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Colombian Group Urges Retooling of US Aid

Colombian politicians and human rights activists visiting Washington this week say U.S. aid to their country focuses too much on military and anti-drug assistance and not enough on humanitarian needs. The delegation is drawing attention to Colombia's 3.5 million refugees and internally displaced people, as estimated by the U.N. refugee agency. VOA's Michael Bowman reports Congress is examining continued funding of Plan Colombia, an initiative that focuses on combating the drug trade, boosting the country's military, and creating favorable economic and social conditions for ending Colombia's decades-old civil war.

Colombia is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind Iraq, Israel, and Egypt, with more than $4 billion in assistance flowing to Bogota since 2000.

During a visit to Colombia in March, President Bush highlighted U.S. efforts to promote prosperity and bring about positive social change in the country long plagued by drug-financed leftist guerrillas and rightwing paramilitary groups. Standing alongside President Alvaro Uribe, Mr. Bush also seemed to answer critics who say that three of every four U.S. aid dollars spent in Colombia go to anti-narcotics efforts and military assistance.

"You [President Uribe] recognize, like I recognize, that the most important function of state is to provide security for the people," said Mr. Bush. "You cannot tolerate in a society the ability of people to take innocent lives to achieve political objectives. There is a lot we [the United States and Colombia] can do. But part of it is to help you exercise control over all your territory, strengthen the rule of law, and to expand economic opportunity for your citizens. And we want to help."

The U.S. aid has not been without positive results, according to Eduardo Zúñiga, governor of Colombia's remote southwestern Nariño department. Zúñiga says overall security has improved somewhat in Nariño since Plan Colombia's inception in the late 1990s.

But the governor, who is visiting Washington, says the drug trade continues to flourish, and bloodshed remains all too common, with innocent civilians paying a heavy price.

"In the year 2000, there were 1,900 refugees in my department. In 2006, there were 55,000 displaced people, and currently we estimate we are approaching a total of 70,000," he said.

Just last month, a battle between leftist rebels and the armed forces caused thousands to flee a rural village in Nariño. Whether the villagers will ever return is an open question.

Zúñiga says Plan Colombia is a net positive for his country, but that the program could stand improvement.

"It is necessary to change the policy," he said. " I think it is necessary to spend less on the military side, without neglecting it, of course, but placing the emphasis on the social side."

Human rights workers accompanying Zúñiga say more than half of Colombia's internally displaced people are under the age of 20. Most come from the countryside and end up in the slums of major urban areas. Often unable to find work, they live on the margins of society, adding to Colombia's already sizable underclass.

The government of President Uribe says it is investing nearly $1 billion to promote social development and combat the effects of civil war, including backing organizations that assist internally displaced people. In addition, the government says those touched by violence will be entitled to reparations.

But Colombian human rights activist Marco Alberto Romero accuses Mr. Uribe of downplaying the magnitude of the crisis of internally displaced people, and says the government has proven itself incapable of delivering on social promises.

He says, regardless of how much is spent to eradicate coca leaf crops and to train and equip Colombia's armed forces, little will be accomplished so long as basic humanitarian needs go unmet.

"Building peace is not easy. We have years of pursuing it through military means. We think that providing solutions for peasants is a good alternative for controlling the drug trade and resolving the war," said Romero. " If we do not resolve the problem of the misery suffered by poor people, and if the war continues, conditions favorable to the drug trade will continue to exist."

Some Democrats in the opposition-controlled U.S. House of Representatives are pushing for an overhaul of U.S. aid to Colombia along the lines suggested by Romero and Governor Zúñiga.

Meanwhile, a bilateral free-trade pact negotiated by the Bush and Uribe administrations faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Congress, which must approve the measure for it to go into effect. Analysts say, with Iraq war funding and other matters taking center stage at present, it is unlikely the legislature will vote on the measure in the foreseeable future.