Columbia and Vietnam

27 Sep 2000

Columbia and Vietnam

By Gwynne Dyer

It is customary, when Washington says “Jump,” for British governments to ask “How high?” When they don’t jump, their failure to comply should be treated with the same alarm as when one of the old “pit canaries,” kept in coal mines to detect the build-up of carbon monoxide, topples quietly off its perch.

The last time a British government resisted Washington’s demands to sign up for some foredoomed American enterprise in the Third World was in the 1960s, when former Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to commit British troops to Vietnam. He was right, of course, but it is still remarkable that current Prime Minister Tony Blair is showing such resistance to letting Britain get drawn into Washington’s adventure in Colombia.

Mr. Blair has refused to buy into “Plan Columbia.” Recently, he let a senior minister in his government condemn the U.S. plan.

British Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam, was scathing about U.S. President Bill Clinton’s recent decision to waive Congressional human rights conditions and hand over $1.3 billion to Colombia anyway. European countries, she said, were refusing “across the board” to send aid that would be used for the military suppression of the drug trade until the Colombian military forces ended their human rights abuses.

The first target of Plan Colombia’s helicopter-borne assault troops will be the region of Putumayo in southern Colombia, right next to Peru and Ecuador. So that’s where the refugees will go, that’s where FARC will retreat to — and that’s where the drug-producers will move their coca plantations. Next on the list will be Venezuela, once Plan Colombia turns its attention to the coca plantations of Norte de Santander.

From the point of view of ordinary Colombians, Plan Colombia is likely to end the hope of a negotiated peace after almost 40 years of civil war.

From the point of view of Colombia’s neighbors, it will give them a huge refugee problem, and may move the fighting onto their territory.

Worse, it will shift the mafias who control large-scale cocaine production onto their territories, thus corrupting their societies and destabilizing their governments as Colombia has already been corrupted and destabilized.

And from the U.S. view, it offers the distant but plausible possibility that Colombia could turn into the next Vietnam. What it does not do is offer any prospect of halting or even slowing the flow of cocaine to the vastly lucrative American domestic market which is the foundation of the whole industry. That won’t happen so long as the market is there: If they mash southern Colombia, the coca plantations will just move next door.

There is an alternative approach. Colombian Congressman Julio Angel Restrepo raised it this week in Ottawa, when he asked that the question of legalizing narcotic drugs be put on the agenda of a new forum of North and South American countries whose inaugural meeting takes place in Canada next year.

“We believe the time has come to broach this subject,” said Mr. Angel Restrepo, pointing out that the old, failed approach was about to destroy his country without doing anything to alleviate the drug habits of American consumers. He’s quite right, but several more countries will probably have to be destroyed before American politicians are willing to consider ending drug prohibition.

In the context of U.S. domestic politics, this does not matter very much so long as the United States is not harmed. The odds are that the destruction of Colombia will not entail any such costs for the United States, but nothing is certain in these matters. It never occurred to Jack Kennedy, you will recall, that his carefully limited offer of US “advisers,” weapons, and money to Vietnam could ever escalate into a commitment of over half a million troops.

He was safely dead for several years before it happened. And whatever happens in Colombia, President Clinton will be safely out of office for several years before we know about that, too.