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August 15, 2002

Narco News '02

Uribe, Bush, and

Plan Colombia

Military Solutions to Social

Problems a Recipe for Failure

By Ron Jacobs

On Tuesday, August 6th, a new president took over in Colombia. Like the president who took over in the US in 2001, Colombia's new president Álvaro Uribe Velez is a right-winger who supports military solutions to social problems and, also like the president here, he was elected by less than 30 percent of the voting eligible population. Another parallel to Mr. Bush is found in Mr. Uribe's distaste for democracy. Indeed, Uribe has announced plans to eliminate the current two houses of congress and replace them with a single house.

Governmental action that currently requires legislation, would simply require, under Uribe's proposal, presidential decrees. Uribe justifies his plan as a means to make the government leaner and meaner. Most observers agree however, that the underlying motive is to free up more money for the military and police forces. Uribe has already asked the U.S. to increase military aid to Colombia. The U.S. has given Colombia over $2 billion in mostly military aid since 2000. Since Colombia became the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, state repression and paramilitary violence have only increased.

As many of you know, there is a war in Colombia that has been going on for many years. This war is essentially of the rich and their hired guns, against the poor, with a relatively large middle-class in the middle. Some of these folks in the middle support the army and the rich in the hopes that this support will protect their already tenuous position in a fragile economic and social situation. Others in the middle-class find themselves supporting those who organize and work for the poor in the labor unions, church organizations and other social service organizations. They do so for a couple of reasons: because they believe that the way to make their country a better, more stable place to live is by improving the economic well-being of all of their country men and women, and because they know that when push comes to shove they are more likely to end up poor than rich.

Indeed, many members of Colombia's middle class have already seen their economic situation worsen thanks to US corporate pressure (through the World Bank and IMF loan requirements) to privatize publicly owned utilities like the phone company and the electrical power company. When these types of agencies are privatized, they usually become more expensive and also force thousands of workers out of their jobs. This is done so that these newly privatized companies can show a quick profit and make their new owners, like Citigroup and Chase Manhattan, happy.

To prevent job loss and the accompanying poverty and downward spiral of despair, organizations of workers in these companies have held mass protests in the cities of Colombia. The answer to these protests by the government has been one of increased repression. The leaders of these protests have been kidnapped and gunned down by death squads who are paid by the same people who provided financial support to the new president-the rightwing paramilitaries. These groups are involved in the drug trade and are also intimately connected to the military and various rightwing political parties and the folks these parties represent. The paramilitaries are responsible for over 2/3 of the deaths in Colombia's 30-year civil war. In what can only be construed as a cynical public relations move designed to fool the Colombian public and the US Congress, the new president and Carlos Castaño, the leader of the largest paramilitary group (AUC), recently announced that the AUC would soon cease to exist.

What they did not make clear, however, was that, instead of functioning illegally as they have in the past, this group's structure, along with most of its members, will be legalized, either by being incorporated into the military and national police force or by the creation of a parallel structure whose role will be to neutralize popular opposition. So, instead of the paramilitary soldiers illegally conducting their murder and repression of those opposed to the pro-big business policies of the Colombian government, they will now be able to kill and beat labor leaders, social workers, priests and nuns legally. A lesser role of this organization will be to isolate other rightwing paramilitaries if they refuse to join Castaño's organization.

Meanwhile, many of those leaders and organizers who don't get killed or kidnapped have decided that peaceful protest and direct action can not change anything in Colombia and have joined the left-wing guerrilla, who have their own problems thanks to their growing involvement in the drug trade. These problems stem from the general criminality of the drug enterprise. A reasonable historical analogy can be drawn to the fate of the Black Panther Party of the United States and the difficulties it had once some of its leaders began abusing cocaine and the local chapters began recruiting large numbers of street criminals who were in the movement for prestige and money, and had little interest in politics. The guerrillas' involvement in the drug trade is the pretext that the United States government has used to send over 1.5 billion dollars in military aid to Colombia.

Even though the war on drugs has consistently proven to be a failed exercise except to those who profit from it on both sides of the law, we here in the US continue to act as if military action against some drug producers will end the use of drugs in our country. It won't. Nor is it the reason there are close to 2000 US troops in country in Colombia.

Nonetheless, the United States is deeply involved in this struggle. Why? Is it because it cares about the rights of the Colombia people? Is it because the US cares about the poverty of over fifty percent of the Colombian people? Is it because it abhors the violence the Colombian people are subjected to daily? No! The history of US involvement in Colombia and the surrounding region has never been on the side of democracy and justice. In fact, more often than not, the US has supported, directly and otherwise, the greatest purveyors of the violence in that country. And it continues to do so, now under the guise of supporting the government of President Uribe - a man whose financial support came from the paramilitaries' coffers.

The United States government is involved in the civil war in Colombia for one reason. That reason is profits for the people and companies that keep politicians like the Bushes and Clintons in power. The folks in Washington want to protect and expand the profits from the oil business. In addition, Washington's financiers want greater access to cheap labor, cheap resources and more markets to sell its goods. Plan Colombia-the plan under which the United States sends hundreds of millions of dollars to Colombia every year, mostly in the form of weapons and ammunition-is designed to facilitate the expansion of the FTAA free trade agreement. A new funding cycle is about to begin that will include 98 million dollars for the creation of a special battalion under US command whose only job will be to protect the pipeline owned by the US oil company Occidental. If the US considers this endeavor successful, than the program will likely be expanded to include other pipelines in the country.

Is this protecting democracy? Many men and women in the United States believe that it is an honorable thing to serve one's country. But defending an oil pipeline is not the same thing. 98 million dollars could build a lot of schools, provide for a lot of jobs, here and in Colombia.

If the US government truly cared about the people of Colombia, it would spend its money on these types of projects, not on gunships and pipeline protection.

Economic and social justice will go a lot further in making Colombia a secure and democratic place to live than helicopter gunships and special forces: Much further.

Ron Jacobs lives in Burlington, Vermont and has been involved in antiwar activism since Vietnam. He is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997).

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Answering the $98 Million Question