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The Ghost of Vietnam Haunts 'Plan Colombia'

August 20, 2000|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc has written extensively about international politics and foreign policy

WASHINGTON — As in Vietnam nearly 40 years ago, the United States has embarked on the phantasmagoric enterprise of destroying the countryside of Colombia in order, supposedly, to save it.

In the 1960s, the mission was called "Search and Destroy." Today, it's Plan Colombia, the objective of which is to eradicate cocaine drug lords, leftist and rightist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary vigilantes, thugs and thousands in between. In Vietnam, the enemy was identified as communists. In Colombia, everyone seems to be a potential enemy.

Congress quietly approved U.S. armed intervention in Colombia last month, complete with at least 60 Black Hawk and Huey-2 helicopter gunships with U.S. crews. U.S. Army Special Forces are already training two Colombian battalions in counterinsurgency. President Bill Clinton is expected to endorse the mission Aug. 30 on a one-day visit to Colombia.

Most Americans seem to have no idea that Plan Colombia threatens to suck the United States into the longest and most brutal civil war in the Western Hemisphere, which has lasted on and off for 160 years. It has never been explained to them, just like Vietnam was never explained at the outset.

In another ghastly reminder of Vietnam, the administration has persuaded Colombia to develop a powerful biological herbicide against coca and heroin poppy fields. It is a fungus known as fusarium oxysporum, derived from the coca plant. Washington's idea is to spread it across hundreds of thousands of acres cultivated for poppies. Nobody appears to know the impact of this fungus on humans, which evokes memories of the Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam that killed and maimed the Viet Cong and Americans alike.

Plan Colombia is the result of the administration's festering frustration over its continuing inability to stem the huge flow of cocaine and heroine produced in Colombia, notwithstanding billions of dollars spent over the years on interdiction and for what passed for cooperation with Colombian authorities. The plan's chief author is the White House drug czar, Gen. Barry M. McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern Command. Congress allocated $1.3 billion to put it into action.

To the extent that it can be understood, the plan calls for the elimination of the guerrillas, no matter their allegiance, who guard the fields, so small aircraft can safely spray the fungus over the poppy plantations. This task is to be carried out by U.S.-trained Colombian counterinsurgency battalions ferried to the poppy fields by U.S. helicopters. Nothing has been said about what would happen should a U.S. chopper be shot down and members of its crew killed or injured.

A complicating factor is that a half-dozen guerrilla wars or conflicts are currently underway in Colombia, making it difficult for McCaffrey to decide whom and where to hit. The most important guerrilla group is the FARC (Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), whose 15,000 troops occupy the southern departments of Putumayo and Caqueta, an area the size of Switzerland, and function as a virtually independent coca-rich state. The FARC's ranks have swelled since the U.S. launched Plan Colombia. The counterinsurgency battalions will have a tough time with the Marxist-Leninist force, as will their U.S. advisors. The Vietnam-era question of how many Americans will be needed to overwhelm the guerrillas will surely arise.

In the north, the ELN (National Liberation Army), a more politically moderate organization, controls its own smaller "mini-country," equally wealthy in coca. It has no more than 5,000 fighters.

Then there are right-wing paramilitary units at war with the guerrillas and local peasants. These units have a frightening human-rights record, but so do the guerrillas. Hardly a day passes in Colombia without dozens slaughtered on all sides. The Colombian army and police have been accused of working quietly with the paramilitary squads, but under Plan Colombia, they are to ensure peace and probity.

It does not require much imagination to conclude that Plan Colombia, as most informed Colombians know, is simply unfeasible. In Brasilia last week, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, on a mission to sell the plan in Latin America, was told that Brazil would have no part of it. Most other Latin American governments feel the same way, leaving Washington isolated in its undertaking.

Perhaps the greatest threat and tragedy facing the U.S. in its Colombian venture is that the plan was developed by men and women who know little of Colombia's history, culture and politics. This, too, is reminiscent of Vietnam, where President John F. Kennedy engaged the U.S. without consulting the handful of officials who actually knew something about Hanoi, Dien Bien Phu, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong.

The shakiness of U.S. knowledge of Colombian history is best illustrated by the widely repeated falsehood that the civil war there has been going on for 40 years. Actually, the first great civil war that would define subsequent ones erupted between the Liberals and the Conservatives in 1840, 21 years after Simon Bolivar won Colombia's independence from Spain. These wars never really stopped, and a key milestone were the savage riots in Bogota, the capital, in 1948, when the leftist liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was murdered.

The civil war--the violencia--continued after 1948, leading to military coups, a restoration of formal democracy and the emergence of large guerrilla forces. What's left of that democracy today is in tatters, and Plan Colombia will clearly not rescue it. It is difficult to "save" a nation about whose history and identity our top Washington policymakers know so little. *

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