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Vietnam in the Making

Michael J. Borucke

Liberals and conservatives alike often argue that the problems of other countries are just that -- their own problems. Corrupt dictators and civil wars may ravage foreign countries, causing poverty, starvation and genocide, but we as America can hardly be blamed, much less called upon to help others, when we’ve got so many problems to deal with in our own country. Of course, we have no problem using the same facts to argue an opposite view when we say, “Well, at least we’re better off than some other countries.”

When the U.S. government does get involved in another country’s affairs, it is assumed to be for the good of all concerned. To maintain this helpful assumption in the public’s mind, officials tend to mask true motivations with pleasant-sounding words like “humanitarianism” and “national interest.”

If you recall, both Iraq and Vietnam were humanitarian ventures -- the former to rescue the Kuwaiti people from Saddam’s hands, the latter to save the nascent democracy in Saigon from the barbarous regime in North Vietnam. But not even the government pretended these interventions were purely altruistic. In fact, it was a matter of national interests that contributed to the interventions. We needed to contain the threats of communism in Vietnam and high gas prices in the Middle East to ensure the security of the American people.

Today, the U.S. government has decided that drugs are the threat. The best strategy our leaders have devised to contain that threat is to give massive military aid to the source country. But former President Clinton’s $1.3 billion aid package to the Colombian government is only fueling the 30-year-old civil war between the leftist rebels and the Colombian army. Moreover, everyone knows it.

This “War on Drugs” is an interesting paradigm shift in the rhetoric spewed by the new masters of war. Unlike in Iraq or Vietnam, there don’t seem to be any humanitarian goals to be achieved in Colombia, any noble pursuits that the U.S. government claims to promote with the lending of the aid. In the United States, the judicial system continues to condemn and imprison drug offenders for as long as possible. In addition, there is currently a severe lack of federal funds for drug treatment, and there may be even less if certain congressmen get their way. Further, school programs such as DARE have failed to curb teen drug use. Given this, it’s difficult to see how the Drug War is benefiting the public.

In Colombia, the situation is undoubtedly worse. If people in this country are becoming weary of the Drug War, people in Colombia have never doubted its motives. Massacres of civilians and labor leaders abound. Environments are polluted or blown up outright. Chemical defoliants are falling on the legitimate crops and on the heads of innocent Colombian farmers, making children sick. Humanitarian objectives have never been considered in Colombia, much less acted upon. And both the U.S. and Colombian governments have done their best to make sure human rights don’t exist in debt-ridden Colombia.

Last August, after the aid package had been approved by Congress, Clinton sent the first installment ($781 million) by waiving four out of the five human-rights criteria that Congress attached to the aid. That wasn’t all. Clinton’s administration sent the second installment without any human-rights conditions attached to the aid at all. In a maneuver that would have made Reagan proud, the Clinton administration marked the installment as “Emergency Funds” rather than regular funds, thus evading annoying human-rights conditions. One administration representative explained, “We don’t believe legislation requires that kind of formal certification.”

Congress never seemed too distraught over Clinton’s refusal to acknowledge the human-rights conditions, though. The Senate beat back one proposal to redirect $225 million from the Colombian aid package to U.S. drug treatment programs by a vote of 89-11. Another proposal to reduce the aid package from $1 billion to $200 million was defeated in the Senate, 79-19.

The Colombian president, Andres Pastrana, is doing little better than Clinton or Congress. In a gesture of goodwill, Pastrana traveled to rebel territory to meet with the rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). His gesture stopped short of offering peace terms to the guerrillas. Pastrana also vetoed a “Heinous Crimes Act” which would have required that soldiers involved in human-rights cases be tried by military and not civilian courts.

This omission of human-rights issues is very disconcerting when one considers the scale of state-sponsored terror in Colombia. According to reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is mounting evidence that links the paramilitary operating in Colombia to the Colombian army. The paramilitary is responsible for at least three-quarters of the human-rights violations. While it is true that the other quarter of human rights violations are committed by the rebels, it is important to note several points. For one thing, the United States can do much to lessen the violations committed by the paramilitary (stop the aid). For another, the media reports give the impression that violations are shared equally between the rebels and paramilitary.

The media also have the tendency to emphasize the connection between the rebels and the drug lords, and at the same time to downplay the connection between the drug lords and the paramilitary. The DEA has found that a paramilitary leader, Carlos Castao, is a trafficker himself, with connections to a Colombian cartel. It’s good to know that the drug lords are contributing to the efforts to win the Drug War.

But even with the help of the drug lords, the cost-efficiency of the Drug War is very dubious. According to a report from the RAND think tank, fighting the War on Drugs through drug treatment is 23 times more cost-efficient than fighting the Drug War at the source, which is what “we” are currently attempting. Other alternatives include funding more interdiction programs at the border and domestic enforcement programs, both of which are two or three times more cost-effective than funding the Colombian Civil War.

With the amount of discussion about these alternatives (none), I get the feeling that perhaps cost-effectiveness is not top priority in U.S. drug policy. The reasons for this can be found in the list of organizations which pushed for the Colombian aid. Among those noble bodies were Occidental Petroleum, BP Amoco, Enron Corp., United Technologies, and Bell Helicopter Textron Incorporated. The compassion that these oil and defense companies have in ridding our country of the drug blight is truly touching.

Even though the aid has already been sent, the helicopters bought and paid for, this does not mean the public cannot influence our leaders in future policy. Americans have rights and freedoms denied to most Colombians. Among these are the freedom to assemble and the right to influence our representatives, or at least to try. The protest at Park Street on Saturday will address issues about the Drug War in addition to making some noise in the Common. The problem will not go away if the public remains uneducated and silent about U.S. complicity in Colombia.