Passionate Debate in House Over Impunity and Amendment to Cut Military Aid to Colombia

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On Wednesday, July 23, the US House of Representatives debated the 2004 foreign aid bill, which includes a large package of military and police assistance for Colombia and the Andean region. The aid package contains $731 million for the Andean Counter-Drug Initiative (ACI), of which $456 million is for Colombia. The package also allocates $110 million to Colombia for the training and equipping of a brigade which will guard the Caño-Limón oil pipeline, which is owned in part by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. The total amount of aid for Colombia in the 2004 foreign aid bill comes to over $560 million.

An amendment was offered to the bill by Reps. McGovern (D-MA) and Skelton (D-MO) which would have cut a portion of Colombia's military aid for 2004 and transferred the money to global HIV/AIDS programs. While the amendment lost by a vote of 195-226, the strong debate preceding it made it clear that Colombia policy continues to be one of the most contentious US foreign policy issues in Congress.

Nine members of Congress spoke on the floor in support of the amendment: Reps. McGovern (D-MA), Skelton (D-MO), Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Schakowsky (D-IL), Obey (D-WI), Kucinich (D-OH), Lowey (D-NY), and DeLauro (D-CT). The members raised serious concerns over the ties between the armed forces and the paramilitaries; the ineffectiveness of US anti-drug policy and fumigation, and the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from fumigation with a lack of alternative development; the continued availability of drugs on US streets; and human rights and impunity concerns surrounding the paramilitary peace process. They also talked about the risky mission creep of US policy and lack of endgame strategy.

An article that ran in Colombia's major newspaper the following morning summarized the message: "For the majority of Democrats, the cut [in military aid] was fully justified; the United States should not continue supporting a military that collaborates with paramilitary groups their own State Department considers terrorists." Although the amendment did not win, the debate sent a clear message that Congress was gravely concerned about Colombia's failure to reform.

Five members of Congress spoke against the amendment, including Reps. Kolbe (R-AZ), Mica (R-FL), Ballenger (R-NC), and Souder (R-IN). Rep. Delahunt (D-MA) also spoke against the amendment. He argued that it was not the right moment to reduce aid given that the Colombian government was engaging in peace talks with the paramilitaries. Rep. McGovern then rebutted, raising strong points about impunity and the risk of paramilitaries infiltrating the peasant soldiers program.