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Published on Wednesday, March 29, 2000 by Working Assets
You say Pastrana, I say Duarte
by Dennis Hans

Thoughtful liberal critics of the proposed $1.6 billion aid package for Colombia, including academics William LeoGrande and Kenneth Sharpe (Los Angeles Times, March 19) and former diplomat Robert White (Washington Post, Sept. 12 and Feb. 8), have likened Colombia to El Salvador in the 1980s, where the U.S.-backed army and security forces killed perhaps 60,000 civilian noncombatants during a decade of civil war. But the critics are doomed to fail if they continue to give a free pass to the civilian front man who so skillfully undercuts their efforts.

Liberals see their government again siding with an abusive army that collaborates with death squads in a "Dirty War" against opposition politicians, labor agitators, peasant organizers and human rights investigators. In the 1990s, Colombia's civil war claimed some 35,000 civilians, perhaps 75 percent killed by the government and its paramilitary allies, the other 25 percent by left-wing guerrillas. The war likely will escalate if Congress approves the aid, as 85 percent is earmarked for aircraft, arms and training for Colombia's army and police.

Now, as then, many liberals say, "There is no military solution. Let us support instead the moderate civilian government of Andres Pastrana (Jose Napoleon Duarte) and his peace efforts, economic (land) reforms and commitment to human rights."

The problem in the 1980s was that Duarte had sided with the army and the Reagan administration, both of which were committed to intensifying the war.

When a liberal senator opposed to a military solution would say, "Let's support Duarte, moderation and peace," an interventionist would respond, "With all due respect to my esteemed, dim-witted colleague, Duarte is begging us to increase military aid - and detach all human-rights strings. He says he will personally guarantee the aid won't be used to abuse civilians, and who are we to question the intentions and integrity of this brave democrat who himself survived torture by the army he now champions? What more proof do you need that this is a changed army?"

Liberals had no answer; they lost every vote. But they weren't the big losers. No, that distinction belonged to 60,000 Salvadoran civilians.

Today, Pastrana is not on the side of White, Sharpe and LeoGrande. He is on the side of Clinton, McCaffrey, Dan Burton and the Colombian armed forces. Liberal foes of escalation need to focus on Pastrana's actions and, when the chips are down, his public statements.

Whatever his intentions were when he was elected in 1998, Pastrana has clearly hitched his wagon to the U.S. counterinsurgency project. He is its most effective spokesman: charming, articulate, and literally disarming. He has neutralized those members of Congress who are wary of the hawkish drug czar and who instinctively oppose anything the lunatic Republican right supports.

Liberals have somehow convinced themselves that Pastrana, like Duarte before him, has no choice but to go along. But Duarte had a choice. The great majority of Christian Democratic politicians refused to pimp for murderers, and if he had done the same in 1980-82, the illusion of a "moderate, reformist junta" could not have been maintained. Opposition to aid and support for a negotiated solution would have carried the day.

Yes, Pastrana has been leaned on. But he is not helpless. Without him, the aid package won't fly. He may not control the Colombian military, but he does control his voice. Nothing prevents him from telling the U.S. Congress:

"Let's keep the $1.6 billion price tag, but cut the military's portion from 85 to 10 percent. Let's tie that 10 percent to demonstrated progress in a host of areas stipulated and verified by a skeptical, well-informed group, such as Amnesty International, rather than the easily snowed U.S. Congress.

"I suggest these areas: return of peasants displaced by war, drug-crop eradication and repression; phased de-commissioning of all armed groups, including official forces; a cease-fire and U.N. tribunal to punish egregious violations of human rights on all sides; an end to fat-cat dominance of the political system; common-sense approaches to combatting drug cultivation and manufacturing. Let's replace McCaffrey as point man with George Mitchell, your peace envoy to Northern Ireland, and let's bring the U.N. on board in a big way."

That, or some slight variation, is what Pastrana would say if he were on the side of the angels. Instead, Pastrana has insisted on unconditional military aid. We are not going to respect human rights because Congress imposes conditions, he said recently, mimicking Duarte (New York Times, Jan. 26, 2000). "We are going to do it because it is the policy of my government." In fact, "his" government can't even protect "his" human rights investigators from "his" army.

When Human Rights Watch issued a devastating report, "The Ties That Bind," demonstrating that army-paramilitary collaboration is as tight as ever and national in scope, Pastrana dismissed the report and "voiced blanket support for the army" (Reuters, Feb. 24). Push has come to shove as the aid vote approaches, and Pastrana is shedding every last scruple to win.

What exactly will he win? Massive, unconditional aid to an institution he doesn't control, is hostile to his overtures to the rebels, and which refuses to subject itself to the rule of law.

Liberals can trust Human Rights Watch or Pastrana. They cannot trust both.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer and an occasional adjunct professor of American foreign policy and mass communications at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. In the 1980s, he dissected Jose Napoleon Duarte in the National Catholic Reporter. In recent years his work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, National Post (Canada), In These Times and online at Mother Jones, Working Assets and Z Magazine. He can be reached at

2000 Dennis Hans


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