Think of it as Vietnam, the sequel, except this time staged in our own Canadian backyard. That frightening scenario edged a few steps nearer last week with the U.S. Senate's approval of the controversial Plan Colombia.
Officially, it's all about wiping out the flow of U.S.-bound cocaine, more than 80 per cent of which comes from the country that used to be known for its java. However, observers fear the real target of the looming military campaign is not drugs but the most powerful left-wing militia in the Americas.
In spite of warnings that 25 years of spraying coca plants has reduced neither supply from poor South American countries nor demand in U.S. cities, the Yanks are embarking on their costliest campaign yet. Nearly 90 per cent of the $1.3 billion in U.S. contributions to Plan Colombia will go to equipping new army battalions for the southern part of the country that will provide protection if well-armed leftist guerrillas take aim at the spray planes.
In an attempt to forestall the calamity that many fear will unfold if more guns are poured into what is already the most violent country in the western hemisphere, a diplomatic offensive against the plan has broken out on both sides of the Atlantic.
The campaign is led by non-governmental groups involved in human rights, solidarity work and economic development. They scored big last week during a harried seven days that saw a flurry of activities on Plan Colombia in North America and Europe:
On Monday (June 19), countries that are expected to contribute to humanitarian and development projects under Plan Colombia met in London to prepare for the big conference of donors in Madrid next week. Alas for the U.S., it did not go as well as they had hoped.
On Wednesday (June 21), the U.S. Senate voted to commit funds to Plan Colombia. But the decision came after an intense day of debate in which dinosaur Jesse Helms warned that Colombia is "besieged by bloodthirsty communist guerrillas," and senators on the other side warned of a latter-day Vietnam. They fear the U.S. is being dragged into a military adventure whose objectives are unclear.
Selective spraying Why, for example, is the funding directed only against the left-wing guerrillas in southern Colombia, when the right-wing paramilitaries in the north are even more active in the growing and export of coca?
On Thursday (June 22), more than a dozen Canadian aid and development organizations met with Canuck officials in Montreal to find out where Canada stands.
On Friday (June 23) at U of T, two citizen reps from Colombia called on Canadians to stop our government from being used by the Yanks to provide humanitarian cover for a bloody military campaign.
This being the golden age of "civil society power," where citizen orgs are wielding more influence than ever before on their governments' policies, the impact of such a campaign can't be underestimated.
It is non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Europe that are being credited with turning their governments against Plan Colombia. France, the Netherlands and Germany all warned at the London meeting that the military muscle being flexed by the Yanks in Colombia will stir things up more rather than calm them down.
The NGOs have been able to throw a major wrench into the works. A U.S. state department official is putting the best face on matters this week. But even he has to acknowledge that the Madrid meeting where countries had been expected to cough up their cash is now seen "as just the beginning of a process." Anyway, he says, the U.S. needs some time to get equipped. "If you put in an order for a helicopter, it's going to take a year or a year and a half (for delivery)."
Canadian NGOs may be less influential than the Europeans, however. Few Canuck groups have programs in Colombia. Even Rights and Democracy, the group headed by former left-wing Liberal MP Warren Allmand that sponsored the Montreal consultation last week, downgraded Colombia in the mid-90s, removing it from its list of "core countries."
An even bigger challenge is the typical slipperiness of the Canadian government, which is trying to come down somewhere in the middle between the humanitarian Europeans and the gun-wielding Yanks. "There are a couple of schools of thought, neither of which has the final answer," a senior Foreign Affairs official in Ottawa tells me on the phone this week. "One says the military assistance the U.S. is providing could make the situation worse. Others are saying the (left-wing) guerrillas (who protect the coca-growing campesinos) will never come to the table unless there's a viable sort of military response to what they're doing."
Canada will contribute to humanitarian and development projects, either through Plan Colombia or not, but one thing is for sure, the official says -- Canada will not get its hands dirty in military offensives against coca farmers. "We don't do the things that are being done on the drug side, but we do other things (like humanitarian assistance)."
But Daniel Garcia-Pena, one of the speakers at U of T last week, says Canada and the European countries are being used by the U.S. "to decorate a military package."
Garcia-Pena, an ex-TV journalist who now coordinates a grassroots peace-building campaign in Colombia, says the political battle against Plan Colombia has been lost in the U.S. "But in Colombia, there are a lot of expectations about what Canada and the European countries can do. Canada can say to the world that it does not agree with the way the U.S. has designed Plan Colombia."
Land grab But most observers are bleak about the chances of Canada convincing the Americans of the error of their ways. For one thing, Canada doesn't mind criticizing U.S. nuclear policy, for example, but does not like to second-guess the Yanks on Latin American matters.
And Canuck diplomats probably wouldn't get far even if they tried, since at its core Plan Colombia is less about drugs than it is about reclaiming the huge southern swath of the country from FARC, the left-wing guerrilla movement that was given control of the area by the government as part of peace talks.
That concession doesn't sit well with the Americans, who see another Cuba in the making. "There are elements in the state department that really want to take on the FARC," says James Jones, an American who used to run the United Nations development program in Colombia and the other Andean countries. "I think if there were no drugs involved at all, they would go to great extremes to make an argument to take on the FARC."
The group with the best chance of stopping the looming war may be the FARC itself. Even critics of American policy say the guerrilla group has blundered in the past by, for example, killing three U.S. observers last year. Unlike the Zapatista insurgents in Mexico, who use sophisticated media finesse to build up international political support, the FARC recruits child soldiers and uses extortion to raise money for its military campaigns.
But this week, they'll have to be on their best behaviour as reps of 20 world governments -- including Canada -- head to their headquarters in southern Colombia to talk about the peace process and meet some of the coca-growing campesinos. (A FARC rep in Mexico City did not reply to NOW's phone messages and e-mail.)
Whether they make a good impression will determine how willing the rest of the world is to stand in the way of the armed U.S. helicopters headed their way.
Proportion of human rights violations by paramilitaries: 78 per cent
By left-wing guerrillas:
20 per cent
By the army: 2 per cent
Proportion of army units linked
to right-wing paramilitaries: 50 per cent Number of internally
displaced refugees: 1.5 million Number of people
displaced in 1999: 250,000
Number of massacres in 1999:
more than 400
Number of people kidnapped
by guerrillas in 1999: 800
SOURCES: Colombia Commission
of Jurists, Human Rights Watch of Jurists, Human Rights Watch