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US Faces Questions on Andean Policy Prior to Americas Summit - 2004-01-08

One week before President Bush heads to Mexico for a two-day Summit of the Americas, a Washington public policy group is calling for an overhaul of U.S. policies towards the Andean region - especially Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

In a report titled Andes 2020, the Council on Foreign Relations says, despite significant expenditures, U.S. initiatives in the Andean region have failed to boost prosperity, increase security or significantly reduce narcotics production.

"There is serious political instability in the Andean region. In our opinion, it is the most significant security crisis in the Western Hemisphere," said John Heimann, co-chairman of the commission that issued the report. "Net export of cocaine from the region has been essentially unchanged since the year 2000. Per capita real income has not increased one bit. There are some 67 million people who live below their nation's poverty line. What is needed is a new U.S. strategy [for the region]."

In 1999, the United States launched "Plan Colombia," which was designed to promote economic growth, strengthen the country's democratic institutions, step up the drug war and promote the country's peace process. Under the plan, Colombia became a major recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, with aid growing to more than $300 million a year.

Has the money been well-spent? According to Andes 2020 commission co-chairman Daniel Christman, U.S. assistance to the Andean region in general, and Colombia in particular, has been heavy on military aid and light on economic help. Mr. Christman used the economic analogy of "guns and butter" - with butter referring to non-military U.S. assistance.

"With respect to Colombia, since the year 2000, the ratio of guns-to-butter assistance is four to one," he said. "For the region as a whole it is two to one. It is predominantly a 'guns' [military] approach."

The commission, which includes a variety of academics and corporate representatives, has several recommendations. First, it says the United States should abandon a country-by-country approach to the Andean region, and adopt a unified program for the region as a whole. Second, the commission recommends focusing greater attention on economic development throughout the Andes.

"Invest in infrastructure, public and private partnerships, sewer [systems], electricity, schools, water and roads," Mr. Heimann said. "If you live in the countryside, how do you get your products to where they can be sold? You need roads."

Mr. Heimann says the Andean region would also benefit from increased trade with the United States.

"People have to earn a living. Clearly they are earning a living now in the rural areas by producing coca [leaf]," he said. "So trade becomes critically important. Trade and economic development. And the biggest market for these countries is not the EU. It is North America, and in particular the United States."

Are the recommendations falling on deaf ears? Perhaps not. On the trade front, the Bush administration is already pursuing a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas, FTAA. At a news conference Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said trade will be on the agenda at next week's summit in Mexico.

"We have completed a number of free trade agreements. We are committed to the FTAA for our own hemisphere - a subject that will get discussed, hopefully, at the Summit of the Americas next week," he said.

Separately, two months ago, the United States launched an initiative to negotiate a free trade pact with Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia that would mirror a recently-completed pact with Central American nations.

Meanwhile, Plan Colombia is due to expire next year. What might replace the program? In a recent policy address, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega offered no specifics for Colombia. But he stressed the Bush administration's commitment to freer trade and economic expansion as a means to greater stability and security for the Americas as a whole.