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House Increases Aid to Colombia Before Uribe Visit, Senate Freezes Funds Over Human Rights Concerns

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House vote on Colombia drug policy

Last week, the House of Representatives authorized more foreign aid for Colombia in FY07 than in previous years, approving an aid package that even exceeded President Bush's request by $39 million. Members voted down an amendment to the foreign aid bill which would have transferred $30 million from failed aerial drug spraying efforts in Colombia to emergency relief aid for refugees worldwide. The Colombian military carries out the country's aerial fumigation programs, and while the amendment would have transferred only a relatively small portion of the overall aid package to Colombia, the debate sent a message to the Colombian government that U.S. aid cannot be taken for granted, and that we demand accountability from the recipients of U.S. funds. The House amendment was struck down by a vote of 174-229.

The vote on the House amendment was preceded by an intense, hour-long debate on the House floor. Members of Congress in favor of the amendment laid out strong arguments on the ineffectiveness of drug policy and spoke adamantly about human rights problems in Colombia. They insisted that the United States should not give Colombia a blank check.

The heated debate in the Capitol was led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the initial sponsor of the legislation, who spoke passionately about our approach to Colombia in recent years. "[Drug policy] has been a miserable failure," he stated, "and the Colombian military continues to commit heinous acts with impunity." Rep. McGovern cited grave human rights abuses by the Colombian military, including the recent massacre of an entire anti-narcotics police unit. "We're not a cheap date that you can take advantage of," said Mr. McGovern. "…We're watching and we demand accountability." Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services C ommittee, reinforced the idea. "This amendment, which I support, shows Colombia that assistance is not unlimited and should not go unchecked." Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA), a co-sponsor of the amendment, voiced his overall concern about the U.S. role in Colombia's internal conflict. "I don't support the amendment out of a conviction it is an answer to a real dilemma between both the Colombian and American people, but out of a belief that a military emphasis of this kind carries many counterproductive consequences."

Representatives also focused on the total lack of success of the drug policy. Rep. Leach mentioned that "[t]he priority debate today is not about whether stemming the drug trade is appropriate, but the methodology of going about it." The opposition insisted that hundreds of thousands of hectares of coca have been sprayed during Plan Colombia, to which Rep. McGovern rebutted, "[y]es, eradication has dramatically increased, but it has changed nothing." Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) agreed, asserting that alternative development programs for small far mers are far more effective than aerial spraying. "You can't wipe out a crop by bombing it."

Few amendments to the foreign aid bill, which determines U.S. assistance worldwide, received as much attention as did this one. The U.S. approach to Colombia policy, which has undergone little change since the inception of Plan Colombia in 1999, continues to be contentious among legislators. The vote on this amendment occurred on a Friday when some members of Congress travel back to their districts, which could explain the nearly 30 representatives who were absent for the vote. Although the number of votes in favor of the amendment was 174, slightly lower than in past years, the same percentage of representatives voted for a change in policy toward Colombia.

We owe a special thank you to the cosponsors to the Colombia amendment: Representatives McGovern, Leach, Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Donald Payne (D-NJ), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Barbara Lee (D-CA). We are particularly grateful of Rep. McGovern's relentless dedication to this issue. Thanks also to Reps. Skelton and Dave Obey (D-WI) for making strong statements during the debate, and to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for her active support of the amendment. We are very appreciative of Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) as well, the top Democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee, who helped to ensure an extra $10 million in economic aid to Colombia, in response to our concerns of the need to help victims of the conflict.

Other amendments to the foreign aid bill affecting Latin America

Representatives in the House also voted on an amendment to the foreign aid bill to cut funds for the School the Americas/ WHINSEC, a U.S. training facility for Latin American military. A number of graduates of the institution have been implicated in mass murders and other grave human rights violations in Latin America in recent decades. The amendment lost by 188-218 but generated a strong debate. "Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been victims of School of the Americas graduates," stated Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). Congresswoman Barbara Lee echoed the sentiment, saying that "a positive step to improve relations with Latin America would be to simply eliminate this institute."

In a similar vein, Reps. Leach and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) offered an amendment to transfer $250 million from the Foreign Military Financing account to the Development Assistance account. Funds would have supported investments to reduce severe poverty around the world including for increased access to clean water. "[T] he American people overwhelmingly support these investments to fight against global poverty," said Rep. Blumenauer. "Recently, the Program on International Assistance Policy Attitudes found that 65 percent of the American public would support significant increases in U.S. assistance to fight poverty and disease."

Senate freezes aid to Colombian military

While the House approved increased aid for Colombia in the coming year, the Senate decided in the same week to put a temporary hold on a portion of this year's military assistance to Colombia. The decision was influenced by growing concerns of the human rights' record of the Colombian military, including the massacre of the anti-narcotics police unit just weeks ago.

Supplemental aid for helicopters in Colombia cut in half

The House approved in March an amendment to the Iraq Supplemental spending bill to provide Colombia's armed forces with an additional $26 million. Yet in the final version of the bill this aid was cut down to $13 million. The original amendment, proposed Rep. Burton (IN), indicated that the funds were to be used to purchase new spray planes and helicopters from U.S. companies for drug interdiction efforts. These funds add to the nearly $700 million that Colombian military and police forces receive each year from the United States. Read more on Rep. Burton's amendment at: https://www.lawg.org/countries/colombia/house-mixed_signals.htm.

President Uribe visits Washington; State Department releases military aid in wake of Uribe's reelection

The Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe met with various members of Congress and with President Bush last week in a trip to Washington, D.C. The visit came on the heels of President Uribe's reelection on May 28, which was immediately followed by a State Department decision to release millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Colombia's military. The assistance was released through the human rights certification process, which occurs twice a year and requires the State Department to determine whether or not Colombian security forces are meeting human rights standards. Yet relatively little progress has been made on many cases of abuse by the Colombian military.