly in the direction of Nash who was not actually on the court – he was body slammed into the scorer’s table and was technically next to the court.

At any rate, no matter the interpretation of the actual events, the NBA´s position is indefensible given that Duncan and Bowen were not suspended. Moreover, if the purpose of the rule is to prevent the escalation of altercations on the court, then this punishment doesn’t fit the crime. It doesn’t come anywhere close to the Knicks-Heat brawl in the 90´s. Indeed, it wasn’t even a brawl. It was a bush league move by a dirty player which incited the other team to get off the bench and go to investigate. There was never a point at which anyone thought that there would be a brawl. There was never a risk of escalation. The situation was completely under control.

Ultimately, the current interpretation of the rule is punishing the team that has played clean basketball while rewarding the dirty gang that have been pushing, pulling, kneeing, and body slamming their way through the playoffs. That’s not right. An organization that legitimizes that type of activity is going to lose interest and suffer the consequences. I watch the NBA because I love basketball. I don’t want to see a dirty ass thug like Bruce Bowen out there hurting people because it’s the only way he knows how to play defense. And I don’t think a non-escalating altercation in which two players walked onto the “court” and came nowhere near the altercation deserve to be suspended. At least not unless you suspend the Spurs guys as well.


Quick GOP debate thoughts

I watched a good bit of the GOP debate last night. Not only am I a bit of a junkie, there was nothing else on (Tuesday is a horrid TV night down here). At any rate, I will likely have to revise my previous predictions based on what I saw.

McCain: Looks older and feebler than I imagined. Really came off poorly. I`m having trouble imagining him as the nominee. The constant repeating of the same jokes, lines, etc led me to wonder about his mental state. I`m on the cusp of putting him in the DONE category that the total GOP jackass Michael Steele created after the debate.

Giuliani: Really trying to position himself as the terror candidate. If that`s the case, then why react so strongly to the claim that US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s was one of the causes of 9/11. I know he got a lot of applause for challenging that idea, and Fox News and everyone else is falling all over themselves, but frankly, if you don`t think that US foreign policy has something to do with us being a target of terror then you`re either an ostrich or a moron. Other than that, nothing really substantively interesting and I thought he came off rather bad in general. Also looks like an alien.

Romney: Came across Presidential and if this were American Idol I would say he`s the best bet. But, his claim that "flip flops come from learning and growth" rings hollow. Especially when the only example he can give where he flip flopped toward something unpopular (excellent question that one) was that he used to want to abolish the Department of Education - not exactly a hot button issue. Plus, he tried to skewer McCain on campaign finance which actually woke McCain up from his nap for a bit but was wholeheartedly stupid. People don`t care about campaign finance. He receives a vomit rating.

Tancredo et. al. For the most part, I was totally confused as to who was who because FOX didn`t have their names at the bottom of the screen for large portions of the debate (I believe this was planned). But, I would say that the remaining candidates waver between stark raving lunatics ("I want Jack Bauer up there fighting terrorists") to isolationist nervous nellies. None of the rest of the field has a prayer.

Conclusion: I believe we`ll see some subtractions from the race. The stark raving lunatic part of the GOP is likely to hurt them if they continue to get more exposure. I also expect to see more talk of Gingrich, Law and Order guy, etc. Because the truth is, no one won this debate. All the candidates were exposed with critical weaknesses. None of the candidates gave an impression that yeah, he could be President.

No surprises there.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Handicapping the GOP candidates

Recently, there was a GOP press conference *ahem* debate featuring 10 candidates for president. As I find elections fascinating and this election season is starting up extremely early, I thought I would spend some time discussing the potential nominees and their chances.

All candidates that are clearly a joke are excluded from this discussion, as are candidates that have not currently declared (Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich). And, all predictions herein are based solely on the candidates currently running. I make no predictions about Bill Clinton-style sleeper candidates that come out of nowhere (except that George Allen won’t win even if he tries).

That means I only consider Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain to be serious candidates. Tancredo is excluded because his views are radically stupid, especially on immigration, and he has no hope of winning the general election. Huckabee is excluded because no one is going think “President Huckabee” sounds presidential enough and voters always vote with image first. Hunter, Paul, Brownback, Thompson, and Gilmore are all excluded because they don’t have the fundraising capability and really, it always comes down to the money.

