This week Colombian President Andres Pastrana is working the circuit in Washington, talking up his $3.5 billion plan to strengthen his military forces and bring peace to a Colombia ravaged by rebel attacks.
What happens in Colombia matters in Washington. Colombia provides nearly all of the cocaine and up to 75 percent of the heroin used in the United States. Rebel groups in Colombia earn money -- up to $1 billion per year -- from the drug trade.
Pastrana will no doubt hear encouraging words from the administration. Those words, however, are unlikely to be matched by deeds. On Colombia, the administration's record has belied its rhetoric.
In October 1997, drug czar Barry McCaffrey promised Colombian officials while visiting Colombia that he would agree to "a $50 million emergency U.S. aid package to purchase three new Blackhawk helicopters and refurbish Huey helicopters." These helicopters are crucial in the war against Colombia's narco-guerrillas, whose remote labs and coca and opium fields are now beyond the reach of the aged helicopter fleet of the respected anti-drug police.
Upon McCaffrey's return to the United States, he rescinded his promise. The badly needed choppers were never delivered.
McCaffrey's flip-flop infected other Clinton officials. Eighteen months ago, I asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to pay close attention to Colombia's need for helicopters to fight drugs and narco-guerrillas. She testified before our committee that "I think there is some dispute as to whether those helicopters are needed or not. Gen. McCaffrey . . . discussed this issue, and he believes they are not necessary."
Today there is no dispute. Even McCaffrey now says of Colombia's narco-guerrillas: "If we could cut off their drug financing, the activities of these groups would fall to one percent of what they are now."
What changed? Over the past few months, it has become obvious that the Colombian peace process is failing. President Pastrana's decision, endorsed by the Clinton administration, to cede a Switzerland-sized portion of the countryside (a "demilitarized zone") to the narco-guerrillas has only emboldened the rebels. Instead of negotiating, FARC (the Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels have kidnaped and killed Americans and launched attacks from the DMZ, even to the outskirts of Bogota.
In response, Colombians who can afford to are leaving the country in droves, a possible indication of a future immigration crisis. A failed, balkanized Colombia in our backyard would have deep, long-term implications for U.S. interests in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Albright sent her most capable deputy, Tom Pickering, to Colombia this month. McCaffrey has floated the idea of $1 billion in aid to Colombia over three years (although the White House has so far failed to endorse this plan). It is clear that the administration is now seeking to limit the political damage from its failed Colombia policy and to ensure that this policy is not an issue in the 2000 presidential campaign.
If the administration is serious about solving the Colombian dilemma, it should take concrete actions now. First, the United States can deliver badly needed helicopters to the Colombian National Police (CNP) for which Congress has pleaded for years. The CNP, which has a sterling human rights record, needs 100 helicopters to eradicate the opium crop and adequately fight coca production. After almost seven years of Clinton policy, the CNP has only 20 choppers that can fly. As a start, McCaffrey should follow through on the promise he rescinded in 1997.
With a little U.S. support, the CNP can eradicate the opium poppy fields within two years, denying narco-guerrillas a revenue stream and destroying the market for heroin in America.
Second, the administration can provide for fast-track processing of Colombian army and police aid from U.S. stockpiles.
Third, the administration should reestablish an unambiguous policy of not legitimatizing narco-guerrillas. Any and all contacts with FARC and FLN narco-guerrillas should be ended immediately. These groups have killed Americans and directly threaten our national security interests. It is counterproductive to treat them as legitimate political organizations.
Fourth, the administration can increase training for the Colombian military that has been neglected over the past three years.
Finally, the administration must demand reforms in Colombia: End the class-based, elitist policy that exempts high school graduates from combat units in the Colombian military. Let the Colombian currency float to eliminate the black market in pesos that helps launder billions of dollars from the drug trade. Condition any U.S. military aid to the Colombian military forces on respect for human rights. In 10 years of U.S. anti-drug assistance, not one credible allegation of human rights abuse has emerged against the CNP's anti-drug unit, whose policies should be a model for the Colombian military.
The writer, a Republican representative from New York, is chairman of the House International Relations Committee.