Pubdate: Mon, 28 Feb 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
Author: Ana Carrigan


The joint visit of government and guerrilla leaders to Europe contrasts
sharply with US strategy, writes Ana Carrigan

COLOMBIA/ US: The three-week tour through Europe by a joint delegation of
senior FARC guerrilla leaders and Colombian government negotiators ended
last Friday in Paris.

This politically imaginative and courageous initiative offers tantalising
evidence that we are witnessing a pivotal moment in the 20-year search,
paved with failures, for a solution to Colombia's 40 years of bloodletting.
However, developments in Washington, where President Clinton's massive aid
package to the Colombian army is being debated, undercut any undue optimism.

The Colombian delegation's European trip brought the protagonists of the
peace effort to Sweden, Norway, Italy, the Vatican - they were recieved by
the Pope's envoy - Switzerland - to talk to the International Red Cross
about International Human Rights law - Spain and France. In Madrid, the
guerrilla leaders, stunned by the Spanish reaction to a single ETA bombing,
joined the Spanish parliament in a minute's silence to mourn the victims.
The trip has kick-started negotiations on an agenda that both sides agree
must lay the basis of the "new Colombia" the FARC seeks to construct at the
peace talks. It has also given the rebels the international political
legitimacy they badly need to build a political home base commensurate with
their military power.

If the talks stay on track, and the rebels live up to the expectations they
created in Europe, including a ceasefire, this first international sortie
could eventually succeed in enlisting crucial European political and
financial support. This is needed to underpin the peace talks with economic
development and crop substitution programmes, so that poor coca farmers, who
currently supply the drug trade, can recycle their lives into legal

Throughout Europe, the FARC leaders were received on terms of equal status
with the governments' delegates. They were accorded the recognition due to
representatives of a legitimate political force. By contrast, in Washington,
the passage of Mr Clinton's military aid bill is perceived by many to be
dependent on the demonisation of the Colombian insurgents. The chief
architect of the new legislation, Gen ) Barry McCaffrey, testified in the
Senate on Friday that he considers both the FARC and the smaller ELN
insurgents to be "terrorist organisations".

In Washington, a total silence reigns about events in Europe.

The administration seeks $1.6 billion aid for Colombia, most of it for the
army. Ostensibly, the aid is for counter-narcotics programmes. But no one is
fooled. This is a classic counter-insurgency plan designed to intensify the
fight against the FARC and drive them from territories they have controlled
for 30 years. The US administration argues that the "narco-guerrillas"
derive an estimated 54 per cent of their funds by taxing the drug crops, and
that eliminating the coca fields will put them out of business. Their plan
also anticipates the enforced displacement of some 17,000 peasant families
and includes $145 million to help resettle them. Colombians say the number
will be far larger and anticipate mayhem as tens of thousands of enraged
coca farmers mobilise to protest against the destruction of their sole
source of livelihood.

The Clinton bill is not faring well in Washington. Nervous legislators fear
being drawn into a bottomless pit with no exit strategy in view. The spectre
of Vietnam looms. Listening to testimony from the Commander of US Southern
Command, responsible for Hemispheric security, Republican Senator Ted
Stevens of Alaska demanded: "Who's going to go in if this blows up? Tell me
this is not a Vietnam again." "When I go to Colombia, I do not feel a
quagmire sucking at my boots," the general replied. Mr Stevens was

Then, on Wednesday last, New York-based Human Rights Watch announced its
most recent documentation of direct contributions - through active duty
officers, weapons, ammunition and uniforms - by the Colombian army to the
savage paramilitary groups who are accounted responsible for almost 80 per
cent of village massacres.

This documentation of criminal collusion by three army brigades, including
the capital's, with paramilitary atrocities and high-profile death squad
killings a, was highly embarassing to US and Colombian officials. They were
not helped by the Chief of Staff of the Colombian Army, who accused the
prestigious HRW organisation of "conspiring with drug-traffickers to defame
the army".

HRW's information prompted two senators to call for stricter conditions to
stop US aid going to army units linked to paramilitaries. It could
conceivably derail congressional approval altogether. At the least,
according to one Washington insider , "this package is not going to come out
the way it went in".

Maybe the peace negotiators have a breathing space after all. A source close
to the Colombian delegation in Europe said the most significant development
of the trip was the sense of camaraderie, the jokes, the mutual growth of
confidence and understanding between delegates from both sides. This kind of
relationship was crucial to the success of the Oslo talks between the
Israelis and the PLO, and for the South African peace process. It would seem
criminal to waste such an asset.

Two gunmen killed a retired general, a counter-insurgency expert, in La
Vega, 80 km from Bogota, yesterday.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Don Beck