Quick Aid to Colombia--for Our Sake

Brent Scowcroft, who was national security advisor to President Bush from 1989 to 1993, and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) are co-chairs of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on Colombia

Skeptics looking for confirmation of a Colombia in crisis need look no further than the northern border towns of Vigia del Fuerte and Bojaya. On March 25 and 26, insurgent guerrillas attacked these fishing villages near Panama. Churches, homes and government buildings were destroyed. Thirty people--including a mayor, two children and 24 police officers--were killed. Seven other police officers were taken prisoner. Four more are missing.

Statistics complement this chilling story of a country in precipitous decline. Between 1995 and 1999, annual Colombian cocaine production skyrocketed from 230 to 520 metric tons, an amount that accounts for 80% of the world supply. Since 1990, Colombia’s growing guerrilla insurgency has murdered 35,000 of its citizens, including 5,000 police officers. Worse, drug traffickers and insurgents bent on overthrowing the oldest democracy in Latin America are working together, a merger that raises the specter of a Colombia run by violent narcotics predators.

Another ominous sign is Colombia’s struggling economy. The nation is suffering through its first sustained recession after nearly seven decades of uninterrupted economic growth. The combination of 21% unemployment, a robust black market economy and a lack of investor confidence is an explosive cocktail.


Were these problems self-contained, it would be easy to dismiss them as another country’s internal struggles. But they are not. More than 90% of the cocaine and 70% of the heroin consumed in the United States originates in Colombia.

Our nation’s interests in the Andean region extend beyond helping to target the source of this drug flow. The struggle between insurgents and the Colombian government has bled into neighboring nations, a troubling development that recalls the spread of civil disorder throughout Central America in the 1980s. Particularly troubling is the fact that one of those nations--Venezuela--is our largest petroleum supplier.

Finally, Colombia’s economic troubles promise to hit the United States where it hurts the most, in the pocketbook. As South America’s third-largest economy, Colombia has become our fifth-largest export market in Latin America. In 1998 alone, it imported approximately $4 billion in U.S. goods and services. In addition, Colombia’s oil reserves of 2.6 billion barrels--only slightly less than OPEC members Qatar, Indonesia and Algeria--could serve as a major energy source, but will remain untapped unless stability is restored.

In January, President Clinton proposed $1.6 billion in U.S. assistance to complement Plan Colombia, the recovery proposal constructed largely through the courageous efforts of Colombian President Andres Pastrana. The administration’s package provides aid to help destroy the country’s coca-growing capacity and assistance in training, equipping and providing intelligence to Colombia’s security forces. The House of Representatives approved the plan March 30.

We strongly support the Clinton plan, but also recognize that it is not a panacea for Colombia’s woes, nor can it represent the totality of U.S. involvement. Our greatest strategic contributions must come in helping Colombia develop the strong institutions it needs for success, such as a professional military that protects human rights and a respected judicial system. The United States also is in a position to bolster Colombia’s economy by extending the Andean Trade Preferences Act, which for nearly 10 years has fostered economic cooperation between the United States and its Andean friends. We also should give Colombia and its neighbors the same trade preferences enjoyed by Caribbean Basin Initiative nations.

But our best intentions will be in vain if we delay. The United States has pledged half of the international assistance to help address Colombia’s growing problems, and a slow pace in providing that aid could have a chilling effect on other nations. For example, Spain is hosting a conference of nations to aid Colombia in June--a meeting that could result in failure if we have not yet demonstrated our commitment to Colombian recovery.

Pastrana has made a good-faith effort to rebuild his country, and Clinton has responded in kind. Now that the House has acted positively, it is up to the Senate. Given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Colombia, assistance delayed will have the effect of assistance denied or worse, rendered irrelevant. But if Congress accepts the challenge of quick action, we can contribute to restoring the societal and economic conditions on which a stable Colombia and Latin America depend.