President Clinton plans to announce a massive new aid program for Colombia next week totaling more than $1 billion in military and development assistance over the next two years. It will be used to combat narcotics cultivation and trafficking and bolster that country's beleaguered democracy.
More than half the money will be in a White House request for a supplemental appropriation for this fiscal year, with the remainder to be part of the fiscal year 2001 budget that the administration is due to send to Congress on Feb. 7, administration officials said.
Colombia already receives the third-largest amount of U.S. military aid, after Egypt and Israel. The United States gave nearly $300 million last year and Colombia is in line for more than $200 million in the current budget. But skyrocketing Colombian cocaine and heroin production and exports to the United States, and the Bogota government's losing battle against Marxist guerrillas involved in drug trafficking, led to bipartisan consensus last year that the U.S. effort should be sharply increased.
The basic framework of the administration's proposal has been determined, although sources who declined to be identified cautioned that the Office of Management and Budget's discussions with the State Department, the Pentagon and the Office of National Drug Control Policy are still underway on how the money will be distributed. The White House plans to brief congressional leaders on the proposal before it is announced.
Congressional Republicans calling for stepped-up anti-drug action criticized the administration last fall for promising, and then failing to produce, a significant new aid plan for Colombia before the current budget was adopted. In response, Clinton in December pledged a package for early this year "that will be substantial, effective, and have broad bipartisan support." An interagency task force has spent months developing the administration's plan.
Republicans introduced their own $1.6 billion, three-year aid proposal in November, saying the Colombian situation has reached "crisis proportions." Differences in the two plans are expected to reflect competing views on whether the bulk of the money should go directly into police and military counter-drug efforts, as the GOP would like, or be more evenly divided between those efforts and government infrastructure and economic assistance, as Colombian President Andres Pastrana has requested.
Debate over the proposals is likely to begin as early as the first week in February, when a round of hearings on Colombia is planned.
Acting at the administration's behest and with its help, Pastrana's government put together a comprehensive plan last summer to train and supply new equipment to Colombia's armed forces and anti-drug police, provide education and develop alternative crops for Colombian peasants who grow most of the drug-producing coca and poppies, reform the judiciary and help bolster the economy--now in its deepest recession in history.
Pastrana asked the United States to help finance up to $3.5 billion of the three-year plan's $7.5 billion price tag. The administration's failure to respond quickly helped send Pastrana's popularity plummeting. At the same time, the government has confronted a deteriorating military situation; lack of results in negotiations with the largest of several armed rebel groups, the 20,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; and a failing economy.
Although Pastrana won the presidency 18 months ago with a large majority on a promise to negotiate peace, a new poll shows that 68 percent of Colombians surveyed view him unfavorably. The nationwide poll was published yesterday in Bogota's El Espectador newspaper.
Military aid to Colombia is complicated by the fact that rebel forces simultaneously occupy most of the country's drug-producing areas--where they control the peasants who grow the drug crops, facilitate exports and tax traffickers--and are fighting to overthrow the government. Although the Colombian military is charged with fighting the rebels, the national police have primary anti-narcotics responsibility, and the tasks frequently overlap.
Republicans have argued that a major portion of U.S. aid should go to the police as part of a stiffened anti-drug program, while the administration--with strong Pentagon input--has said that only the Colombian military can roust the insurgents permanently from drug-producing areas, primarily in the southern part of the country.
The administration proposal includes some additional aircraft, weapons and communications equipment for the police. But it provides major improvements in training, logistical and intelligence support for the Colombian military, as well as upgraded equipment. The U.S. military has already trained a 950-soldier quick-reaction counter-narcotics battalion in the Colombian army and plans to produce at least two more. The government plan and the GOP proposal also call for improvement in regional drug interdiction efforts affecting Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela.
As it develops a strategy to promote its plan, the administration also must contend with potential criticism from congressional Democrats, who want to limit aid to the Colombian military because of its unsavory human rights record while avoiding U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency efforts.
Administration sources, who said the aid proposal includes programs to improve human rights performance, maintain that the Colombian military has already made major strides in stopping abuses. The Pentagon has said it can ensure that U.S. assistance is used only in those areas of the country where the anti-drug war is being fought.