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Clinton's Massacre

by Alexander Cockburn

While villagers were begging for their lives, Clinton was putting spurs to "Plan Colombia"
What else did Bill Clinton do in those final hours of his presidency? Let's see, he gave Teddy Roosevelt the Medal of Honor and boasted in the accompanying speech on Jan. 16 that in 1993 he'd broken with the usual policy of incoming Democratic presidents who would pull the portrait of T.R. off the wall above the mantelpiece in the White House's Roosevelt Room and put up Franklin D. Roosevelt's portrait instead. Then the incoming Republican Commander-in-Chief would reverse the process. Not our Bill. He kept T.R. up on the wall, triangulating right from the start.

On Jan. 16, Bill said it was high time to give T.R. the medal for which he had been recommended right after the charge up San Juan Hill. Exit Bill, enter the new team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who now has a chance to live up to those fine words of his to the Republicans massed in Philadelphia for their convention last August. Powell told the plump delegates they should not forget the poor and the afflicted.

How might Powell distinguish himself from his predecessor, Madeleine Albright? The latter's final act in office was, with the approval of Clinton, to insist that a slab of U.S. military aid to Colombia not be held up out of any pettifogging concerns for human rights. The Colombian military and its death squads have a documented record for bestial carnage unrivaled in the entire world. So, in admiration for this preeminence, last August, Clinton waived four of the five human rights criteria laid out by Congress to release the first chunk of $781.5 million. A certification or waiver was also required for the second installment of $56.4 million. While conceding that the record of the Colombian military was not all that it could be, the Clinton administration nonetheless decided that because the second slice of aid was not included in "regular funds" but rather in an emergency spending bill, the certification and waiver process did not apply.

On Jan. 17, the day after Bill honored the imperialist hero of the Spanish-American War, and when Albright and the others were still chortling at their ingenuity in circumventing the human rights provisions, the BBC's correspondent in Bogota, Colombia, Jeremy McDermott, reported that "alleged right-wing paramilitaries" had attacked a village on Colombia's northwest coast, killing 25 people. "Fifty men in military uniform arrived in Chengue, Colombia, in the early hours of the morning," McDermott told his audience. "They rounded up 25 men whom they accused of being guerrilla sympathizers and hacked them to death with machetes. They then set fire to 30 houses of this village in the northern province of Sucre, [Colombia]." McDermott added that the massacre had all the hallmarks of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary army of 8,000 fighters "deeply involved in the drug trade."

For months the inhabitants of Chengue, Colombia, had a pretty good idea of what might lie in store for them. On Oct. 6 they wrote a letter to Colombian President Andres Pastrana, detailing the threat of violence and human rights abuses that the people of the Municipal de Ovejas feel could occur at any moment on the part of paramilitary groups operating in the region. The terrified townsfolk urged Pastrana to do something "to avoid a massacre," explaining that the government's presence was minimal in the area and that the people live in "anguish and tension" because of the documented barbarism. Attached to the letter were the signatures of 99 residents of the town.

While the villagers were appealing to Pastrana to save their lives, the Clinton administration was putting spurs to "Plan Colombia," a strategy straight off the Pentagon's Vietnam and Central American drawing board. Beefed up by U.S. training, "advisers," and arms and intelligence, the Colombian military has been planning to overwhelm guerrilla bases in southern Colombia, simultaneously poisoning the coca and poppy fields, which are the peasants' only resource, the option of legal crops long since sabotaged by U.S. economic policies. Pretenses that the Clinton administration is strongly supportive of a peaceful solution to Colombia's troubles have become increasingly ludicrous, as dollars and kindred practical support for the Colombian military and its death squads have flooded in from Washington to Bogota, Colombia.

As a man who helped cover up the My Lai massacre, Powell knows all about such campaigns of pacification. And since he's not dumb, he knows that Plan Colombia will merely augment that country's misery, which has more than half its population below poverty level, internal refugees by the millions and no prospects for improvement. He knows, too, that "drug interdiction," partly the official U.S. rationale for Plan Colombia, is a farce. He knows where the $1.3 billion should have gone: into the drug education and rehab programs here in the United States. The Clinton administration and its Republican allies successfully beat back an effort by Senator Paul Wellstone to get about $225 million of the package reserved to that end.

What's the chance of Powell pressing for a different approach in Colombia? Zero, I'd say. But at least once we should remind him of his rhetoric in Philadelphia, just as we should remind Bush at least once of his eloquent inaugural speech about helping the poor. Why collude with these folks in their degradation of language and morals?

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor February 5, 2001 (

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