House Cuts Military Aid, Increases Social Aid to Colombia

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Our voices are finally being heard on U.S. policy towards Colombia! In June, a new positive direction for Colombia was approved by the full House of Representatives. With all of your calls to Congress, supporters of the old approach did not have the votes to reinstate military aid and turn back the clock. Just a few weeks after the foreign aid bill was approved, House Resolution 426 on the crisis of internal displacement in Colombia passed the full House by voice vote, with many members of Congress giving impassioned speeches in support. In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee has approved an aid package with increased support for human rights, rural development and humanitarian needs. The Latin America Working Group this year brought together diverse groups to present recommendations for the Congress that helped to turn the tide. But these recent victories reflect our all our collective hard work over the past several years to shift aid for war to aid for development and peace.

Since Plan Colombia began, 80 percent of the annual aid package has gone to the security forces, with only 20 percent going towards social and economic programs. By reducing military aid to 55 percent of the aid package, while simultaneously approving over $100 million more in economic and judicial aid than President Bush requested, the House version of the foreign aid bill marks a very significant shift in the U.S. role in Colombia. Aid is increased for rural development and internally displaced persons. Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities are slated to receive $15 million in development aid, to be used in consultation with these communities.

The aid package aims to strengthen respect for human rights by providing judicial
institutions with the resources they need to investigate abuses and collaboration with
paramilitaries, and includes funding for witness protection as well as to increase victims’ access to justice. Human rights conditions would apply to 40 percent, not just 25 percent, of military aid in the bill.

For several years, proponents of Plan Colombia have claimed that aerial spraying would diminish coca cultivation and thus decrease the availability of cocaine on U.S. streets. However, according to the House report accompanying the bill, “…the perennial goal of reducing Colombia’s cultivation, processing and distribution [of coca] to restrict supplies enough to drive up prices and diminish purity has not worked and the drug economy continues to grow—further weakening the fabric of Colombian society.” Given this failure, the House foreign aid bill sensibly reduces funding for spray planes used to fumigate farms and increases aid for small farmers.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has passed its version of the bill, although the bill won’t go to the Senate floor until September. While the Senate version is not as dramatic a change as in the House, it continues a positive direction in aid to Colombia, increasing aid for rural development and manual eradication. It greatly strengthens aid for the rule of law and for victims, including funding to increase victims’ access to justice and to investigate mass graves.

We can’t rest yet! The final version must be passed by the Senate and approved in the House-Senate conference.

These gains were achieved despite unrelenting pressure from the Colombian government, its many highly-paid lobbyists and the Bush Administration to keep military funding in place and to pry loose approval of the pending U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. After an unproductive visit to Washington this spring, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe returned after just a few weeks, vowing to win over the Democratic Congress. LAWG joined with the Washington Office on Latin America, labor and human rights groups to organize a press conference during which members of Congress pointed to the targeted killing of 72 trade unionists last year in explaining their opposition to a trade pact with Colombia. Rep. Phil Hare (D-IL), a new member and former union leader, put his concerns bluntly: “If I had been born in Colombia, there is a strong possibility I would not be here with you today. I could be dead.” Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) underscored the impact of the trade agreement on small farmers: “Many farmers will be forced to choose between leaving their farms for crowded factories or growing lucrative drug crops.” New member Betty Sutton (D-OH) and staunch human rights advocate Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) also spoke. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) delivered the basic message to President Uribe: “He keeps coming back, time and again, because he doesn’t like the message he’s hearing: human rights, human rights, human rights… We want to see real change, real action, not just hear more endless talk.”