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USIS Washington File

29 September 1999

Text: State Dept.'s Romero Testifies on Western Hemisphere Issues

(Discusses Colombia, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela) (4600)
The United States is committed to working with the Colombian
government as it implements an ambitious plan to combat illegal drug
trafficking and myriad associated problems, Acting Assistant Secretary
of State Peter Romero told a congressional committee September 29.
U.S. counter-narcotics interests in Colombia are "inextricably linked"
to that country's ability to strengthen democracy, expand
economically, resolve its ongoing civil conflict and ensure respect
for human rights, Romero told the House International Relations
Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
He described the "Plan Colombia" as a "good comprehensive" plan, and
one that is "deserving of U.S. support."
Romero's testimony covered additional regional issues, including U.S.
counter-drug cooperation with Cuba, the question of Chinese influence
in the Panama Canal, the status of U.S. property claims in Nicaragua,
the political situation in Venezuela, and the status of U.S. and
United Nations forces in Haiti.
He stressed that the "technical" and "exploratory" drug-related talks
between U.S. and Cuban officials "does not signify a change in overall
U.S. policy to Cuba." U.S. policy remains focused on pressing the
Cuban regime to democratize and respect human rights, while engaging
the Cuban people in a peaceful transition to democracy, Romero said.
Regarding Panama, the assistant secretary said that the final transfer
of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government must be completed by
December 31, but underlined that the United States will maintain a
"close interest" in Canal operations beyond that date.
Romero told the committee that several official U.S. groups had
investigated the process by which Panama had awarded Canal-related
concessions to private entities. They specifically reviewed the
bidding process for the concession to operate the ports, which was
awarded to the Hong Kong-based company Hutchison-Whampoa. While the
bidding process "was unorthodox," Romero said, "there did not appear
to be discrimination against U.S. companies under U.S. law."
Moreover, "nothing in the arrangement between the Government of Panama
and Hutchison-Whampoa modifies or supersedes the provisions of the
'Neutrality Treaty'" signed by the United States and Panama in 1997,
which guarantees access to ships of all nations, he added.
Following is the text of Romero's opening statement to the committee,
as prepared for delivery:
(begin text)
Statement by Ambassador Peter F. Romero
Acting Assistant Secretary Of State
for Western Hemispheric Affairs
Before the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee
Of the House International Relations Committee
Wednesday, September 29, 1999
The critical problems facing the United States in this hemisphere and
the issues which this Committee has asked that I address today largely
coincide. The issues you raise touch on fundamental concerns such as
the consolidation of democracy, the promotion of internal peace,
stability and reconciliation, narcotics trafficking, and the
protection of American economic interests and the interests and
property of our citizens.
While acknowledging the many challenges before us, I believe the
countries of the Western Hemisphere are at a promising juncture. We
have excellent relations with our neighbors throughout the region.
Geography, trade, travel, migration, and technology have all combined
to produce an unprecedented level of integration and interdependence.
This means that hemispheric issues -- crime or migration or economic
growth or natural disasters -- quickly tend to become domestic U.S.
issues and resonate in our local communities.
Organizationally, another manifestation of this deepening integration
is the change in the Department of State's old Bureau of
Inter-American Affairs: with the addition of Canada, we are now the
Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. The incorporation of Canada into
our Bureau not only reflects an economic and geo-political reality,
but has had the beneficial effect of causing us to regularly re-think
how we look at the totality of our relations with the Hemisphere.
The management and resolution of these issues require active U.S.
leadership and engagement and, increasingly, a hemisphere-wide
perspective. More than anywhere else in the world, problems in this
hemisphere have a way of intruding directly and immediately on our
lives and livelihood.
Colombia: Peace Process and U.S. Policy
There are few threats to the American people that have as direct and
negative an effect on our national well being as does illegal drug
trafficking. For this reason we consider our counter-narcotics efforts
among the very most important policy priorities in the Western
Hemisphere. One country that is key in these efforts is Colombia, the
world's leading producer of cocaine. Our counter-narcotics interests
in Colombia are inextricably linked to that country's capacity to
strengthen its democratic governance, jump start the legitimate
economy, undertake a genuine peace process and ensure respect for the
basic human rights of the Colombian people. Ultimately, it is up to
Colombians to address these interrelated problems, however, the United
States can and should work with its Colombian partners to ensure that
a comprehensive, strategic focus links counter-narcotics goals in the
broader context of a national security strategy in Colombia. President
Pastrana's team has developed such a strategy and it is deserving of
U.S. support.
Plan Colombia
