In the biggest step-up in U.S. military aid to Latin America since the Reagan
era, the Clinton Administration is preparing to provide Colombia with $1.6
billion in helicopters, communications gear, combat training, and other forms of
All this aid is supposed to strengthen Colombia's capacity to fight narcotics
traffickers and the leftist guerrillas who protect them. But there is another,
hidden objective -- to protect U.S. access to the largest untapped pool of
petroleum in the Western Hemisphere.
U.S. interest in Colombia's drug production is well known. Government sources
claim that Colombian traffickers supply as much as 90 percent of the cocaine
flowing into the United States, plus a large proportion of the heroin sold in the
eastern third of the country.
Far less known is Colombia's role in satisfying America's vast and growing
petroleum habit. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), U.S. oil
consumption rose by 15 percent between 1990 and 1999, rising from 17 to 19.5
million barrels per day.
During the same period, Colombia's oil production rose by about 78 percent, with
most of the added amount going to the United States making it, today, the seventh
largest supplier of oil to the United States.
But U.S. strategic calculations are more concerned with the future. U.S.
consumption is expected to rise by another 5 million barrels per day over the
next twenty years, and most of this oil will have to come from foreign sources.
These quantities could easily be provided by the Persian Gulf countries,
especially such petro giants as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
However, U.S. strategists are reluctant to increase America's dependence on the
unstable (and increasingly unfriendly) states of the Middle East -- and so seek
more accessible suppliers. This is where Colombia and neighboring Venezuela enter
Although Colombia's current production is dwarfed by the petro giants, the
country is believed to possess 2.6 billion barrels of untapped petroleum and
perhaps ten times this amount in possible reserves. Venezuela is even more richly
endowed with 73 billion barrels in proven reserves.
Since the Gulf War of 1991, U.S. leaders have moved to increase the importance of
Western Hemisphere. "We are undergoing a fundamental shift in our reliance on
imported oil away from the Middle East," the White House noted in a May 1997
report on national security policy.
Noting that Venezuela is the number one foreign supplier and that " ... Venezuela
and Colombia are each undertaking new oil production ventures," the report called
access to these supplies a "vital interest" of the United States.
This has significant security implications. Once a source of oil is designated a
"vital interest" it becomes incumbent on Washington to assure the long-term
safety of these supplies.
In the past, this has often entailed direct intervention by U.S. forces or
providing military aid to friendly governments.
In calling for stepped-up aid to the Colombian military, U.S. officials have
stressed the need to go after Leftist guerrillas said to provide protection for
Rarely mentioned, however, is the fact that the guerrillas are also attacking
U.S. oil interests in Colombia, especially pipelines. In 1999, for example, the
pipeline from the Cano Limon field -- operated by U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum
Co. and Royal Dutch/Shell -- was bombed 79 times.
In fact, a key element of the guerrillas' stated program is to expel foreign
interests and use future oil profits to improve the lot of Colombia's
All this raises important questions about the aims of the aid program. The $1.6
billion is described as a one-time, "emergency" measure, intended to tip the
scales on the narcotics battlefield in the government's favor.
But it is very doubtful that this amount -- five times the size of previous
allotments -- will make a lasting difference, and additional infusions of U.S.
aid will be needed in the future.
When we add Colombian oil supplies to the strategic equation, it is apparent that
we are talking about a very extended future indeed.
Given the risk that this military aid package will lead to protracted and
ever-expanding involvement in Colombia's messy conflicts, it is essential that
the administration and the various pro-aid factions in Congress be more
forthcoming about America's long-term interests in Colombia.
If increasing our dependence on Colombian oil means expanding our involvement in
that country's internal wars, we may be better off looking elsewhere for our
future oil requirements.
Copyright © 2000 Independent Media Institute.