KAI RYSSDAL: President Bush has a couple more stops left on his swing through South America. He’s working his way north through Uruguay tomorrow. Then a very quick stop in Colombia on Saturday. The president will only be on the ground for about seven hours. Not long when you consider the amount of U.S. foreign aid Bogota gets. Adam Isaacson’s a Latin America analyst with the Center for International Policy in Washington. Adam, welcome to the program.
ADAM ISAACSON: Thank you for having me.
RYSSDAL: You know, Colombia’s the biggest recipient of foreign aid from the United States outside the Middle East and Afghanistan. How much is it, and where is that money going?
ISAACSON: Well, we’re talking about $750 million a year. Really, every year since 2000. We’re up to $5.4 billion since Playing Colombia — is what the aid is called — began in 2000. And, about 80 percent of that money over the years has gone to military things — either aid for military offensives or for the police or for drug interdiction, and for this program of fumigation or herbicide spraying from aircraft that the United States has operated there for about 13 years.
RYSSDAL: You know, you pointed out it’s been $5 billion since the year 2000. Do you think now that Colombian aid’s going to get more scrutiny, because the Democrats are in control of Congress? And could that be a problem for the president?
ISAACSON: Colombian aid is going to get enormous amounts of scrutiny now. What Democrats in Congress are telling me is that “We consider everything to be under review right now.” This kind of expenditure probably could have been more easily justified had there been some change in the price or availability of cocaine and heroine on U.S. streets. But we haven’t seen it. And key members of Congress are wondering what’s going on. And here they come looking at this aid program that for the last seven years has had a 80 percent military focus and a lot of members of Congress are talking openly about wanting to shift the priority away from the military towards rural development so that people don’t have as much of an incentive to grow coca. Strengthening Colombia’s judicial system, which is in such bad shape that 97 percent of murders don’t even get solved or punished. So, yeah, I think that there’s going to be a pretty big debate on this this year. And some of the people on the key committees in the Congress now are some of the people that have been the most vociferous critics of the policy.
RYSSDAL: President Aribe’s got some political problems at home, too. His government’s been linked to paramilitary groups, and some abuses. I imagine that only adds to his troubles.
ISAACSON: There’s obviously not a whole heckuva lot of members of Congress who pay close attention to Colombia. Must of Congress thinks Colombia is spelled with a U, probably. But those who are, they’ve been seeing all the reports from human rights groups in the U.S. and Colombia over the years that have said there’s a very close relationship with a lot of Colombia’s elite and a lot of Colombia’s government and military with these right-wing, drug-funded death squads who’ve killed tens of thousands of people. And now you’ve got this scandal. And, boy, that’s gonna have an impact when it comes time to sell both the aid package and the free trade agreement that’s been signed with Colombia and is now awaiting ratification in the U.S. Congress.
RYSSDAL: Do you think that trade deal’s in trouble?
ISAACSON: That trade deal’s in humongous trouble. You remember the Central America Free Trade Agreement last June passed by one vote in a Republican-majority Congress with only 15 Democrats voting for it in the House. Now you’ve got 30-something more Democrats and you’ve got a lot of concern about labor rights in Colombia, where something like 80 or 90 percent of all union leaders killed in the world are killed in Colombia. And though the numbers have gone down to, oh, gee, only about 60 or 70 labor leaders killed a year, the vast majority — almost . . . all but a handful of these killings are ever solved or ever punished.
RYSSDAL: Here’s kind of a fundamental question. Is Colombia a key U.S. ally in the region because it’s the biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid outside the Middle East and Afghanistan — $5 billion? Or is it the biggest recipient of foreign aid outside the Middle East because it’s actually a key strategic ally?
ISAACSON: Colombia is a close U.S. ally, well, first of all because they are willing to accept this kind of aid and share the priorities we have set for our aid and our programs there which are not necessarily the priorities that Colombia would choose. The aid and the alliance become sort of self-fulfilling but, of course, it’s also helped along by the fact that you have right next door to our closest ally you have our furthest adversary in the region, which is Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. It’s almost like there’s a mini Cold War going on. You remember in the Cold War when the Soviet Union was trying to find its friends all over the developing world and we were trying to make our friends all over the developing world, and you certainly see it right now with Bush and Chavez taking these parallel trips around the region at the same time.
RYSSDAL: Adam, thanks a lot.
ISAACSON: Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
RYSSDAL: Adam Isaacson is the director of programs at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.
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