September 8, 2000

Plan Colombia: Are You Listening, Mr. President?

By Mary Jo McConahay

Now that President Clinton has formally committed U.S. military personnel and weapons and more than $1 billion to the war against drugs and guerrillas in Colombia, it may seem too late to listen to voices of caution.

But editorial writers at the nation's newspapers have long called for public discussion about this involvement. For nearly a year, the unsigned statements meant to reflect a newspaper's stand and shape public opinion have held up a collective warning hand — even when approving support for the Colombian government.

Most of all, the papers have been asking how things can move so quickly toward military engagement without a vigorous national dialogue.

The U.S. is committed to sending 500 "advisers" — ten times the limit Congress set during the El Salvador conflict. For their part, the guerrillas already have declared they consider the helicopters and spray planes military targets, subject to anti-aircraft fire.

Lack of public attention troubled the Orange County (CA) Register. "The nation should be discussing whether any realistic objectives can be achieved, what timetable is being set for pulling the advisers out of there, what safeguards are in place to ensure that the United States doesn't become more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla struggle."

A later San Francisco Chronicle editorial put it more bluntly: "The United States is about to plunge into an undeclared war, yet Colombia barely registers on the political radar."

Before Clinton declared in Cartagena on August 30 "This is not Vietnam," the Chicago Tribune had editorialized, "It probably won't be Vietnam, but it looks a lot like El Salvador in the l980s. The U.S. purports to support a democratic government against leftist anarchists, but it is pushing a bad situation into more dangerous territory by intensifying the military option and training the army."

Opinion columnists have linked the quick, virtually unopposed Senate passage of the $1.3-billion aid package to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which paved the way for full-ahead war in Vietnam.

The St. Petersburg Times flatly opined that this vote was a "dishonest ploy" passed "under the ruse of fighting the drug trade." The bill, the paper fumed, "was packed with enough legalized bribery to win strong bipartisan support (including) money for bike paths, homeless shelters, even the lobster industry."

If military ends and means in Colombia are not on the national agenda — more than one editorial observed that not a single Democrat or Republican candidate mentioned the topic in two weeks of conventions — the issue of the appetite for illegal drugs is even more hidden.

"We spend millions fighting drugs in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia but fail to control what is taking place on our own streets," said the Fort Lauderdale, (FL) Sun-Sentinel in a July editorial. "If we did not consume the drugs then Colombian growers and drug barons would be irrelevant."

The Boston Globe, commenting on news of a plan to release a deadly fungus on coca plants, called for a "more promising approach."

"The $1.3 billion that Washington is shipping south ...would cover a year's treatment and rehabilitation costs for 1.7 million substance abusers," said the Globe. Drug abuse is a "terrible" problem, the Globe conceded, but one "that families, schools, churches and treatment programs are much more capable of addressing than Black Hawk and Huey helicopters - or fungi."

National faith-based religious newspapers have also joined in the steady drumbeat of questions about Colombia — recalling the importance of faith-based dissent in promoting resistance to U.S. policy in the Central American wars of the l980s.

The Mennonite Weekly Review ran a story quoting Mennonites in Colombia who urged co-religionists in the United States to oppose the plan. "Just as lighter fluid among flames produces more fire, more arms produce more war in the middle of social conflict."

The National Catholic Reporter has said the military aid "ignores the reality of Colombia" — the fact that ranking government and armed forces officials are linked to the paramilitary gangs and drug traffickers, the paper said.

"The drug culture would continue to flourish" even in the unlikely event of total guerrilla defeat, the paper said. U.S. money and influence should go to promote social change. "The natural resources of the country are concentrated in the hands of a small ruling class that rejects all proposals to share power and decision-making," editors wrote.

On his visit to Colombia, President Clinton said, "A condition of this aid is that we are not going to get into a shooting war." Respectfully, subtly, the same day the New York Times editorialized, "It is unrealistic to imagine that the $1.3 billion aid package, most of it to supply 60 military helicopters and train a new army anti-narcotics brigade, will only be used against the drug traffickers and not also against the guerrillas who provide them with armed protection."

If debate and even dissension do not materialize, warned the San Francisco Chronicle, the situation becomes simply, "Welcome to the War, Mr. President."

Mary Jo McConahay writes for New California Media, PNS' collaboration of ethnic news organizations. NCM can be found on the world wide web at

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