August 6, 1999


There were two big plane crashes last week, but you would never have known it if your only source of news is American media. The only plane crash anybody in the U.S. cared about took place off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. Virtually the entire US Coast Guard was mobilized to find the remains of JFK, Jr., and party – and the entire media was mobilized in a similar fashion in covering it. So nobody really noticed when five US military personnel were shot down in the skies over Colombia's southern jungle, along with three Colombians. These five are the first American casualties in Washington's escalating war against Colombia's leftist guerrilla movements. It is unlikely that they will be the last.


Yes, yes, I know: the US plane, stuffed to the gills with hi-tech surveillance equipment, "crashed" into a mountain, according to rather laconic news accounts – nothing about how or why. The Time magazine account authoritatively assures us that the aircraft "slammed into a jungle mountain hidden by clouds." Yet surely it was something a bit more aggressive than clouds that brought down this sophisticated surveillance plane.


The wreckage and the bodies were recovered, with the latter (4 US servicemen, and pilot Jennifer Odom) shipped back home. So far, however, no one is talking about what else they found at the crash site. The plane was flying over FARC territory at the time, and was loaded down with the kind of equipment one might utilize to track the precise movements of guerrilla units lurking in the underbrush. In this context, are we really expected to believe that they couldn't see a mountain?


The official story is that the sortie was engaged in drug interdiction efforts. The Colombian media, however, reported that the plane had long been an instrument in the hands of the army in its war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It seems that all FARC radio transmissions have been intercepted and monitored for a period of two months prior to the crash – providing government forces with the margin of victory in a recent battle. Reeling from a series of major military reversals, the Colombian Army badly needed that victory in order to restore public confidence in the government's ability to rule. Recent guerrilla attacks have occurred uncomfortably close to Bogota, the capital city, alarming the population and giving Pastrana's political enemies an opening to attack the government. The downing of the spy plane represents a serious loss: aside from the loss of the tactical military advantage, the revelation of the extent of US military involvement in the anti-guerrilla campaign is a big political setback for Pastrana. Nationalist sentiment runs deep in Colombia, and the slightest hint of US military intervention is likely to backfire on the government. Caught between the guerrillas and the death squads, Pastrana's neoliberal third camp is being squeezed, perhaps fatally – and the inept US policy of covert intervention may just deliver the death blow.


The FARC did not claim responsibility for downing the aircraft, but issued this warning via the Internet to Washington policymakers: "Colombia is not Kosovo." In an interview with a Chilean newspaper, a FARC commander warned the US not to get too cocky over its casualty-free Kosovo walkover: "We are not Yugoslavia," he averred. "If the United States intervenes it will be another Vietnam."


The Commandante is for the most part correct: in many respects it is Vietnam all over again, complete with all the props – plenty of jungle, widespread poverty, and Marxist guerrillas under every rock. The one difference is Andres Pastrana, the free market "neoliberal" whose policies are designed to bring Colombia into the global market. While Vietnam was ruled by a series of petty tyrants, even leftists have a grudging respect for the courage and persistence of Pastrana, elected in 1998, who is attempting to build what has never existed in Colombia: a truly civil society.


Abandoning the central planning and protectionist policies of his predecessors, Pastrana is intent on marketizing the economy – top-heavy with an unproductive public sector – and expanding the middle class. But free markets, he realizes, can only be created in times of peace. The guerrilla insurgency, launched by the Colombian Communist Party some 30 years ago, arose and took root in response to the grinding poverty and paramilitary death squads that rule the countryside. Rather than pursuing a military solution, which reinforces the very statizing and centralizing tendencies Pastrana has been fighting, the President has been negotiating with the FARC, going so far as to create a demilitarized zone in the southern jungles, in effect ceding an area the size of Switzerland to the rebels. At a time when guerrilla insurgencies throughout South and Central America are putting down the gun and running candidates in free elections, Pastrana's approach would give the Colombian rebels an opening to come out of the jungle and into the political process.


