Pubdate: Mon, 17 Apr 2000
Source: The Times-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 1998 Times Herald
Contact: (letters to the)  PO Box 1052 Newnan, GA 30264
Telephone; (707) 253-1576
Author: U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell


The current oil crisis has revived America's appreciation for our
strategic relationships in the Middle East and why the United States
came to their defense in the Persian Gulf War -- half a world away. To
me, there is an indisputable parallel to the current situation in our
own backyard: the crisis in Colombia.

A decade ago, the United States went to war with a powerful enemy
partly to stabilize a major oil producing region. We worried that Iraq
would attack Saudi Arabia, one of the United States' largest oil
suppliers and ally. Where is that same concern with Colombia today?
The current destabilization of Colombia directly affects bordering
Venezuela, now generally regarded as our largest oil supplier. The oil
picture in Latin America is similar to that of the Middle East, except
that Colombia actually provides us more oil today than Kuwait did
then. This crisis, like Kuwait, threatens to spill over into many
nations, all of whom are allies.

But momentum in Congress to help Colombia has stalled, and it is hard
to understand why. Colombia is an undeniable national security
emergency for our country.

The political and economic breakdown in Colombia is fueled by the
rising narcotics threat in the region. Colombia is fighting for
survival against a powerful rebel insurgency bankrolled by the illicit
drug business. Estimates are that the guerrillas rake in $1 billion
annually from drugs. The result is a well-funded, well-armed rebel
army which threatens the state's authority.

These left-wing guerrillas now control almost 40 percent of Colombia's
territory and their violence has reached the outskirts of Bogota. The
drug-fueled violence has taken its toll, claiming over 35,000 lives in
the last decade. Numbers of displaced Colombians approach the levels
we saw in Kosovo at its height -- over 800,000 since 1995. And,
Colombia is now home to one-third of all acts of terrorism worldwide,
with 2,663 kidnappings in 1999 alone. The future of Latin America's
oldest democracy is at stake.

The conflict is spreading. Colombian guerrillas move freely across the
border into Panama, a country with no standing army. Just recently,
FARC rebels overran a Colombian military base just 15 miles from the
Panamanian border, killing over 40 Colombian law enforcement officials
and soldiers. Such military brazenness heightens the fear that Panama
will not be able to defend itself or the Canal. Peru, Venezuela and
Ecuador have all moved troops to their borders with Colombia due to
increased incursions into their nations by Colombia's guerrillas.

Regional instability not only threatens a large source of U.S. oil
(our Hemisphere provides about half of our total oil imports), it
fuels a steady flow of drugs onto our streets. Colombia now supplies
80 percent of the cocaine and 60 percent of the heroin consumed in the
United States. Narcotics represent the most immediate and deadly
threat we face in the hemisphere, causing 52,000 deaths per year and
costing an estimated $110 billion annually. As the situation
deteriorates, Colombians are fleeing their country in droves: hundreds
of thousands of Colombians have fled the country in the last four
years and visa applications to the United States tripled last year

Let me restate the crisis: we import as much oil from this Hemisphere
as we do from the Middle East; more Colombians than Kosovars have been
forced to flee their homes; 35,000 Colombians are dead. That's why the
situation demands our immediate attention.

Last fall, Senators DeWine, Grassley and I introduced a $1.6 billion
aid package to address the situation in Colombia. It is a balanced
approach which mirrors President Pastrana's blueprint for stability.
Our plan strengthens counter-narcotic efforts by assisting military
and law enforcement agencies, while promoting respect for human rights
and judicial integrity. After years of neglect, the Clinton
Administration was forced to put forward a similar proposal.

Congress is considering this aid package as part of a larger emergency
spending bill. But this legislation has stalled due to concerns over
its growing price tag from matters unrelated to Colombia. While I
share these same budget concerns, I believe that the situation in
Colombia is a clear emergency and must be dealt with urgently.
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MAP posted-by: Allan Wilkinson