The Bush administration is reporting some success in efforts to eradicate coca in Colombia. However, the administration's top narcotics control official was pressed by skeptical lawmakers in a congressional hearing Thursday about the effectiveness of U.S. policy in Colombia and other countries.
The United States helps the Colombian government in spraying the coca crop as part of efforts to reduce the flow of cocaine to the United States.
Ninety percent of the cocaine flowing into the United States originates in, or passes through Colombia. Heroin, too, originates in Colombia which still has some 6,500 hectares under opium cultivation.
The director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, John Walters, says the coca crop declined by 15 percent last year, to about 144,000 hectares.
Mr. Walters says this shows U.S. anti-drug efforts in Colombia are paying off, and credits Colombian authorities and President Alvaro Uribe for a more aggressive approach to eradication.
However, he says a difficult task lies ahead as President Uribe continues to fight terrorist organizations and paramilitary groups relying on narco-trafficking.
"[He has pledged] to make rule of law a fact in all of Colombia for all Colombians," he said. "To make security, education, health reform and economic development a long-term goal. I think he, and we, understand that we have to first reduce the extent to which Colombia is a war zone."
But with three Americans still held captive by rebels in Colombia, and the recent violence in Bolivia, some lawmakers are criticizing the administration for, in their view, failing to pay enough attention to Latin America.
In the words of the Republican chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Cass Ballenger, "We're distracted, and we're not paying enough attention to what's happening in our own front yard."
Congressman Ballenger lists a range of problems: narcotics-related violence and terrorist activity in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, economic difficulties in Argentina, political upheaval in Venezuela, high-level corruption in Guatemala and Haiti.
But the sharpest criticism came from New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, "The reality is that the administration's policy towards the Western Hemisphere in my mind is in disarray," he said. "The reality is that the results do not even begin to approach the rhetoric. The reality is that serious foreign policy mis-steps have done lasting damage to our relationships in this hemisphere."
Another Democrat, Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt, says U.S. policy toward the Western hemisphere has been too focused on narcotics, and not enough on social development.
Nobody in the White House seems to be paying much attention. And given the president's pledge to elevate the hemisphere as a paramount concern of American foreign policy, to me and to many, is profoundly disappointing.
In testimony submitted to the committee, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, J. Curtis Struble, says the administration recognizes there has been "backsliding" with growing democracies facing threats from all sides. But he says the problems are not intractable.