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Mixed U.S. messages for Latin America

The same week President Clinton kicked soccer balls with Brazilian children and heralded in Argentina and Chile a new era of democracy, prosperity and free trade, another U.S. official visited Bolivia and Colombia with a different mission.

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, took a trek to the jungles and capitals of both those countries to bolster cooperation for the war on drugs.

Prior to the trip, policy analysts in Washington were optimistic about new language coming from the office of the “drug czar.” They said they expected the general, a Vietnam and Persian Gulf War veteran, to leave behind “us vs. them” rhetoric and posit responsibility for drug production and trafficking on both consumer and producing nations.

There was hope, they thought, that U.S. drug policy might seriously address the poverty, economic inequality and racism that fuels drug production and consumption at home and abroad.

Such a move might have signaled an important shift in U.S. antinarcotics policy from a top-heavy law enforcement and military approach described in the Cold War’s end by a commander of the U.S. Southern Command as “the only war we’ve got.” This “war on drugs strategy,” despite its $290 billion price tag for U.S. taxpayers, has failed to curb the flow of drugs.

News reports from Latin America, however, suggest that McCaffrey’s visit may further entangle the United States in partnerships with security forces in both countries, which are already notorious for human rights abuses.

Most alarming was McCaffrey’s claim that the United States is now ready for direct involvement in Colombia’s 30-year counterinsurgency war against those who dare to rebel against the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia -- FARC. He justified such support by claiming that guerrillas profit from the drug trade.

U.S. aid and training has historically fed the brutal counterinsurgency and paramilitary efforts of the Colombian army; but in the past decade, the professed purpose of security assistance has been antinarcotics efforts.

Both Congress and the State Department have expressed concern over direct aid to the military’s anti-guerrilla cause because of human rights atrocities and the spread of paramilitary groups.

“The line between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency assistance in Colombia is no longer blurry, but has been erased,” Coletta Youngers, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, said after McCaffrey’s visit.

Youngers said that McCaffrey’s original discourse was good, “but the actions are troubling.” It would be “disastrous,” Youngers said, for the United States to become more involved in Colombia’s counterinsurgency efforts.

“It’s clear this conflict is only going to be settled through negotiations,” she said.

Ditto for Bolivia. The United States has given President Hugo Banzer orders to raze 7,000 hectares of coca plants from the Chapare jungle or risk “decertification” as a worthy partner in the drug war -- a move that would have devastating economic consequences.

Banzer is rushing to quash coca, but risking democracy in the process. He said at a recent conference in Miami that if peasants who cultivate coca leaf do not rip out their crops voluntarily, “we will do a forced eradication with the police.”

Youngers said it is Bolivian peasants who will suffer. “Every time the Bolivian government steps up eradication efforts, violent confrontations ensue between coca growers defending their economic livelihood and the Bolivian anti-narcotics police. Inevitably, abuses occur.”

While no one can argue against the value of eradicating a drug source, the question of livelihood is central to the issue. What replaces the coca? Bullying peasants may get rid of some of the crop for a short time. But the military solution inevitably falls short.

As one Colombian bishop put it, “People fear that if they stop growing coca they will die of hunger.”

Like the recent lifting by President Clinton of the ban on sales of advanced weaponry to Latin America, the strategies supported by McCaffrey bode well for the Pentagon and the arms industry. But they threaten the “new world in the making” so cheerfully touted by the soccer-playing Clinton in the barrios.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 1997