That being said, I also believe that of the currently talked about names, the only ones with a serious shot are Romney, Giuliani, and McCain. They’ve got the bulk of the money and the national recognition.

I believe Fred Thompson (DA on Law & Order) has little to no hope because he is a political novice, he’s not well known enough as an actor (the anti-Reagan), and he doesn’t seem to have any concrete views or strong positions on anything. At this point, I believe he’s vying for the Vice-Presidential nomination.

Also, I believe Newt Gingrich to be excluded because not only does he have a number of serious skeletons in his closet, a fairly disastrous period of leadership as Speaker of the House, and some bizarrely anti-mainstream views, I just don’t think the American people are ready for a President Newt. Perhaps if he changed his name to George or something. At any rate, former Speakers of the House that flamed out over BJ scandals presidential candidates don’t make.

Now, to the field:

Mitt Romney: Romney has been garnering a number of headlines and press of late, but that’s mostly because he declared first. At this point, I’m not sure if he’s better known for his helmet hair or the fact that he’s a Mormon. Either way, he’s screwed by two factors:

He was for abortion before he was against it.
He’s a Mormon.

Right now, Romney could just be renamed the “flip-flop” candidate and if the Kerry disaster proved anything, it’s that voters, especially swing voters, care about consistency. Romney is the anti-consistency candidate. Not only has he not been a bedrock of conservative principles (if there are any left in the world), he has hard policy backing his liberal views. He was the Governor of Massachusetts after all.


He was for environmental (air) regulations before he was against it.
He was for stem cell research (!!) before he was against it.
He was for abortion before he was against it.
He was for gay rights before he was against it.

These are not small issues. Dr. Dobson, the practical voice of the Christian Conservative movement in America told Bob Dole in 1996 that there would never be a Republican President “squishy” on abortion. Dole famously lost the election to what most consider, a vulnerable Clinton.

To have supported all of the above essentially nails the coffin shut on a Romney candidacy. But, if that wasn’t enough, he’s also Mormon. The Mormons, as some of you may know, have very strange beliefs that are not altogether Christian. In fact, I wouldn’t refer to Mormonism as Christian in any way, shape, or form.

This presents two problems. The first is that the same Dr. Dobson recently said that he didn’t believe that Conservative Christians would vote for a Mormon candidate. He’s probably right. Conservative Christians want a candidate that believes Jesus was the savior. Just as I find it hard to believe that they would vote for a Muslim or Jew, I find it equally difficult to believe that they would support someone who doesn’t believe Jesus was God.

Moreover, Romney admitted today or yesterday that his great-great-great grandfather had multiple wives. That may not mean much to you or me, but to the Christian nuttery, constant reminders of all things that are traditionally associated with Mormonism in history or today isn’t likely to help with the GOP base.

Ultimately, Romney is the candidate the Dems dream about. Destroying him in the election would exceedingly easy. I just wish that they would stop opposing Romney now. It’s not worth the time or effort to counter him in any way.

Chance to win the GOP nomination: 10%

Rudy Giuliani: The Mayor is the favorite of many. This much we know to be true. The images of him on the streets of New York after 9/11 ring vividly in the minds of his supporters and it’s his strongest selling point.

But I think those who believe him to be a strong candidate to be missing the obvious. Nationwide poll numbers don’t mean diddly in the primary season. All that matters is that the base, the real core who vote in primaries, vote for you. And I just don’t think that Giuliani is ever going to garner the support to win the primary season. (That being said, if he did, I believe he would be the most formidable candidate.)

Why can’t he win? Essentially, he has a similar problem with Romney. He supports abortion rights. Not only does he support them, he isn’t wavering. Bully for him, even if he is committing political suicide. The GOP base, the primary voting base, won’t support a candidate openly advocating abortion rights, not to mention rights for gays or any other “liberal” views one has to have to win the mayorship of NYC.

They’re also not going to like his multiple marriages or his relationship with Bernard Kerik, While Giuliani is never going to be a bastion of Conservative Christian morals or a shining example for those values, his relationship with a mob-tied, corrupt cop isn’t likely to go over well. In fact, it’s just the type of scandal that ruins political careers. Just watch.

