Colombia wars won't be another Vietnam for U.S.

March 23, 2001|By Peter F. Romero

WASHINGTON -- Colombia is beset by a confluence of difficulties with profound implications for the United States, Latin America and Europe.

A decades-old civil conflict has taken a dramatic turn for the worse by the injection of narcotics production and trafficking, which feed the coffers of the guerillas, paramilitaries and crime gangs and strengthen their assault on democratic institutions.

Insurgent and paramilitary-bred violence decreases investor confidence and further undermines the economy. Serious unemployment creates a ready pool of individuals ripe for recruiting by the armed groups.

These misfortunes threaten not just Colombia but its neighbors and many others around the world. Drug trafficking and the corruption, violence and money laundering engendered by drugs respect no boundaries. Cocaine and heroin flowing out of Colombia poison young Brazilians, Germans and North Americans without distinction.

Threats to democracy and human rights concern us all. The clear-cutting of the Colombian tropical rainforest to plant coca and poppy and the pollution of the Amazon basin with toxic chemicals by the drug producers debase the environment.

Colombia, under the leadership of President Andres Pastrana, has developed a comprehensive plan ("Plan Colombia") to address these problems. Its central tenet is that the only real solution to Colombia's ills is peace and development.

Plan Colombia calls for large-scale investments to revitalize the economy, strengthen democratic institutions, enhance respect for human rights, protect the environment, provide alternative income sources to small-scale coca growers and undertake a vigorous counter-drug program to re-establish the rule of law and deprive the illegal armed groups and criminal elements of their source of illicit income.

Plan Colombia and U.S. support for it have been frequently misunderstood and misconstrued in the U.S. media. Some claim Plan Colombia to be a U.S. plan, aimed at fighting insurgents, certain to "militarize" Colombia, produce "another Vietnam," exacerbate civil conflict, heighten human rights violations, poison the environment, etc. All false.

For starters, Plan Colombia was designed by Colombians for Colombia.

It calls for a total investment of about $7.5 billion, 75 percent of which will go to economic and social spending, including strengthening of human rights, with only 25 percent to counter-drug efforts. Of this, $1 billion of a $1.3 billion appropriation consists of a U.S. support package passed with strong bipartisan backing in Congress and signed into law in July. About $230 million of the U.S. contribution is destined for social, economic, environmental and democracy-building purposes. The Colombians are committed to spending $4.5 billion of their own money, with the remainder coming from international donors.

U.S. support for counter-drug activities in Colombia is just that. Our support is not to be used for counter-insurgency purposes, and our personnel are prohibited from engaging in combat. U.S. military personnel train only Colombian counter-drug units, and our military presence in Colombia is capped by Congress at 500 personnel at any time. The number in Colombia now is well below that cap. This is not and never will be another Vietnam.

No U.S. assistance can be provided to any Colombian military or police unit for which we have credible evidence of the commission of gross human rights violations. Colombia is taking serious strides to improve human rights conditions but much more remains to be done. Our support for Plan Colombia will have a positive effect on the human rights picture.

Colombia, with U.S. support, recently successfully eradicated tens of thousands of acres of coca plantations in the southern part of the country -- especially Putumayo.

This has been done mainly through aerial eradication using a herbicide approved for domestic use in the United States.

Claims of widespread environmental damage are untrue. Spraying of coca fields is the only feasible way of eliminating agro-industrial coca production in Putumayo. Small-scale producers who agree to manually eradicate their crops will be helped by the Colombian government to find alternative means of making a livelihood. The goal is not to punish these people but to help wean them from the production of illegal crops.

Finally, Plan Colombia is a peace plan and the United States firmly supports that goal, as President Bush clearly underscored in his Feb. 27 meeting with President Pastrana.

Stories about the United States "waging war" on the Colombian people are misrepresentations of fact. Colombians, like people anywhere, want peace, freedom and the chance to make an honest living. They yearn to be free of the curse of civil strife and the drug industry that fuels the violence.

It is in the collective self-interest of the democracies of the world to support Colombia in its hour of need.

It is also the right thing to do. Colombia deserves our help. Now.

Peter F. Romero is the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

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