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COLOMBIA: The 'Vietnamisation' of Latin America

Green Left Weekly, Issue #431December 6, 2000

"This is not Vietnam", US president Bill Clinton announced during a
one-day trip to the northern Colombian city of Cartagena in late August.
Clinton was launching "Plan Colombia", the goal of which is to tame the
country's guerilla movements under the guise of destroying cocaine
production in Colombia.

Eighty per cent of the plan's initial US contribution of US$1.3 billion
was devoted to military spending. "We do not, under any circumstances,
intend to become involved militarily in Colombia", US defence secretary
William Cohen told a gathering of Latin American counterparts in
mid-October. Latin American governments have been expressing rising
concern at the possible "spill over" effect of the Colombian conflict.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has referred to the threat of
"Vietnamisation" of northern Latin America.

Over the last two months, as the first onslaughts under Plan Colombia have
taken place, it is easy to see why Chavez is worried. Clashes between the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian army have
intensified in the Panama border region and in the FARC's main base of
support, the southern departments of Putumayo and Caquet , bordering on

The ultra-right death squads ("paramilitaries") known as the Self-Defence
Units of Colombia (AUC) are spreading their terror campaign against
civilian supporters of the National Liberation Army (ELN) from the central
Colombian department of Bolivar to FARC-controlled areas in the south and
west, bordering Venezuela. Their tactic, known as "draining the swamp", is
to give villagers and farmers a deadline for abandoning their towns and
land, then slaughter them if they don't comply.

Aerial spraying of coca plantations (coca is the plant from which cocaine
is refined) has begun in the south using Glyphosate, a product made by
Monsanto (the company that made the Agent Orange defoliant that
devastated Vietnam). Already, the spraying has killed staple crops like
bananas, rubber, cocoa and yuca, as well as damaging the health of peasant
families. Thousands of refugees are fleeing to Ecuador, Venezuela and
Panama. According to local FARC commander Ruben Zamora full implementation
of Plan Colombia could see 60,000 refugees cross the Colombian-Venezuelan

US Southern Command top official, Vietnam veteran Peter Pace, recently
conducted several visits to the Colombian capital Bogota. The Pentagon is
considering boosting its "in-country" supervision of the Colombian army's
counterinsurgency offensive.

The conservative Colombian government of President Andres Pastrana
continues to proclaim that it is opposed to terrorism. However, the AUC,
which are staffed army personnel in civilian dress, remain a vital element
in the government's strategy to tame the FARC and ELN.

Coordinated strategy

Plan Colombia is a coordinated strategy against the rebel insurgency and
its civilian supporters. The AUC move into an area and terrorise the
population, then the FARC or ELN respond and the army is sent in
(including its special US-trained "drug-eradication" regiments) to
"restore order". When aerial spraying starts in earnest in early December,
it will also be used against those who support the insurgency. Through
these tactics, the government hopes to reduce the area under guerilla

Increasing AUC attacks forced the FARC to declare an "armed strike" in
Putumayo in October. Roadblocks were set up and the passage of goods
prevented. While the army has succeeded in forcing a passage through a
number of FARC checkpoints, the armed strike continues in most of the

On November 12, the FARC decided to freeze negotiations with the
government "for as long as the president and his government does not
clarify their position on paramilitary terrorism and develop policies to
eradicate it". Pastrana retaliated by threatening not to renew the
demilitarised zone the government has conceded to the FARC when this comes
up for renewal on December 7.

Plan Colombia's problems

Plan Colombia will need to yield rapid results if it is to have any chance
of success in the longer term. This is because the alliances on which it
is based are full of tensions, and it carries the potential to provoke a
broad anti-US alliance across Latin America.

Within Colombia, Pastrana's Conservative Party has been weakened by its
unprecedented thrashing at the October 29 municipal and regional
elections. Most worrying for the ruling Colombian oligarchy was the fact
that voters did not swing to its other political tool, the Liberal Party,
but instead supported a wide range of independent candidates.

The only relief the oligarchy could have drawn from the result was the
failure of the old urban left to win back support and the inability of the
new left, represented by the Social and Political Front, to get its act
together in time for the poll.

The result, including the usual 50% abstention rate, was worrying enough
for Liberal Party leader Horacio Serpa to offer Pastrana an unprecedented
"alliance for peace".

Within the US, worries about Plan Colombia are also beginning to surface.
The Philadelphia Enquirer in early November revealed the involvement of US
secret agencies in the hunting down and murder of Colombian drug lord
Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s. The Enquirer articles disclosed that US
agencies had worked hand in glove with Fidel Castano, the brother of AUC
boss Carlos Castano, and that the terror techniques being used against the
Colombian insurgency were refined and developed during the hunt against

Partially as a result of the revelations, the leader of the US House of
Representatives international relations committee Benjamin Gilman withdrew
his support from Plan Colombia, and called for the Colombian army to be
cut out of the program and replaced by the less tainted police.



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