Ultimately, Giuliani is screwed by abortion. It doesn’t matter how presidential he looks or how much people respect him for 9/11. The reality is, he’s not particularly conservative on social issues and those are the deciders of the day.

Chance to win the GOP nomination: 15%

John McCain: This leaves “I voted for torture” Johnny. Not exactly the ideal candidate by anyone’s estimation. However, McCain has the national recognition, the stately appearance, and the right lines on the right social issues. He has to be considered the frontrunner of the Conservative (Christian) base.

That being said, between McCain, Giuliani, and Gingrich, there are 8 wives. So he’s had his problems there too. McCain is a confessed adulterer. And he’s got a long, legislative history that makes him vulnerable to attack.

But more than any other factor, he supports the war. Although, it’s not just the war, it’s also the surge. He’s looking to follow the Bush model of hard on terror, strong foreign policy, fighting the war, etc. That shit works for the base. When you see those polls that say 70% of Americans oppose the war, the other 30% is the GOP base. Neither Giuliani nor Romney has been as aggressive or as hawkish on the war/Iraq. They probably don’t want to come across too strong since the GOP has essentially conceded that the war is their albatross essentially guaranteeing that the next President is a Democrat. But McCain either didn’t get that memo or he just decided, hell with it, get the nomination then worry about the vast unpopularity of the war.

In the end, I believe this nomination is McCain´s to lose. Unless someone comes out of nowhere and steals the show a-la-Bill Clinton 1992.

Chance to win the GOP nomination: 75%

Finally, comes Gingrich. I mentioned briefly above about his history of legislative failure and his vast unpopularity during the period. It remains to be seen if he can overcome those factors with the base, not just the general public.

However, I wanted to mention one other factor. Gingrich is a serial adulterer. He divorced his first wife in 1981 and haggled with her over the terms while she was in the hospital recovering from uterine cancer surgery. In 1995, a former mistress explained that he preferred oral sex because then he could say he never slept with her. This would be the Bill Clinton defense, a man that Gingrich personally persecuted for saying “I did not have sex with that woman” a technical truth in Gingrich’s world. Contradiction obviously wasn’t enough, however, as Gingrich was caught having an affair with a 33-year old staffer in the heat of the Clinton impeachment proceedings.

This is politically toxic in the world of the Christian Conservative and is probably the reason why Gingrich hasn’t entered the race. He has literally no hope of winning the Christian base and thus, no hope of winning the White House, not to mention the nomination.

Chance to win the nomination: 0%

Now we’re getting an idea of why the GOP is desperate for a Fred Thompson to step up. This is, without a doubt, the worst set of candidates that the GOP could field and they know it. Of course, they made this bed with the Christian nuttery and they have to lie in it, but absent another Bush stepping forth (God forbid) or an unknown, but virtuous candidate miraculously appearing, I’d say the GOP voters out there are stuck with McCain.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter. The next president will be a Democrat. The Cowboy President continues to press a wildly unpopular war that has no end in sight. And the Democrat field is very strong. It’s hard to believe that they will fail this time around, even they do make the unfortunate selection of Hillary Clinton.

Final Prediction for 2008: McCain loses to a Democrat.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Random bits

Here´s a picture of the 2008 Federal Discretionary budget. I find it to be widly confusing except the statistic in the middle:

67% of the budget is for military and national security.

I think we´re going a little bit too far here, don´t you?


Here´s an interesting graph that shows Andean coca production levels from 1988. I find it interesting that the rise in Colombian coca production coincides with the initiation of aerial fumigation. While I´m sure there are other factors involved, it sure looks like this data makes the case that Coca Cartels increased planting as a response to erradication efforts (as any good businessman would do).

It also shows unequivacally that the US strategy has totally failed to control coca production, no matter how many short term reductions on a country basis you may find along the road. Overall coca production has been relatively stable and more than sufficient to meet demand.


And finally, here´s a story (english version here) from today´s El Tiempo that states that the US-Colombian free trade agreement is going to be renegotiated.

