Keep the Freeze On Colombia

In April, the Democratic-controlled Congress froze $55.2 million in military assistance earmarked for Colombia. At issue were 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 U.S. assistance to Colombia.

The congressional debate is not about the dubious merits of Plan Colombia and its counter-narcotics focus. Congress froze military aid because it sees the current scandal as evidence that Colombia cannot meet the legally required human rights conditions of the U.S. government.

The rationale for prohibiting military assistance to nations with poor human rights records is simple. It does not serve U.S. interests to materially support organizations in cahoots with foreign terrorists, even if those organizations are bosom buddies of the current administration in Washington. 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. By freezing the funds, Congress is making a clear foreign policy statement that President George W. Bush is unwilling to support: Colombia must clean up the corruption in the military or forgo further assistance.

Plan Colombia’s Failures

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 recently likened Plan Colombia to the Marshall Plan in a Washington Times editorial. The analogy, while poorly crafted, is just the beginning of a pleasant list of administration talking points that those who live in Colombia only wish were true.

Consider Charles’s claim that UN and U.S. 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. Even more damning, the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy just issued a report showing that for a second straight year, coca cultivation in Colombia has risen. This evidence clearly shows that coca cultivation has returned to pre-Plan Colombia levels and U.S.-led eradication efforts are failing.

Or take the claim that Plan Colombia has begun to change the price of cocaine on America’s streets. There has indeed been change, 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.

Charles is correct that criminal actions against drug traffickers and cocaine seizure are both 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. Instead, chopping the head off the giant has only led to the replacement of kingpins with lower level lieutenants and a flood of cocaine trafficking.

Charles also parrots 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, 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. Also, the Colombian government developed new standards for classifying “kidnappings” that require specific evidence of abduction. As it is, about half of all kidnappings are not reported. Even with these standards, Bogotá, the capital city, has seen a 400% increase in the rate of kidnappings in 2007. Given that the travel advisory for Colombia on the U.S. State Department’s own website warns of a high risk of kidnapping, the U.S. government doesn’t exactly have a lot of confidence in the official statistics issued from the Colombian government.

Moreover, statements of security in the cities are misleading. Take Charles’s wildly optimistic statistics of the strength of the primary guerilla group the FARC. Although increasingly common among those in the administration, this talking point is 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 one of repositioning and strategizing for the future while unequivocally stating that the FARC remains a dangerous force in the country.

Demobilization?

The administration approach more fundamentally misunderstands the challenges that Colombia currently faces. Take the issue of the demobilization of one of the nation’s paramilitary groups. Sold as a great success, this purported demobilization actually highlights the crux of Colombia’s next challenge and one of the central reasons 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 is 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.

At the root of each of these problems is the lack of legitimate, sustainable economic opportunities. Plan Colombia, which was designed as a solution to coca production, must be reoriented toward developing these types of opportunities throughout the country, as well as for demobilized paramilitaries. The Colombian government has had little success in this area. While the record of U.S. development assistance is uneven at best, reallocating resources toward rural development, small business creation and investment, infrastructure improvements, and basic services for the nation’s lower classes is desperately needed.

Fortunately, Congress has taken the first step. On June 5, the House Appropriations Committee released the 2008 draft foreign aid budget. As configured, this budget would reorient assistance and prioritize economic aid for rural development, strengthening the judicial system, providing assistance to displaced persons, and support for the reintegration of ex-paramilitaries into society. While there is a long road ahead to convert this budget proposal into law, it represents a significant change from President Bush’s request, which merely continued military assistance.

As novelist John 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 these problems – poverty. Continuing to fight a war on poverty with a primarily military strategy, by ignoring this fundamental challenge, is bound to fail.

Stephen Heidt lives in Bogot