Issue 221 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

LETTER FROM THE US: The marriage from hell

Sharon Smith

History is repeating itself in Latin America. Last month the New York Times and the Washington Post exposed the atrocities from yet another US sponsored war to support a gangster regime - this time in Colombia, where more than 35,000 civilians have been killed and a million more forced to flee their homes over the last decade. Until last month few people outside the Pentagon knew that the US has been underwriting the Colombian government's war against a left wing guerrilla movement throughout the last decade. US military aid to Colombia has tripled since 1995 - to $95.9 million last year. Nevertheless, the rebel forces have advanced, now controlling nearly 50 percent of the country. Reminiscent of the early years of the civil war in El Salvador, the US has spent nearly a billion dollars and has trained key Colombian military personnel - both at its 'School of the Americas' in Georgia (where Roberto D'Aubuisson, leader of El Salvador's death squads, was also trained) and inside Colombia itself, where US elite Special Forces troops conduct 'training exercises'.

The US generals and politicians overseeing the war in Colombia claim they are defending the western hemisphere's second oldest democracy against a takeover by a movement of 'narco-

guerrillas', an imaginary bonding of drug barons and peasant freedom fighters. The White House drug policy director (also a general), Barry R McCaffrey, argued, 'They're guarding drugs. They're moving drugs. They're growing drugs. They're a narco-guerrilla force, period.' One Congressional Republican, Benjamin Gilman of New York, warned recently, 'The frightening possibility of a narco-state just three hours by plane from Miami can no longer be dismissed.' General Charles Wilhelm, the commander of US military forces in Latin America and the Caribbean, outlined his analysis of the situation: 'The threat is intensifying. We are seeing, basically, an undermining of governance at the grassroots level. In a sense, I see a nation divided.'

But evidence of links between the guerrilla movement and the Colombia drug cartel is scant. Even US intelligence officials admit this. A spokesman for one of the two main rebel organisations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), argued that the guerrilla fighters have the support of many peasants, including many who grow coca. He said the US has fabricated the charges of links between the rebels and the Colombia cartel. 'The idea is simply to label us as delinquents, to reject us as people with a political struggle. It's a way to legitimise a [US] military intervention.'

Evidence of links between the drug traffickers and the Colombian government, on the other hand, is well documented. Drug traffickers do not abstain from politics. The New York Times made this clear, arguing, 'In many cases, drug traffickers have...armed the paramilitaries against the insurgents; victims of the squads have included thousands of peasants and unionists, and hundreds of rebels who gave up their guns.' Colombia's president, Ernesto Samper, accepted money from leaders of the Cali drug cartel during the 1994 presidential election. And two years ago General Hernando Camilo Zuniga was removed as commander of the armed forces because of ties to drug traffickers.

Claims that Colombia is a democracy also rest on thin ice, since its elections can hardly be labelled as free. Pro-government death squads killed 50 people in a wave of massacres leading up to the first round of voting in the current presidential election on 31 May. They kidnapped 25 left wing supporters from their homes in the oil refining city of Barrancabermeja on 16 May. Three weeks later they shot them all and torched their remains. Voters had to get past armed soldiers guarding nearly every voting booth on election day.

The Colombian government has one of the worst human rights records in the world today. An average of a dozen people are murdered each day in Colombia for political reasons, the vast majority of them civilians. Half of all the trade unionists murdered internationally last year were from Colombia. At least 156 trade unionists, including 61 teachers, were murdered there last year. Most were massacred by paramilitary death squads for speaking out for their rights. Among those murders in which the killer is identified, 65 percent are by members of the Colombian military, police or paramilitary groups which support the government.

In the last six years the death squads have murdered five human rights workers from the Regional Committee for Human Rights, based in Barrancabermeja. Amnesty International closed its Colombia office last year because of death threats against its workers. Amnesty said that often death squads announce their attacks before they take place, but the government does nothing to protect their targets. Meanwhile, according to the Peace Brigades International, 'Those who speak out against the killings and disappearances - trade union members, local state officials, families of the disappeared - are themselves often singled out for intimidation, disappearance or murder.'

The real reason Clinton is concerned about the outcome of Colombia's civil war has no more to do with defending democracy or fighting drug traffickers than any previous military interventions in Latin America. If that were the case, Clinton would defend the rights of trade unionists now being slaughtered instead of escalating the war against the left. Large sections of workers identify with the guerrilla fighters. For example, the state oil workers' union staged a 24 hour strike to protest against the Barrancabermeja massacre.

Colombia is strategically important to the US, sandwiched between Venezuela - the US's main petroleum supplier - and the Panama Canal. One top US military official told the New York Times, 'We should be able to say with a straight face, and without feeling like we have to go to confession, that there is an insurgency problem that threatens the stability of the country.' State Department officials used a legal loophole to bolster the Colombian regime - a 1991 programme called Joint Combined Exchange Training, which allows US Special Forces to secretly defend any dictatorship it chooses. The US has literally put itself in control of the Colombian military. As General Wilhelm put it, 'This is not a one night stand. This is a marriage for life.'

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