Sanho Tree is a Fellow and Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. The project works to end the domestic and international "War on Drugs" as well as find feasible economic alternatives to the illicit drug economy.
He was brought to Syracuse in March by the CNY Colombia Support Network to speak on United States' drug policy, and stayed with Doris and Dan Sage. They interviewed him at their home. This is the second part of the interview; the first part was published in the May Peace Newsletter.
Why do you think the US is so interested in Colombia? Is it oil or the war on drugs, or are there other reasons?
A lot of activists ask me, "What is the real reason we are in Colombia?" I explain that there is no one reason. It's a confluence of interests, and sometimes those interests work against each other. As important as oil is, even if not a drop of oil existed in Colombia the United States would still be involved in the conflict, either through the drug war or through counterinsurgency. Occidental Petroleum has hundreds of miles of pipeline that keep getting blown up. They want military aid from the US to protect their pipeline. There are companies that are exploring in southern Colombia and in other places that don't have infrastructure in place. There is no way they will build infrastructure until this war is settled. Since there is no military solution to this war, they cannot extract their profits unless there is an absence of violence (I hesitate to use the word peace). One guerilla and a box of dynamite can blow up the pipelines over and over again. So, just to say this is a war about oil is simplistic, although it is an important factor.
It is not just about drugs either. Our military effort in Colombia is our least productive form of drug control. But, politically it's very powerful, and our government is able to sell this policy as an effective means of fighting the drug war. One thing I have learned in doing military and diplomatic history is that government is not a monolith. There is infighting that goes on among the various agencies. It came as a surprise to me to learn that the Pentagon doesn't like getting involved in anti-drug efforts. I talk to military audiences many times a year, but aside from the Southern Command that has jurisdiction for all of Latin America, the military doesn't like the drug war. They know it's a war they cannot win. It's not a traditional military function.
Peace-keeping and counter-narcotics, in the military, are known as career killers, since these are not military problems and there is no victory to be had. They don't want to get blamed for the defeat. They learned their lesson in Viet Nam. Donald Rumsfeld, in his confirmation hearing, put it very plainly: "The drug war is going to be won by our families, our churches, our schools, our doctors, since as long as there is a demand there will be a supply, and you cannot solve that with a military solution." Secretary of State Colin Powell, although he publicly agrees with the administration's policy on aid to Colombia, is the author of the Powell Doctrine, tailor-made for a situation like Colombia. He wrote it in response to the lessons he learned in Viet Nam and in the Gulf War. He said you never commit military resources unless you have a clear national resolve, widespread support, and a clear exit strategy. Then you commit overwhelming military force. If you are going to commit our military, you don't do it piecemeal, and you don't do it by mission creep. You do it quickly and efficiently. So, I don't believe Powell believes in the use of the military in Colombia as part of our drug war strategy. He understands the role of poverty, alienation, despair, and hopelessness that fuels a lot of drug addiction, and he believes those situations cannot be solved with military action.
What about people like us, people in the grass roots, with whom you interact as much as you can_what could we be doing, in relation to Colombia particularly, in a way that might offset what Pentagon dollars are doing?
I think activists have more power than they realize at the grass roots level. I remember my own education in this. I got politicized during the '80s through the wars in Central America. Back then I thought myself too radical and too cynical to get involved in legislative issues, so I did a lot of protests and a lot of vigils. But I didn't do the one thing that really needed to be done, which is to stop the money from being appropriated. To do that you need to look at the legislative process, because once the money is approved, the "dogs of war are loosed." Then all you can do is protest, and that doesn't save a lot of lives. So, I work with congressional staff and I talk with them about how the decision- making process works, what kind of influence do they respond to. What their bosses want to know is "What is the feeling in the district?" They want to know what the local people and local media are saying. They learn what their people are thinking by a process of extrapolation.
For every constituent who takes the time to set up a meeting with a staff person at either their district office or in Washington, they think, "Maybe there are a thousand people in the district who think that way about the issue." If someone takes the time to write a letter, maybe there are 500 people. If you make a phone call, maybe there are 250 people who care about it. If you forward them an email, they think maybe there are 2 people. (Don't bother with email). Do things like bring coalitions together to meet with congressional staff: clergy, people who represent membership organizations, who communicate with lots of other people about the issue. Two dozen calls in a district may be enough to swing a member's vote, because you have to realize that maybe no one is calling on the other side.
A Colombian journalist asked me "When are 51 percent of the American people going to get fed up with this war and say enough?" I told him it's not about 51 percent_it never has been. Look at the most effective lobbies. They have active memberships. The NRA, the AARP, the Cuban American National Foundation, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Audubon Society are all small segments of the population but they wield tremendous power in Washington. No member of Congress wants to cross them without good reason, because they will activate their membership, and their membership is very disciplined. They have taken the time to educate themselves as to why the issue is
On May 14, the House of Representatives Appropriation Committee passed the Emergency Supplemental Appropriation Bill, which contains additional funds for Colombia.
Concerns regarding human rights and controls on fumigation remain in the bill. The original Colombian aid bill as well as the Emergency Supplemental Aid Bill insist on the following human rights provisions: the military must be vetted of officers with poor human rights records, the military must cooperate with civilian prosecutors, and the military must sever its ties with paramilitary groups. Note however that the human rights situation in Colombia has deteriorated since the original aid bill went into effect.
The section in the original and in the supplemental bill concerning fumigation of coca crops calls on the US State Department to submit a yearly report to Congress on the environmental impact of the fumigation. The supplemental aid bill provides six million dollars of initial funding for a Colombian military force to protect the Occidental Oil Company pipeline from the insurgents. Unfortunately, the bill expands the use of the funds so they can be used in the war against the insurgents. This is a major escalation of American involvement in Colombia; we will now be involved directly in the civil war which has been raging for over 40 years.
The Emergency Supplemental Aid bill passed the House of Representatives on May 24. Amendments to eliminate funding for oil pipeline protection and to prevent aid for expansion of the fight against the insurgents failed. The Senate's version of the bill will be voted on the week of June 3. Call Senators Schumer (202-224-6542) and Clinton (202-224-4451), and request them to vote against this bill.
You are invited to join the CNY Colombia Support Network. Meetings are on the second Wednesday of the month, 7:15 pm, at Plymouth Congregational Church. For more information, call Ann Tiffany at 478-4571.