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.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Political Favorites
Guilty Pleasures
My Global Position