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 Colombia." 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."