Pubdate: Sat, 19 Aug 2000
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2000 The Irish Times
Contact:  11-15 D'Olier St, Dublin 2, Ireland
Fax: + 353 1 671 9407
Section: Opinion
Author: Breda O'Brien


Father Brendan Forde' decision to stay in Colombia is not a very Celtic 
Tiger thing to do. He has decided to remain where six men were massacred on 
July 8th, and where the rest of the community has been told by 
paramilitaries to get out or meet a similar fate. He is doing so simply 
because the people there have asked him to, and he believes that his 
presence, if it succeeds in mobilizing public support in Ireland, may 
provide some hope of safety for them.

His decision is completely out of synch with an Ireland where all we seem 
to talk about are scandals and house prices. But maybe, just maybe, it is 
not out of synch with the deeper values of Irish people. Maybe, just maybe, 
we have not lost those values, just allowed them to be misplaced 
temporarily in a sea of cappuccino froth.

But we need the Irish Government to reflect those deeper values, not just 
in humanitarian intervention for Brendan Forde himself but by taking a 
stance independent of American policy in the area.

I spoke to Brendan Forde by telephone last Thursday. He sounded worn out 
from the constant tension. His parting words were: "I know that when 
there's an Irish person involved Irish people feel it, but the main thing 
is the people of Colombia."

There is little history of connection between Ireland and Colombia. 
Trecaire has been working with local groups there for over 10 years, 
channeling some of our donations and governmental bilateral aid to peace 
and development projects run by Colombians. But the massacre of six men 
which left 15 children without fathers in La Union would not register even 
a blip on the radar of Irish consciousness if it were not for the presence 
of one stubborn priest.

The Irish Government has been good on Brendan Forde himself, including an 
assurance by Government sources to Barbara Forde, Brendan's sister, that 
Bertie Ahern has been in personal contact with Bill Clinton. Yet if we 
treat this story as just a touching tale of personal courage in the face of 
brutal repression, we will have failed this Irish Franciscan. Of course we 
need to protect him and the people he works with. But much more is needed.

Colombia has endured civil war for decades, a bitter struggle between 
left-wing guerrillas and the forces of the state. Added to that mix are 
right-wing paramilitary groups who are officially illegal, but who in 
practice have been identified by numerous human rights groups as having 
close links with government forces, and with the attack on La Union.

Brendan Forde is working with the people of the peace communities of San 
Jose de Partado. These communities comprise peasants who are sick of being 
pawns in a vicious power struggle. They have been failed by both left and 
right, by the virtual industry of kidnapping and protection money which 
funds both sides. The peace communities have declared neutrality, and have 
called on all sides to engage seriously in the faltering peace process.

Where does American policy come into this? American interest can be summed 
up in one word: drugs. The US Congress recently mandated $1.3 billion for 
Plan Colombia, a military counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency 
campaign. The aim is to eradicate coca crops, the plant from which cocaine 
is derived, by fumigation, thereby cutting off a source of income for the 
guerrillas and the supply of drugs to the US.

It is, quite frankly, an insane scheme, involving supplying Colombia with 
Blackhawk helicopters and funding for three battalions of troops. Have the 
Americans learnt nothing in decades of ham-fisted intervention in Latin 
America? Fumigation was tried in Peru, where it succeeded in cutting coca 
production by half. But the supply of cocaine on American streets didn't 
change, nor did the price go up. That's because the key players simply 
shifted production to other places. The same will happen again.

Meanwhile, a fragile peace process will be destabilized further, more 
peasants will be displaced, and vast quantities of fertile land will be 
rendered unusable for years. The real winner is the American armaments 
industry, which has gained million-dollar contracts.

American military personnel are already being deployed to train Colombian 
military in fumigation. This same Colombian military was involved in an 
ambush last Tuesday which went drastically wrong when six children on a 
school trip were killed instead of the guerrillas for whom the trap was 
laid. Military who cannot distinguish between children and guerrillas seem 
less than ideal candidates for military aid.

THE key to the complex Colombian situation is that the poor have no rights. 
This gung-ho militarism by the US reinforces the idea that the poor are the 
problem in the drugs war, instead of recognising that they are merely the 
cheap labour who help to make drug barons rich.

As if the US military aid were not bad enough, the EU is being canvassed to 
supply matching funds, allegedly to foster human rights and peaceful 
development. The reality is that if the EU participates in Plan Colombia, 
it will be giving support to a military strategy. As yet, the EU Commission 
has cautiously sat on the fence and deferred making a decision until next 
month, all the while making soothing noises about "long-term economic and 
social development and political reform".

Which is where the Irish Government comes in. The EU Commission has 
promised that nothing will happen without the consent of all member-states. 
Ireland has an honourable record of never tying development aid to military 
aid. It would be an outrageous departure from previous policy to support a 
plan described by Eamon Meehan of Trecaire as "a badly put together aid 
package designed around a military strategy".

But here's the crux. Bill Clinton is determined to push this through, and 
we owe ol' Bill, big time, for his consistent help in our own peace 
process. Had Brendan Forde not taken the stance he has, Plan Colombia might 
have been quietly assented to by Ireland. Who in Ireland, aside from a few 
non-governmental organisations such as Afri, Trecaire and Comhlamh, would 
have protested?

Which is why it is important that we dust off those values we seem to have 
temporarily mislaid, and make it clear to our elected representatives that 
Plan Colombia should not be supported. The vital aid needed by Colombia 
must be tied to genuine development, not madcap militarism. Or else we will 
prove beyond doubt that we do not deserve the Brendan Fordes of this world.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart