President Clinton on Wednesday announced $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia, declaring U.S. support for the South American nation’s fight against drugs and insurgents but pledging the United States would not be dragged into another Vietnam.
Clinton returned to Washington in the predawn hours this morning.
Clinton’s brief visit was designed to boost President Andres Pastrana’s Plan Colombia — a strategy of combating drugs, recession and rebels at the same time.
To support that plan, the United States will be providing military helicopters and several hundred American military advisers to train two new battalions of Colombian anti-drug troops.
Critics have warned U.S. forces could be dragged into a drug war in South America, and they have compared the Colombian situation to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Clinton: No Shooting War
Clinton on Wednesday insisted the United States would not be caught up in Colombian strife.
“A condition of this aid is that we are not going to get into a shooting war,” Clinton said. “This is not Vietnam, neither is it Yankee imperialism.”
The president said neither the administration nor the Colombian government wanted the U.S. military situation to be pulled into the situation.
“There won’t be American involvement in a shooting war because they don’t want it and because we don’t want it,” Clinton said.
“I reject the idea that we must choose between supporting peace and fighting drugs,” he added.
Pastrana, appearing with Clinton, said the aid “leads us to know that we are no longer isolated in our struggle.”
Clinton was accompanied on this trip by a delegation including 11 members of Congress, Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Barry McCaffrey, the president’s chief drug policy adviser.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican instrumental in getting the aid through Congress, also spoke at the news conference Wednesday. “For the sake of our children and our grandchildren, we can’t afford to let this fail,” he said.
While most Colombians welcome Clinton’s visit, polls show they also fear American military aid will expand the 40-year-old civil war in this economically ravaged country. They even worry that Americans will do the fighting.
However, Pastrana insists the United States will not play a military role in Colombia. “I don’t think there is any chance that the military advisers are going to be involved in the real war in Colombia. And they will never be,” he said in an interview with ABCNEWS’ World News Tonight.
But some worry it may be impossible to separate the drug war from the war on guerrillas who control vast drug-producing areas. They survive by taxing drug traffickers and farmers who grow poppy and coca plants. Some rebels told World News Tonight they believe the U.S. aid is aimed at fighting them.
“They’re using the fight against drugs as a pretense to develop a military offensive against our revolutionary movement,” said Carlos Antonio Losada of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia.— better known by its Spanish initials, FARC.
Wednesday in Bogota, the capital, thousands of workers and students threw rocks at police and burned effigies of Clinton and Pastrana at the U.S. Embassy.
In a protest at Bogota’s National University, hooded students who opposed Clinton’s visit clashed with baton-wielding security forces. An 18-year-old policeman was killed and three other people injured. Students also torched a city bus.
Meanwhile, the Secret Service said Wednesday it had investigated four reports of threats to the president.
Officials said three were determined to be not credible, but a fourth led local police to the home of alleged FARC sympathizers just a few blocks from a site Clinton was to visit.
Police said bomb-making materials were discovered, but no device had been assembled, contrary to earlier reports from Colombian officials. A Secret Service official said the president was never in danger and his schedule was not changed.
Three people, a father and his two sons, were arrested.
More than 5,000 soldiers and police, 350 U.S. Secret Service agents, helicopter gunships and navy patrol boats were in Cartagena to protect Clinton.
Offering Alternatives to Drug Trade
Clinton, who was accompanied by daughter Chelsea, seemed unconcerned as he walked through the dockyard commander center in the Caribbean port city. The president, dressed casually due to the oppressive midday heat, even paused to shake hands with a drug-sniffing dog on duty with the customs inspectors.
Plan Colombia takes on the drug war by offering peasant farmers alternative crops to the lucrative coca and poppy farming that makes Colombia the unchallenged cocaine capital of the world.
In addition to bolstering that effort, Washington is trying to emphasize the tenfold increase in economic aid as the headline for a country where unemployment has grown to 20 percent.
Critics of Clinton’s policy in Colombia point out that training local forces was the entry point to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. White House officials counter there will be only 280 military personnel on the ground at any time in Colombia, with a legal cap set at 500 Americans.
Many Colombians also object to having the United States train and equip the Colombian army to take back the land where the drugs are produced because the army has a well-documented history of human rights abuses that include torture, kidnappings and massacres.
By law, the United States is not supposed to provide aid to countries considered to have committed human rights violations. But Clinton has signed a waiver for Colombia.
Pastrana says he believes the Colombian army is ready to be reformed. He has also promised the Clinton administration he can control the military.
And in Cartagena Wednesday, Clinton also dismissed the criticisms of the U.S. aid package. “The opposition is from people who are afraid it will work,” he said.
ABCNEWS’ Ann Compton and John Cochran in Cartagena and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.