USIS Washington 

06 August 1998


(Testify at congressional hearing)  (1010)

By Eric Green

USIA Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A panel of scholars has told Congress that while the
timing is propitious for bettering U.S.-Colombian relations, continued
unsettled conditions in the Andean country could mean an increase in
illicit drug production and trafficking with serious negative
consequences for the United States.

Testifying August 5 at a hearing on Colombia's current situation,
Michael Shifter, program director for the Washington-based
Inter-American Dialogue, said that "in key respects," Colombia is the
most troubled country in the Western Hemisphere.

The end of the Cold War may have brought a measure of peace and other
important benefits to many countries, he said, "but in Colombia
conditions have palpably deteriorated." However, he said that the
changeover in the Colombia presidency could lead to a "constructive,
cooperative relationship" between Washington and Bogota. Andres
Pastrana was to be inaugurated as Colombia's new president August 7.

Better U.S.-Colombian relations are possible, he said, following the
tumultuous four-year presidency of Ernesto Samper, who was accused of
accepting $6 million from the Cali cartel during his 1994 campaign.
The country also has suffered a decades-old guerrilla war, in which
more than 30,000 people have died. The latest spate of attacks by the
leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) occurred in 16
of Colombia's 32 provinces August 3-4. Early reports indicate that at
least 130 people were killed.

The latest violence caused the State Department to condemn the FARC
for its "senseless" nationwide offensive. The Department said in an
August 5 statement that it was "disappointed that after initial peace
talks ... the guerrillas have engaged in these senseless attacks. We
look forward to the day when the guerrillas' deeds match their pledges
of commitment to peace."

The Department also emphasized that the United States has no advisers
in Colombia, and that no U.S. personnel were based at any of the
attacked locations in Colombia. No U.S. personnel, it said, were
injured or kidnapped by the guerrillas during attacks anywhere in
Colombia. The Department said that it anticipated that the guerrilla
attacks "will have a negligible effect on counternarcotics programs in

Besides the latest guerrilla attacks, analysts of the Colombian
situation report that abuses by state agents and right-wing
paramilitary squads are up, along with inflation, unemployment, and
the fiscal deficit.

In his testimony, Shifter warned against continuing what he called a
"punitive, hard-line approach" by the United States against Colombia.
He said that the deteriorated U.S.-Colombian relationship over the
past four years "mainly served to deepen an historic ally's malaise."

Shifter's principal recommendation for what the United States can do
to help Colombia was to develop a "broad, cooperative relationship"
with the new Pastrana administration.

Shifter told the House Committee on International Relations'
Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs that the United States
"should particularly give considerable support and deference to the
new Colombian government in pursuing its chief objective: devising,
undertaking, and sustaining a peace process" to end years of internal
civil conflict.

Congress should be prepared, he said, as part of a general peace
agreement, to provide substantial and sustained social development
support, especially directed to Colombia's coca-growing region.
Generous humanitarian assistance aimed at the country's more than one
million displaced persons should also be a high priority, Shifter
said. The United States, he added, should work closely with the
Pastrana administration in tackling its "tough agenda, and should be
especially sensitive" to the new government's twin goals of reducing
the fiscal deficit and carrying out a serious, peace-related
development program.

Another witness, Richard Downes, an adjunct senior research associate
from the University of Miami's North-South Center, said the United
States has "valid national interests in the sustainment of Colombian
democracy." U.S. actions, he said, "should be carefully weighed.
Clearly, there is a need to draw upon the lessons of the Central
American conflict and encourage a Colombian solution, employing the
assistance of neighbors justifiably concerned about Colombia's fate."

However, he added, without a Colombian commitment to dedicate the
resources necessary to resolve their problems, "there is very little
that neighbors ... can do."

Downes said that Colombia's "energetic private sector" should become
part of the solution for securing peace in the country by
"facilitating the necessary investment in the country's rural regions.
When a feasible private-public partnership is achieved with the full
consensus and support of the Colombian people, important international
donor and lender support may become more likely."

The United States, he emphasized, "should be hopeful and supportive of
recent efforts toward peace in Colombia, but also remain constantly
aware that the full responsibility for resolving the current situation
lies first and foremost with Colombia, with the assistance and
friendly offices of responsible third parties."

Carlos Salinas, a human rights advocate for Amnesty International USA,
focused his testimony on what he called the "human rights emergency"
that Colombia has been living through for the last decade. Salinas
said the United States needs "to speak clearly, consistently, and
forcefully about the importance of protecting human rights" and "to
match these words with deeds."

This means, he said, that all U.S. aid to Colombian security forces
should "rigorously comply" with the terms of the Leahy amendment,
adopted by Congress last year to prohibit U.S. aid going to known
violators of human rights.

In addition, he said, "all military training, joint exercises and
other combined military operations should only take place with
Colombian military units not implicated in human rights violations and
which have no ties whatsoever with paramilitary groups."

Salinas added that no person implicated in human rights violations
should receive any payment or protection from the U.S. government,
"even if that person is a U.S. intelligence asset." As required in the
Leahy amendment, he said, "the U.S. government should be actively
supporting the prosecution of any known human rights violators."