The essentials are that the Bush admin and some Dems have reached a deal on labor standards that would make free trade agreements more palatable for the Dems. This deal, if approved by the White House, would mean that the US-Colombian deal would have to be renegotiated.

Either way, I think it´s a good thing. The US-Colombian free trade deal isn´t the best thing for Colombia and highlights a bit of true stupidity from economists and free-tradists - namely, the short term costs of these types of deals. As an example, Colombia voluntarily opened up its markets in the 1990s, a trend that directly correlates to the devestation of its domestic agricultural sector and a huge spike in unemployment (7% to 17%), most of which came from the ag sector. The other correlation is the spike in coca production. Hmm....

Now, to repeat the same mistake without any concern for the short-to-medium term transition effects would be recklessly stupid. So I can only hope that any renegotiation takes the form of a serious injection of intelligence. Because the last thing we need to do is further undercut relatively weak Colombian industries by granting tariff free access to multinational giants from the north.

Unless we just don´t care about things like poverty and coca production. Which we probably don´t, but that´s a whole ´nuther story.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Stupid Quote of the Day

From a Yale study on the link between Free Trade and Poverty:

“The most interesting pattern emerging from Table 2a is that poverty is highly correlated with unemployment.”

In other news, scientists report that the sky is generally considered to be blue and that 1.5 mile tornados cause massive damage when they encounter small towns.

We now return you to your regularly schedule Fox News Broadcast...

Monday, May 07, 2007

Keep the Freeze: Military Assistance and Plan Colombia

In the beginning of April, the democratically controlled Congress froze $55.2 million in military assistance earmarked for Colombia due to questions about linkages between the Andean nation’s military and a paramilitary group on the State Department’s terrorist list. The administration response has largely been to marshal the troops and espouse the benefits of Plan Colombia the vehicle that delivers US assistance to Colombia.

Never mind that this procedural issue is largely related to an issue of corruption and human rights and, as such, the success of the program is largely irrelevant. The US government is legislatively required to certify foreign governments receiving military assistance as having a good human rights record. The Congress froze that aid because it sees the current scandal as evidence that Colombia can not meet the human rights requirements.

The rationale for prohibiting military assistance to nations with poor human rights records is simple. It does not serve US interests to materially support organizations in cahoots with foreign terrorists, even if those organizations are bosom buddies of the current administration in Washington. It would not, for example, behoove US interests to give military support to the Lebanese military if that support directly aided Hezbollah, just as it would make no sense, if the current allegations are true, to empower a Colombian military that directly contributes to internal displacement, violence, or even crimes against humanity.

Moreover, dangling military assistance can be a tool to motivate foreign nations to clean up their human rights records, assuming that tool is actually utilized. No mistake can be made about Colombia’s desire for this military assistance. By freezing the funds, Congress is making a clear foreign policy statement to Colombia that the President is unwilling to imagine: clean up the corruption in the military or forgo further assistance.

That being said, the so-called “successes” currently being trumpeted by the Bush Administration and its allies are more hogwash than compelling justification to continue military support. Take, for example, the tactic of Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, who likened Plan Colombia to the Marshall Plan. The analogy, while poorly crafted, is just the beginning of a pleasant list of GOP talking points that those who live in Colombia only wish were true.

Consider Mr. Charles’s claim that UN and US estimates show poppy cultivation down by 58% and coca by 50%. Unfortunately, the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2007 shows that both of those numbers were temporary declines measured during the mid-years of Plan Colombia. The most recent evidence clearly shows that coca cultivation has returned to pre-Plan Colombia levels and US led eradication efforts are failing.

Or the claim that Plan Colombia has begun to change the price of cocaine on America’s streets. Change, yes, but for the worse. A recent report from the Washington Office on Latin America, citing statistics from the White House drug czar’s office, shows that cocaine prices are actually lower than ever, a clear indication that supply is at an all time high.

Mr. Charles is correct that criminal actions against drug traffickers and cocaine seizure are up, but mistakes those headlines for significant news in the war on drugs. Had those measures been terribly significant, then one would expect the overall supply of cocaine to be lower and thus prices higher. Not so. Chopping the head off the giant has only lead to the replacement of kingpins with lower level lieutenants and a flood of cocaine trafficking.