With the former Soviet Union out of business, and Cuba in no position to put Fidel's "internationalist" rhetoric into practice, the rebels are ready to deal – but the Colombian military is not. The US is currently training a thousand-man counterinsurgency force, and American officials claim that "every member has been investigated" and given the Human Rights Seal of Approval, but even if we accept this at face value – a dubious proposition, at best – this fails to address the problem of the paramilitaries, who operate with the collusion of the Colombian military. Their methods are similar to those of the KLA: they go into Indian villages in the countryside and "cleanse" it of the rebels and their sympathizers the way the Albanian Kosovar separatists have gone into Serb villages and driven the inhabitants out. A favorite tactic is the abduction and "disappearing" of the relatives of guerrillas. This is what those great crusaders for "human rights" in the US State Department are supporting.


The sheer stupidity and criminality of the US government's covert war on Colombia's guerrilla movements was vividly dramatized by an astonishing sight: Richard Grasso, president of the New York Stock Exchange embracing guerrilla commandante Raul Reyes. Reyes is the peasant leader of the FARC, whose austerity and selfless dedication have won him the respect even of his enemies. The visit was engineered by Pastrana, who had canceled his trip to the NYSE because of problems on the home front. When Grasso volunteered to help in any way he could, Pastrana was ready with his request: meet with the guerrilla leader. In a symbolic act of defiance against the escalating polarization of Colombian politics, Grasso traveled to a remote spot deep in the Colombian jungle to meet this Marxist stalwart. Before the visit was over, Grasso offered to return the guerrillas' hospitality by inviting Reyes to see capitalism in action on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It was a bravura performance. But will it work?


Will Colombia's elite get the message and begin to deal with the causes of the insurgency, or will they fall back into an easy dependence on the US, escalating the military campaign and dooming Pastrana to political oblivion? Colombia's corrupt elite is traditionally dependent on brute force to maintain their economic and political stranglehold over the country: if they can gain the cooperation of the US in maintaining the status quo, under the rubric of the War on Drugs, then why should they have any incentive to change their ways? Corrupt, arrogant, and brutal, the ostensibly "anti-Communists" of Colombia are objectively working in tandem with the FARC and other leftist groups to destabilize the Pastrana reforms and destroy the prospects for liberty in the region. Why should we invest in these losers?


The arrogance and incompetence of Colombia's ruling elite is made possible by the US government, which subsidizes the whole sorry mess. Without US tax dollars, the Colombians would be forced to settle their own problems, in their own way. With Colombia now the third largest recipient of foreign aid, both economic and military – topped only by Israel and Egypt – the big boys in Bogota have no incentive to negotiate.


The Clinton administration wants to increase US aid and involvement, in spite of their protestations that we will never intervene militarily. Remember: with the Clintonians, we can never say never – not when it comes to sending in the troops. And if Clinton fails to succumb to the siren song of interventionism in this case, then a Republican successor will be far more tempted.


The key to short-circuiting this possibility is for conservatives to learn the lesson of Kosovo: that in the absence of the Cold War, there is no compelling reason for the United States to intervene in backwater regions of the world. And if Colombia is not a backwater, then what is?


I cannot end this column without mentioning the $12.6 billion foreign aid bill, H.R. 2606. This, believe it or not, is supposed to represent a decrease in Clinton's proposed budget, but the alleged "cuts" are elusive and invariably offset by increases in other areas: For example, although economic aid to Israel is cut in half, military aid is doubled. Funds for the IMF and other banking institutions would be less than the administration wants, but still an overall increase. Egypt's generous subsidy gets a token cut, but military aid to the repressive regime, which persecutes Christians as well as radical Muslims, is unchanged. Yet more millions are being transferred from the pockets of US taxpayers to the Swiss banks accounts of Yeltsin's cronies – which is where most of the $725 million in foreign aid to Russia will wind up.


Clinton is threatening to veto the whole foreign aid package if the GOP's "cuts" reach him intact. This naturally throws the Republicans into a panic, since they really have no substantive difference with the administration on the alleged "need" for US taxpayers to subsidize corruption, incompetence, and death squads the world over. But just imagine, for a moment, if the Republicans stood firm – I know it takes a lot of imagination to conjure such a scenario, but stick with me. Furthermore, imagine that Clinton is not just bluffing and actually vetoes the bill. Why, there wouldn't be any foreign aid this year, not a dime would be spent on fighting guerrillas in faraway jungles or subsidizing American exporters – and wouldn't that be a terrible catastrophe?

Check out Justin Raimondo's article, "China and the New Cold War"

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).



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