The recent rise in oil prices has revived America's appreciation for its strategic relationships with countries in the Middle East and reminded us why we came to their defense in the Persian Gulf War a half-world away. To me, there is an indisputable parallel to the situation in our own back yard: the crisis in Colombia.
A decade ago the United States went to war with a powerful enemy partly to stabilize a major oil-producing region. We worried that Iraq would attack Saudi Arabia, an ally and one of the United States' largest oil suppliers. Where is that same concern with Colombia today? The destabilization of Colombia directly affects bordering Venezuela, now generally regarded as our largest oil supplier. In fact, the oil picture in Latin America is strikingly similar to that of the Middle East, except that Colombia provides us more oil today than Kuwait did then. This crisis, like the one in Kuwait, threatens to spill over into many nations, all of which are allies.
But momentum in Congress to help Colombia has stalled, and it is hard to understand why. Colombia is an undeniable national security emergency for our country.
The political and economic breakdown in Colombia is fueled by the rising narcotics threat in the region. Colombia is fighting for survival against a powerful rebel insurgency bankrolled by the illicit drug business. Estimates are that the guerrillas rake in $1 billion annually from drugs. The result is a well-funded, well-armed rebel army that threatens the state's authority.
These left-wing guerrillas control almost 40 percent of Colombia's territory, and their violence has reached the outskirts of Bogota. The drug-fueled violence has taken its toll, claiming more than 35,000 lives in the past decade. Numbers of displaced Colombians approach the levels we saw in Kosovo at its height--more than 800,000 since 1995. And Colombia is now home to one-third of all acts of terrorism worldwide, with 2,663 kidnappings in 1999 alone. The future of Latin America's oldest democracy is at stake.
The conflict is spreading. Colombian guerrillas move freely across the border into Panama, a country with no standing army. Just recently, rebels overran a Colombian military base 15 miles from the Panamanian border, killing more than 40 Colombian law enforcement officials and soldiers. Such brazenness heightens the fear that Panama will not be able to defend itself or the canal. Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador all have moved troops to their borders with Colombia because of increased incursions into their nations by Colombia's guerrillas.
Regional instability not only threatens a large source of U.S. oil (our hemisphere provides about half our total oil imports), it fuels a steady flow of drugs onto our streets. Colombia supplies 80 percent of the cocaine and 60 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States. Narcotics represent the most immediate and deadly threat we face in the hemisphere, causing 52,000 deaths a year and costing an estimated $110 billion annually.
As the situation deteriorates, Colombians are fleeing their country in droves--hundreds of thousands in the past four years, and visa applications to the United States nearly tripled last year.
Let me restate the crisis: We import as much oil from this hemisphere as we do from the Middle East; more Colombians than Kosovars have been forced to flee their homes; 35,000 Colombians are dead. That's why the situation demands our immediate attention.
Last fall, Sens. Mike DeWine, Charles Grassley and I introduced a $1.6 billion aid package to address the situation in Colombia. It is a balanced approach that mirrors President Andres Pastrana's blueprint for stability. Our plan strengthens counter-narcotic efforts by assisting military and law enforcement agencies, while promoting respect for human rights and judicial integrity. After years of neglect, the Clinton administration was forced to put forward a similar proposal.
The situation in Colombia is an emergency and must be dealt with urgently. If this means the Colombia aid must be pulled out of the larger emergency spending bill of which it is now a part, so be it. The price of not acting soon will be more costly than the figures being debated. The security and prosperity of all the Americas depends on our immediate and effective response.
The writer is a Republican senator from Georgia.