Charles also trumpets out the “official” statistics reporting significant declines in violent crime and kidnappings as evidence that Plan Colombia is working. While there is no doubt that the urban environment in Colombia’s major cities is much better than it was in 2000, it bears mentioning that the director of Colombia’s Federal Statistics Office resigned in 2004 because President Uribe blocked the release of a study showing an upsurge in violent crime. Or that the Colombian government developed new standards for classifying “kidnappings” that require specific evidence of abduction or that about half of all kidnappings are not reported. One only has to visit the US State Department’s own website to read the travel advisory for Colombia warning of a high risk of kidnapping to realize that the US government doesn’t exactly have a lot of confidence in the “official” statistics issued from the Colombian government.

But, more fundamentally, the Republican approach misunderstands the challenges that Colombia currently faces. Take Charles’s wildly optimistic statistics of the strength of the FARC. This talking point has become increasingly common among those in the administration, but it’s belied by facts on the ground. A recent UN report explained that while the FARC has been quieter in the big cities, rural actions have continued. It also characterized this “quiet” period as on of repositioning and strategizing for the future.

Charles is correct, however, that one paramilitary group has been demobilized. This fact parroted out as a great success actually highlights the crux of Colombia’s next challenge and one of the central warrants for reorienting Plan Colombia.

Recent paramilitary demobilization was based on two principles: light sentences for the leaders who cooperated with the Colombian government and temporary compensation for paramilitaries that turned in their weapons and reintegrated with civil society. The idea behind the plan was that the compensation scheme would provide adequate support for paramilitaries until they could find jobs in the legitimate economy. Unfortunately, Colombia is a country with unemployment of more than 12% and finding jobs in the legitimate economy proved difficult. The very real risk that Colombia is now facing is that former paramilitaries convert into gangsters or drug lords, filling the voids created by those extradited and prosecuted under the rubric of Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia must be reoriented towards developing legitimate and sustainable economic opportunities for demobilized paramilitaries. This is an area that the Colombian government has had little success. While the record of US development assistance is uneven at best, reallocating resources toward rural development, small business creation and investment, infrastructure improvements, and services for the nation’s lower classes is desperately needed.

As Steinbeck wrote, “when a majority of people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.” If we’re really serious about reducing coca production, stopping cocaine trafficking, and ending the war in Colombia, we would be wise to heed his words and address the root cause of coca cultivation - poverty.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007


Since it doesn´t look like I´m going to get this published anywhere, I´m posting it here. Kind readers with connections to legitimate publishing opportunities welcome.


Since 2000, the US led “Plan Colombia” policy has utterly failed to reduce coca production in Colombia or increase the price of cocaine on the streets of America’s cities. To the contrary, cocaine prices are cheaper now than they were prior to the initiation of Plan Colombia and all indications are that coca production is up in Colombia as well.

The current U.S.-led strategy to eradicate Colombian cocaine production has two major components: eradicating coca plantations via aerial fumigation and promoting crop substitution schemes as incentives for rural farmers to end coca production. Both will continue to fail unless Washington changes this strategy considerably. As Congress considers the so-called “Plan Colombia II”, they should take note of several facts.

First, aerial fumigation has driven coca production into jungles and other hard-to-find areas throughout Colombia as well as across international borders - factors which greatly reduce the relevance and success rate of this strategy. Continued spraying would only further negatively impact legitimate plantations by poisoning groundwater and contributing to soil depletion, variables which have a greater negative impact on legitimate crops and thus, are likely to complicate future efforts to build legitimate farming opportunities.

Second, herbicide is often sprayed over legitimate plantations. This is especially troublesome as herbicides can’t discriminate between licit and illicit crops. Due to the threat of attack from the ground, planes have to release chemicals at high altitudes, making targeted plantation spraying impossible. This problem is worsening as locating large scale coca plantations like those that existed in Putamayo department in 2000 is difficult to impossible. Since this practice began in 2000, over 8,000 Colombian farmers have lost legitimate crops to overzealous fumigation, a trend likely to accelerate if crop spraying continues. The result is that legal and legitimate farmers have lost their livelihoods, increasing the likelihood that they shift to illicit crop production.

