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Big Guns Back Aid To Colombia

Well-financed U.S. lobby seeks relief from drug wars

By Sam Loewenberg
Law News Network
21 February 2000

Nothing in Washington ever happens in a vacuum. And the Clinton administration's recent proposal to give Colombia $1.3 billion in aid to help combat drug trafficking is no exception.

For almost a year, a business consortium of blue-chip multinationals has been pressing the White House and Capitol Hill for such a package. The assistance, the companies say, is needed to help the war-torn Latin American country beat back a growing illegal drug trade that is making it difficult to do business.

Through the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership -- founded in 1996 to represent U.S. companies with interests in Colombia -- the Occidental Petroleum Corp., the Enron Corp., BP Amoco, the Colgate-Palmolive Co., and others played an important part in pressing the administration and Congress for the aid. The business partnership is now actively pushing the Clinton initiative.

"Right now, you see a confluence of interests," says Lawrence Meriage, Occidental's vice president for public affairs and the company's point man on Colombia. "The members [of Congress] expressed concern about drugs, and from our perspective here, they are certainly disruptive of any normal business relationship."

Occidental, which claims that a company oil project in Colombia has lost $100 million since 1995 because of terrorist activity, formally made its case last week. Meriage testified before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Drug Policy. The hearing also featured White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, three high-ranking administration officials, and two former ambassadors -- all of whom testified in favor of the aid.

Occidental, which is taking the lead, and the other members of the consortium "are really appreciative of what we are doing in getting rid of the narco-traffickers," says McCaffrey spokesman Robert Weiner. "It is going to mean that all of their businesses are going to flourish."

Other U.S. companies will also see a jump in their bottom line if the aid package goes through.

Of the $1.3 billion package, the largest chunk is earmarked for helicopter purchases. The United States would buy 30 Black Hawks, at a total cost of more than $360 million, from the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a subsidiary of the United Technologies Corp. In addition, Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. stands to earn about $66 million from the sale of 33 Hueys.

The size of the aid package -- and the emphasis on military equipment -- is raising concerns among human rights advocates.

From their perspective, the aid plan is misguided. Instead of pulling up stakes and setting up business elsewhere, they note, members of the business partnership are pushing the U.S. government to stem the violence that is making it difficult for their businesses to thrive in the region. That type of involvement, human rights advocates claim, will ensnare the United States in the bloody Colombian civil war that has raged 40 years.

"There is increasingly multinational investment in very conflicted areas where there is heavy paramilitary violence and evidence that it is supported by the Colombian military," says Winifred Tate, a Colombia expert in the Washington Office of Latin America, a liberal interest group that advocates for human rights in Latin America.

Some conservatives who support the aid package have different concerns. They question why the administration has stocked the package with so many of the costly Black Hawks, which cost seven times more than Bell Helicopter's Hueys.

Sikorsky, based in Stratford, Conn., is in the district of Rep. Sam Gejdenson, the ranking member of the House International Relations Committee. Connecticut is also home to Sen. Christopher Dodd, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Narcotics.

Some of these Republicans wonder whether the administration chose Sikorsky's Black Hawks, in part, to gain the support of the company's powerful home-state Democrats -- politicians who have traditionally opposed such military-type aide to foreign countries.

Former Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.), who is pitching in to help his old colleagues lobby to pass the plan, says gaining the support of Dodd and Gejdenson was "absolutely crucial." While he feels that the two Democrats genuinely believe in the anti-drug plan, Solomon says that appealing to a member's home state loyalties is a common tactic.

"Let's face it, any time you are dealing with an issue like this, and you are talking about hardware and jobs in your district, it makes a difference certainly," he says. "Sure they are trying to give them more incentive to make them a stronger supporter. It's all part of the game."

Sikorsky's parent company, United Technologies, has given significantly to both members. Since 1997, Gejdenson has received $19,000 and Dodd has taken in $33,200 from the company, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Spokesmen for Dodd and Gejdenson, who opposed military intervention in Latin America during the 1980s, said that neither member was influenced by the selection of a home-state company.

"It is absurd that you can't be supportive of human rights and a peace process and at the same time acknowledge that this is a serious narcotic problem that requires us to give adequate equipment and training to the Colombian police and military who have to fight drug traffickers day after day," says Dodd spokesman Marvin Fast.

Gejdenson's spokesman echoed that sentiment.

Ringing the Bell

Bell Helicopter, based in Fort Worth, Texas, claims its own powerful allies on the Hill.

"The entire Texas Delegation is working this issue," says a company spokesperson, who declined to be identified.

That includes Rep. Martin Frost, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Republican House members Dick Armey, the majority leader, and Whip Tom DeLay.

The company also has an outside lobbyist with good Latin American credentials -- Tony Gillespie, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Chile, and Grenada.

Although the two helicopter manufacturers are both working to get the aid package approved, their interests are not completely synchronized. Sikorsky and Bell Helicopter have been waging separate lobbying campaigns in an attempt to increase their share of the pie.

The sale of 30 or more Black Hawks would be a boon to Sikorsky, which has orders for only six helicopters from the U.S. Army this year, down from 19 last year, according to defense industry expert Bill Hartung of the World Policy Institute, a New York think tank affiliated with New School University.

The company's luck took a fortuitous turn late last year, after Sen. Dodd traveled to Colombia to meet with that nation's officials to discuss the administration's aid proposal.

A Dodd spokeswoman says the senator discussed the aid package with the officials, but did not discuss helicopter purchases specifically. After Dodd left, the Colombians announced they would buy six Black Hawks on their own.

The streak continued when the Colombian government received support in the form of financing for the helicopters from the U.S. Export-Import Bank, an Ex-Im spokesperson said.

The Ex-Im Bank is prohibited by its charter from lending for military purchases. But the bank was given a special exemption by the State Department, the spokesperson said.

And recently, Sikorsky got some valuable, free advertising from an unusual source.

Drug czar McCaffrey opposed giving Black Hawks to Colombia in 1998 -- he says he thought the United States had not committed to providing enough of the machines to benefit the country. But he now seems like one of the helicopter's biggest fans.

"These are the best helicopters in the world. The next time you see me, I'll probably be peddling them, I hope," McCaffrey cracked at the hearing last week before the House Subcommittee on Narcotics. McCaffrey's spokesman later emphasized that the general was kidding and had no plans to work for Sikorsky.

For Occidental, the military aid comes at a crucial time, following massive disruption from attacks on its facilities. The company already pays the Colombian government to keep an army base next to its refinery to protect against attacks. But, Meriage says, the Colombian government itself needs help.

"We could not survive in these remote areas without the protection of the Colombian military," Meriage, the Occidental vice president, says. Meriage equates the guerrillas to the drug-traffickers -- "the two are inseparable now," he says -- as does the U.S. government's plan.

Tribal Trauma

While Occidental has its problems with the guerrillas, an indigenous tribe in Colombia has its problems with the oil company. Members of the U'Wa say that the company wants to drill oil -- which they consider sacred -- on their land. They threaten to commit mass suicide if the company goes through with its plan. Three U'Wa children reportedly drowned earlier this month during a demonstration trying to block the drilling, according to Amazon Watch, a human rights group.

Some human rights activists, including the Amazon Coalition, criticize Vice President Al Gore Jr. for not backing the tribe and suggest that his longtime ties to Occidental may be coloring his views of the situation.

"Occidental is the political patron of Al Gore," says Steve Kretzmann, a San Francisco-based member of the U'Wa Defense Working Group, a human rights group lobbying Congress on the tribe's behalf.

According to the D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, Gore's father, the late Sen. Albert Gore Sr., was a member of Occidental's board and the company has paid the vice president's family $20,000 a year since the 1960s for unused mineral rights on his land. Occidental, the center reports, has also contributed hundreds of thousands to Gore and the Democratic National Committee.

Gore did not respond to two telephone calls seeking comment.

Drug policy and human rights questions aside, the bottom line for most of the businesses pushing for the aid package is their own bottom line. "It's business for us, and we are as aggressive as anybody," said one Bell Helicopter lobbyist. "I'm just trying to sell helicopters."

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