Gimena Sanchez, Senior Associate for Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), says that despite the fact that Colombia is not a priority for the Obama administration, U.S. policy in the country is wreaking havoc in the Andean nation in a myriad of ways.
The WOLA is a non-governmental organization based in the U.S. capital that “monitors U.S. policy and assistance” in the region. The organization aims to redirect U.S. policy in Latin America towards goals of “human rights, democracy, and social and economic justice.”
Last month WOLA sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives in support of House Resolution 1224. The bill asks the Colombian government to make good on Colombian Constitutional Court mandates to protect the rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, whom are often the victims of displacement from their lands and homes. This happens, Sanchez says, despite the fact that US$15 million is targeted towards these groups annually by the US government.
Oftentimes, many congressmen in the U.S. are unaware of the plight of at-risk citizens in Colombia, partially due to “intense lobbying by the Colombian government, who insist that there is no more armed conflict, and no more displacement,” notes Sanchez.
The letter in support of the resolution, signed by over 50 organizations representing over 1,000 charities in the U.S. and Colombia, urges the U.S. congress to pass the bill and raise awareness about these vulnerable groups, whose situation, Sanchez says, has deteriorated markedly since the introduction of Plan Colombia. The U.S. initiative, which includes U.S. legislation and aid, aims to curb drug-trafficking and guerrilla activity in Colombia. Sanchez hopes that informing and educating more congressmen about the issues related to displacement will help the U.S. government to better direct aid revenues.
The proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the United States and Colombia has also raised concerns for WOLA. Sanchez says that many of the regions potentially most affected by the trade agreement, encompass populations already threatened by displacement. She cited as an example the expansion of the port at Buenaventura – slated to happen in the event of the bill’s approval – which would displace 3,000, mostly Afro-Colombian, families.
The process of the FTA’s approval also irks Sanchez. She says that she would like to the Colombian government to meet many more benchmarks, before her organization could begin to support the agreement. She cites as examples, a reduction in the murders of trade union organizers, the dismantling of paramilitary infrastructure, protection for indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories, and a renegotiation of certain terms of the agreement, which take Afro-Colombian and Indigenous groups’ concerns into account.
WOLA also has issues with the way that the U.S. government deals with drug policy. Sanchez points to “Development First” reports, that she says look at ways other countries have successfully fought the cultivation of illegal drugs. Sanchez claims that “fumigation doesn’t work.” She says that destroying coca crops with pesticides or other poisonous agents just disperses the area used for cultivating the coca, further displaces already vulnerable populations, and destroys unrelated crops and territories right along with illegal narcotics. She also says that alternative development strategies are almost always developed without consultation of the farmers, whom such programs are designed to help. The result is poor solutions as to how to eradicate coca farming effectively.
Policies are usually tied to “zero-tolerance” of coca, meaning that farmers must stop growing coca cold turkey and switch immediately to an untested crop, for which they generally earn less money. Farmers are sometimes suspicious of this idea, and even less motivated to cooperate in alternative development strategies as a result.
Sanchez also says that drug policies often criminalize “small fish,” who are infinitely replaceable by drug traffickers, and not the real source of the problem. For the NGO representative, fumigation interrupts cocaine production at the least effective and most damaging part of the process. She says that cargo coming in and going out through Buenaventura is not inspected as well as it could be, and that U.S. laws against money laundering are too weak to prevent traffickers from routinely using the country to cover their tracks. “These guys are nothing if their money can’t be laundered,” she notes.
Then there is the thorny issue of the military agreement signed between the U.S. and Colombia, which grants the North American nation access to seven Colombian military bases. Sanchez says that there was little debate within the U.S. over the measure, which was pretty much accepted as a given by the American government with no oversight or transparency. She says the U.S. had zero consideration for the agreement’s effect on regional politics, and was made from a “Chavez bad Uribe good” approach to politics, which she believes is short-sighted and problematic.
Sanchez also notes that Colombian military behavior was never taken into account when making the agreement, and that the U.S. seemed to have no qualms about collaborating with a military body accused of human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings in the “false positives” cases.
“Colombia is not a priority for the United States right now,” Sanchez sighs, which seems like a fantastic statement considering how much influence the U.S. government exercises in the region. But despite the change from Bush to Obama, Sanchez says that U.S. policy changes in Colombia are mostly just rhetoric.
While Sanchez applauded Obama’s dressing down of Uribe for attempting to seek a third term as president, she says that aid from the U.S. to Colombia is still rubber-stamped no matter what the Colombian government does, even if they don’t meet the U.S. State Department democratic and human rights provisions theoretically required for the aid.
“Even at the height of the DAS wiretapping scandal, with the government eavesdropping on journalists and government watchdogs, the State Department approved their aid,” Sanchez says.
She also says that even the U.S. embassy in Colombia tends to exist in a bubble, and that ambassador, William Brownfield, has behaved like a cheerleader for the Uribe government. She did, however, give Brownfield credit for visiting with Colombian human rights groups, lending them the cover and credibility that the Colombian government was trying to deny.
But Sanchez wants more pushing from the ambassador at critical junctures. “We want real changes,” she says.