It can be concluded that while aerial fumigation can increase the difficulty of coca production, it can’t stop it.

On the other hand, crop substitution strategies, while having great potential; also suffer from a lack of vision. While these programs are staffed with legions of capable civil servants, due to safety concerns, USAID ignores large parts of the southern, most vulnerable region of the country. Moreover, it’s clear that these programs alone will not be sufficient to halt coca production as the financial returns from coca far outweigh that of yucca, potato, and corn.

Additionally, USAID has had difficulty persuading farmers to switch from illicit, yet stable income sources to licit crops which endure frequent price fluctuations. Even farmers that express the desire to grow licit crops are reluctant to give up small plots of coca as a means to stabilize their income sources.

The lack of infrastructure in rural, coca growing regions further complicates these assistance efforts. Poor roads and long, sometimes dangerous trips to markets mean that farmers have difficulty converting legitimate crops into economic gains. The absence of a comprehensive rural development strategy often means that farmers have little choice but to opt for an illicit crop that ensures a guaranteed return on investment.

There is still time to fix Plan Colombia II. The US Congress should act now to reorient the program away from the environmentally hazardous and totally failed strategy of aerial fumigation. After six years it is clear that eradication will never be sufficient to alter the very real conditions on the ground. Nor will clever crop substitution schemes be sustainable in the long run absent improved security and governmental presence in rural areas. It’s time to acknowledge that this is a question of nation building and not of simple illicit crop eradication or counterinsurgency.

Reorienting assistance in a comprehensive development strategy to strengthen rural governments and improve public services in under-developed areas is the next step. This move should include a plan that enables farmers to maintain long-term profitability. Linking legitimate crops to export markets and secondary productive chains, for example, would be a good measure. Fortunately, USAID already has the blueprint for this shift in priorities; it just requires a little Congressional will power to refocus foreign assistance toward poverty alleviation.

Equally, success will depend on Colombia stepping up to do its part. President Uribe should rethink the “Plan Patriota” strategy launched in 2004 and realize that military offensives into guerilla strongholds are less relevant than bringing security to rural communities. Traditional military offensives against insurgents, as seen in Iraq, ignore a fundamental reality of armed insurgency – insurgents don’t need to hold land like traditional, state-based military forces. History has shown that traditional war strategies against insurgency don’t achieve long-lasting results. A recent UN report backs up this prediction stating, among other things, that the FARC is reorganizing and the “lull” in violence was due to a reevaluation of strategy, rather than the effectiveness of the Plan Patriota strategy.

Unless and until the Colombian government is able to establish a strong and responsive police and civilian presence in long forgotten areas, rural farmers will continue to face a Hobbesian Choice: either grow coca at the behest of guerilla, paramilitary, or criminal forces or else. A strong governmental presence in rural areas, combined with the help of carefully crafted US assistance could make a real difference.

The left leaning activist will cringe at this characterization as it ultimately places faith in a Colombian government and police force that has a legacy of corruption evidenced by the ongoing investigation into government linkages with paramilitary groups. The right leaning realist will also cringe as the idea of providing material support to a government fighting a leftist insurgency draws up images of Vietnam-style, or more seasonably, Iraq-style entanglement.

Neither of these views, however, acknowledge the enduring reality that the traditional war on drugs is equally oblivious to – namely that the work required to combat insurgency and drug trafficking in Colombia is fundamentally a problem of poverty and a failure of government to respond to the challenges of rural under-development. What is required is a sustained and aggressive strategy designed to boost the presence and responsiveness of rural governments. Police and military forces need to protect rural areas, not just big cities. And rural development plans that make sense, including infrastructure improvements, crop substitution, and integrated development strategies, need to be implemented.

Half measures like those seen under Plan Colombia and USAID development programs provide politicians and taxpayers some emotional assurance that the entrusted authorities are doing their best to eliminate the problem. But, the appropriated funds are ultimately wasteful if they don’t address the root of the problem or attempt to confront the central challenges at hand. Shifting away from the failing military strategy to tackling the problem of poverty will create long term, sustainable results not just for the lives of Colombia’s poor, but also for US national interests.

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