Pubdate: Thu, 07 Jun 2007
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2007 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Patty Reinert, and John Otis, HC Washington Bureau


With Signs That His Country Is Losing Its War On Drugs, Democrats
Plan To Shift Aid Away From Military And Toward Humanitarian Programs

WASHINGTON -- President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, in Washington yet
again to lobby for trade and aid, will be greeted by Democrats
planning a dramatic change in U.S. support for the South American
nation -- away from military and anti-drug efforts and toward
development and human rights projects.

Earlier this week, a House Appropriations subcommittee drafting the
foreign aid budget cut Colombia's overall aid package by 10 percent,
from $590 million to about $530 million.

(The country is expected to get an additional $150 million in purely
military and police assistance through a separate appropriation in the
defense budget bill.)

The biggest change, however, is that now that Democrats control
Congress, they intend to alter the ratio between military and
humanitarian foreign aid to the country.

Instead of allocating close to 80 percent to the Colombian military
and drug-eradication programs, as has been the case for the past
decade, lawmakers are proposing that only 65 percent of the total aid
package go to the military, with the remaining 35 percent designated
as economic and humanitarian aid.

The shift is due in part to mounting evidence that Colombia is losing
its war on drugs, and in part to growing concern on Capitol Hill that
Uribe's government might be tainted by ties to paramilitary death squads.

The full Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on the draft
bill next week.

"I think we can produce the best Plan Colombia ever," said Rep. Sam
Farr, D-Calif., referring to the anti-narcotics program that has cost
the U.S. more than $5 billion since 2000. Farr is an Appropriations
Committee member who served in the Peace Corps in Colombia in the
1960s and has been working to restructure the aid package with more
humanitarian assistance.

Farr said he admires Uribe's determination. The Colombian leader has
visited Washington twice in the past six weeks to lobby for his
country. But the California Democrat warned that "you can wear out
your welcome up here."

At stake is not only the aid package, but a separate free trade
agreement that Congress likely won't take up until late this year or
early next.

Farr said Uribe's message that free trade is good for everyone needs
to be updated.

"That's all we heard throughout the Republican majority (in
Congress)," he said. "Democrats don't buy that message. They want to
see the country we're negotiating with do a lot of self-help."

Adam Isacson, who tracks Colombia aid at the Center for International
Policy in Washington, called the draft aid package "a very significant
change in direction."

"The Democrats have long had concerns about Colombia policy and now
they are able to write the bill," he said.

The Bush administration had requested that 76 percent of the aid to
Colombia go to the police and military next year. But House budget
writers balked, cutting military aid by about $150 million and
increasing economic and humanitarian assistance by $100 million.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who chairs the Appropriations Committee's
State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, which produced the draft
bill, said the idea is to put less emphasis on spraying coca fields
and more emphasis on bringing drug traffickers and other criminals to

According to a summary of the draft bill obtained by the Houston
Chronicle, House Democrats want to increase aid to alternative
development programs by $79 million over the administration's request,
for a total of $218.5 million, and increase funds for judicial reform
and human rights programs by more than $10 million above Bush's request.

Demobilization programs aimed at disarming and prosecuting
paramilitary fighters also would get a boost in funding under the
draft bill, to $23 million, up from the administration's request of
$16 million. That money would ease the pressure on Colombia's
overworked judicial system, which is now dealing with thousands of
cases of paramilitary fighters, many of whom have confessed to
horrendous crimes.

"It will mean more manpower, better databases and laboratories, and
transportation so investigators don't have to take the bus to get to
the sites of massacres," Isacson said.

The shift in funds also would mean that rural development programs
could be expanded to southern Colombia, a guerrilla stronghold that
has in the past been targeted for coca fumigation but no assistance
for farmers interested in developing alternative crops, Isacson said.

Critics of Plan Colombia have long complained that humanitarian aid
programs to help rural communities escape from poverty -- and hence
prevent peasants from growing drugs or joining the guerrillas -- have
been short-changed, while money pumped into the drug war has gone to

This week, the White House reported that coca acreage in Colombia
jumped by 9 percent in 2006. That news follows a 26 percent jump in
coca acreage in 2005.

At present, almost as much coca is grown in Colombia as there was in
2001 when Plan Colombia began. The original goal was to cut coca
acreage in half within five years.

"To insist at this point that more spraying will somehow deter farmers
from replanting is not just unrealistic, it's delusional," said John
Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

"This is a big step in the right direction," said Lisa Haugaard,
executive director of the Latin American Working Group, a coalition of
faith-based and humanitarian policy groups based in Washington. "I
think it's a recognition that U.S. counternarcotics policy in Colombia
has not worked and that the aerial spray program has been far from

But she said the 10 percent overall cut in aid "should not be seen as
a negative for Colombia."

"It's just a re-worked approach," she said.


Reinert reported from Washington; Otis from Bogota, Colombia.
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