March 23, 2004 - The Worcester Telegram & Gazette (MA)

Congressman Says Colombia Visit Was Eye-Opening

Mcgovern Criticizes Policy

By Emilie Astell, T&G Staff

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Colombia, a country dealing with civil strife and drug cartels, needs a helping hand, according to U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, but not in the way the U.S. government provides aid.

"Plan Colombia" involves sending U.S. troops to assist the military and money to fight drugs in the South American country, but Mr. McGovern, D-Worcester, said Colombia's problems are not that easy to solve.

Spraying coca plants to kill them is dangerous, he said, because the chemicals used find their way into well water, food crops and rain forests. And while cocaine is derived from the dried leaves of coca plants, he said money used in the spraying operation could better be spent reducing drug use in the United States.

"The problem is our insatiable demand," Mr. McGovern told a group of about 30 students, faculty and visitors at Worcester State College yesterday during a talk on human rights issues in Latin America.

The congressman traveled to Colombia earlier this year to get a sense of military, political and human rights issues in the community of Arauca and elsewhere. This was his third trip to Colombia.

There are more than 400 U.S. troops providing assistance in the country, a testament to this country's desire to focus on military aid during the past two decades. Colombia is asking for more military aid, he said, but the situation is more complicated than good vs. evil.

Widespread corruption permeates all levels of government, including high-ranking officials involved in the drug trade.

Dramatic evidence of the extent of suffering among poor people was all around him during the visit. Mr. McGovern said he saw children who had orange-tinged hair, a sign of starvation.

In a trip to a school outside the Colombian capital of Bogota, the congressman witnessed makeshift classes crowded with hundreds of children. The youngsters were fed a meal while there - the price for the food was to attend classes.

"Parent after parent said to me, "Thank the people of the United States for doing something for me,'" he said.

Funding cuts made by the Bush administration put the school meal program in jeopardy, he said, although other funding sources have stepped forward to keep it going.

Parents also told him of boys from 11 to 13 years old who are recruited into guerrilla organizations such as FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest rebel movement intent on overthrowing the government. FARC promises the boys a meal every day if they serve.

America's foreign policy in Latin America and around the world focuses on fighting terrorism, he said, but if this country were known for combating hunger and promoting universal education it would be difficult for terrorists to recruit people in poverty.

"So much of what the war is about is social inequities and social injustices," he said. "The United States was sucked into this little by little. The more we are involved, the more we are targets."

Mr. McGovern is also a proponent of dropping the trade embargo against Cuba, calling the policy "just dumb."

The embargo has been in place four decades in an effort to topple dictator Fidel Castro and promote human rights. Yet, Castro is still there and when things do not work out he blames U.S. policy.

Mr. McGovern said the economic embargo and travel restrictions should be lifted, noting that American citizens can be fined if they travel to Cuba without proper permission.

Universities and colleges that had licenses to travel to Cuba find permits have been revoked or restricted. "Something's wrong with that," he said. "Freedom to travel is something all of us should have."

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