The day after Colombian President Andres Pastrana declared an end to the three years of peace negotiations with his country’s largest guerilla army and launched an all-out offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency chief Asa Hutchinson characterized the civil war as “clearly…a benefit in that region.” Mr. Hutchinson’s unthinking remark is symbolic of how far down the scale of U.S. foreign policy interests Latin America has tumbled since Sept.11.
This negligence has allowed a dizzying number of deep-rooted political, social and economic ills throughout the region to grow unchecked. As Colombia’s war could further fuel threats brewing throughout Latin America, the Bush administration might be mistakenly inclined to declare Colombia the next target for its “War on Terrorism.”
There are three main reasons why Washington could-in the post-Sept. 11 reality-justify sending troops.
First, the Bush administration has repeatedly emphasized the need to curb America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Only days before the breakout of the Colombian war, President Bush asked Congress for $98 million to finance the Colombian military’s protection of a 450-mile long oil pipeline owned by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum from guerilla attacks. Colombia is currently the United States’ tenth largest supplier of oil-and an uninterrupted flow of the dark stuff from Occidental’s pipeline (which was bombed over 166 times last year) would be sure to secure an even larger supply.
Second, recent reports of increased coca and opium production in Peru as a result of Colombian drug lords crossing the border have U.S. officials wondering whether the headway made by the successful Peruvian drug eradication programs in the 1990s may soon be reversed. Even more troubling is the reemergence within Peru of the Shining Path, a revolutionary guerilla army that was thought to have been extinguished in 1992 by a vicious anti-subversive military campaign directed by former Presidential strongman and current self-exiled resident of Japan, Alberto Fujimori. Peruvian officials point to the burgeoning drug trade as the way in which the Shining Path is financing their development, much like the FARC has done in Colombia.
Third, the fall of the Argentine economy has left many Latin American countries that have been struggling for decades to adopt Washington-peddled “market-oriented reforms” doubting as to whether they are on the right path. The failure of the Bush administration to lift a finger in the face of Argentina’s collapse has further fueled the skepticism with which many Latin American governments view the American commitment to softening the region’s economic liberalization and democratization growing pains. Such disbelief proves ripe for the return of the kind of anti-American populism once popular in Latin America.
In a post-Sept. 11 world, where the word security is being nailed by the administration to every item on its wish list, President Bush already has and could continue to easily spin the Colombian conundrum and all its ill-boding side-effects as exactly the kind of threat the War on Terrorism was designed to deal with. The Washington spin machine could cast the disruption of our unfettered access to oil and trade as direct threats to our economic security, and the return of populism, anti-Americanism and drugs as a threat to our national security. Yet, further military aid to the Colombian military-famous more for their cooperation with brutal right-wing paramilitaries than for providing security for the public-or, even worse, involving American troops directly in the war, would only serve to widen the gap that will eventually need to be traversed between the FARC and the Colombian government.
Unless Washington admits that its militarization of the War on Drugs has proven a failure and uses its diplomatic might to bear on the Colombian peace negotiations, Colombia could become the first target of the War on Terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.
Eduardo Moncada is a graduate student at the School of International Studies of the University of Miami.