"Are you an American?" A woman with sable hair smoothed back from her pointed, little face peered at me accusingly from above. Somewhat taken aback by her piercing eyes and aggressive stance, I remained silent, pressed against the back of my plastic chair. As if reaching an irrevocable decision, she sighed and said again, "You are an American."
Feeling incredibly groggy from the early morning humidity of the Peruvian jungle, the last thing I expected in the midst of a tiny airport filled with otherwise non-English speaking travelers was an attack by a Latina woman fluent in English and insults. Earlier in the morning, as she talked vehemently in French to a rather sallow-looking artiste, her extreme poise had pleasantly invaded my stupor. Placing her immaculately dressed self to my left, she leaned over the arm of my chair, swept her eyes vertically down my mud splattered clothing and inspected my face solemnly. Finally, I attested to the fact that I was indeed a citizen of the United States.
She sat back in her chair, satisfied with her cultural assessment and continued to speak to me in perfect English. "I am Colombian," she began. "What do you think about American intervention in my country?"
Feeling pressured to spew out something mildly intellectual, I stuttered some nonsense recently co-opted from the BBC World Service. I knew that the United States had an interest in fighting an overseas drug war, and, on the surface, that didn't seem objectionable. What I quickly gleaned, however, was radically different; U.S. intervention involved two things: money and military. Just two weeks ago, President Clinton renewed the U.S. commitment to Colombian anti-drug efforts by delivering $1.3 billion in aid for the purchase of military equipment and counter-drug training. House leaders are currently considering whether to approve an additional $99.5 million to purchase more aircraft, ammunition and other equipment for the Colombian police. And, as the woman began to explain, this kind of military spending by the U.S. contributes to a political situation beyond her worst nightmares.
"Six of my relatives have been kidnapped in the last ten years," the woman said to me. She told me of the terror of living in Colombia under the rule of a president that entirely kowtowed to the demands of a much powerful nation--the omnipotent United States. Her reasons for travelling in Peru were simple; she wanted to see the beauty of South America, but could not travel within her own country due to the control of various guerilla factions and paramilitary groups. Though Colombia boasts incredible natural attractions along its northern coast and within the forests of its central highlands, the farming areas are almost entirely controlled by the so-called "narcos."
Growing the coca plant is not necessarily the choice of the campesino farmers in Colombia; contrary to the hard-lined beliefs of the U.S., farmers are often forced to change their food crops to the incredibly lucrative yield of soon-to-be cocaine. Guerilla groups have complete control over the Colombian farmland and can easily hold a gun to the head of a powerless campesino, demanding that he grow the volatile crop. Besides the violent threats of the guerillas, many campesinos have no practical option but to grow coca, for they are among the poorest people in the world. Living in makeshift shacks lacking running water and electricity, the majority are undereducated and depend completely on the tiny amounts of money created from their harvests. Without a government to protect their welfare, the fight to survive and feed their own families inevitably leads to falling under the power of the guerillas. It is an unwanted, yet inevitable, event.
The plight of the Colombian campesinos, their extreme poverty and social immobility, does not appear to affect the plans of the United States government. The chairs of the House Government Reform Committee and the International Relations Committee have been ardent supporters of the military-style tactics of Colombian anti-drug units, tactics that include widespread aerial fumigation of drug crops. And so, when starving children and destitute farmers see an approaching UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, they do not praise their savior. Crop dusting might destroy one batch of drugs, but it obliterates the lifestyle of ordinary people struggling to survive.
The U.S., in tossing $1.3 billion at Colombia, employs almost solely military tactics. By attacking the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerilla group with Marxist underpinnings dwelling in central Colombia since the 1960s, the U.S. somehow believes that inexperienced Colombian troops can battle with the guerillas on the coca fields until they destroy a means of production.
But by ignoring some of the integral humanitarian issues and instead focusing on violent, lethal means to a successful defeat of the guerillas and paramilitary groups, the U.S. demonstrates its complete neglect of human need. Even though children are tortured, 300,000 people are forced from their homes per year and there are an average of 10 political killings a day, the U.S. administration does not view the Colombian situation as a humanitarian crisis. To the U.S., the only statistic that matters is that 90 percent of cocaine in the U.S. comes from Colombia. Drugs are the name of the game; human need is a moot point.
The revolutionary groups in Colombia deny actual participation in the drug trade; rather, they insist on collecting "taxes" from the drug lords in pursuit of a greater goal: to fight and overthrow the government, eventually winning a redistribution of wealth among the country. These so-called taxes are not only collected from the narcotics handlers, but also from some of the wealthier Colombian citizens in the form of ransom. By kidnapping a child or relative from a prominent clan, the guerillas can negotiate huge funds in return. However, these intricate problems do not appear to be taken into account by the U.S. plan.
By attacking the actual level of production of the coca crops, the U.S. believes that the problem of narco-trafficking will be alleviated. Their gift of arms and money to the Colombian government will certainly fuel the violence among the many insurgent groups and the official Colombian army. By training Colombian troops to fight guerrillas in a mountainous, desolate region, unfamiliar to most officials, anger and violence will simply heighten to the point of crisis. The losers in this situation are neither the U.S., the Colombian military or the guerillas; the helpless people, simply praying to survive in a land ripped apart by fury and injustice.
Sitting in the Peruvian airport, listening to the avid beliefs of one, intrepid Colombian woman, I was embarrassed to admit my own nation advocated ruthless military aid as a "solution" to a much more complicated problem of poverty and political beliefs. Rather than attacking the narco-traffickers, drug lords and guerillas, the United States' policy will jeopardize the lives of thousands of already impoverished and entirely innocent people.
Frances G. Tilney '02, a Crimson executive, is a history and literature concentrator in Mather House. She was a researcher/writer in Peru this summer for Let's Go Publications.