The Government of Colombia (GOC) has prepared a good comprehensive
plan that provides A strategic vision outlining how the GOC intends to
address its national challenges. The "Plan Colombia -- Plan for Peace,
Prosperity, and Strengthening of the State" is an ambitious but
realistic package of mutually reinforcing policies to revive
Colombia's battered economy, strengthen democratic institutions,
promote the peace process and eliminate sanctuaries for narcotics
producers, destroy crops, and interdict traffickers.
The draft plan covers five critical themes: the peace process;
counter-narcotics; the judicial system; democratization, human rights,
and social development; and economic policy. The GOC recognizes the
imperative to regain the confidence of the Colombian people by
strengthening the democratic and social institutions, particularly
those assisting Colombian victims of the country's violence and drug
trade. The GOC will promote respect for human rights, assist those
displaced by the internal conflict, implement alternative development
programs, combat corruption, strengthen local governments, and provide
sustainable development assistance to conflictive areas. The
Colombians will fund the bulk of the strategy, but seek supplementary
support from the international community.
Peace Process
Guerrilla and right-wing militia violence has taken a heavy toll on
Colombia both in terms of human life and economic losses and has made
the Colombian people afraid to travel outside the major cities.
Moreover, both the guerrillas and right-wing militias are increasingly
tied to the narcotics industry.
We believe that President Pastrana is correct in making peace a major
priority and by folding it into a robust security strategy. Measures
which aid in settling Colombia's internal conflict will also help in
other areas. Colombia's internal fighting discourages domestic and
foreign investment, which is vitally needed to restart an economy
currently suffering from the worst downturn since the 1930s.
In order to address the interrelated problems of Colombia, the GOC
will seek to offer an opportunity for all combatants to address the
issues of protection of non-combatants, better guarantees of human
rights, democratic participation, agrarian reform, reform of the
military and police, and reduction and elimination of illicit drug
cultivation and production. We support Colombia's efforts on behalf of
alternative development in areas controlled by the government, as well
as the steps it has announced to strengthen respect for human rights
and promote good governance at the local government level.
Human Rights
Protection of human rights is fundamental to a democratic society. We
have strongly supported the Pastrana Administration in its efforts to
advance the protection of human rights and to prosecute those who
abuse them. Complicity by Colombia's security forces with the
right-wing militia groups remains a serious problem, although the GOC
has taken important steps in holding senior military and police
officials accountable for complicity in human rights violations. Since
assuming office in August of 1998, President Pastrana has demonstrated
the GOC's commitment to protecting human rights by cashiering a number
of senior and mid-level officers for complicity with paramilitary
groups. The senior leadership of the security forces, at least, seems
to genuinely support President Pastrana's policy of respect for human
U.S. law (including Section 568 of the FY 1999 Foreign Operations
Appropriations Act) prohibits the provision of U.S. assistance to any
unit of a security force if there is credible evidence that the unit
has committed a gross violation of human rights and appropriate steps
are not being taken to bring those responsible to justice. There are
strict procedures in place to verify that individuals and units
proposed for USG assistance and training have not been involved in any
human rights abuses.
Internally Displaced Persons (IDP)
Another serious issue is the plight of Colombia's internally displaced
persons (IDP). The vicious conflict between right-wing militias and
guerrillas is largely responsible for the forced displacement of
Colombians. As many as 300,000 persons, mostly women and children,
were driven from their homes in 1998 by rural violence. NGOs report
that Colombia has the fourth-largest population of displaced persons
in the world.
Status of Forward Operating Locations (FOLs)
The fight against international narcotics is a multidimensional one
that requires a variety of instruments and weapons. The comprehensive
monitoring and tracking of the narcotrafficker's air and maritime
operations is an essential component of our interdiction strategy.
Formerly, military bases in Panama provided us with the platform to
carry out this critical task. With the closing of our bases in Panama
-- and in particular Howard Air Base -- we have had to explore other
options. Initially we engaged in months of talks with Panamanian
authorities to use facilities there to stage these monitoring efforts.
However, in the end, Panamanian officials would not agree to our
Therefore, we turned to another option -- the concept of Forward
Operating Locations or FOLs, to assure we maintained the ability to
effectively monitor narco transit routes. The FOLs are limited
facilities in areas around drug production zones that give us the
means to continue our air coverage of the air and sea routes plied by
narcotraffickers in the region. We believe the transition to the FOL
concept will succeed and these facilities will represent a practical,
cost-effective counter-narcotics alternative.
U.S. counter-narcotics aircraft have been operating temporarily out of
airports in Curacao, Aruba, and Manta, Ecuador, since last April under
interim accords negotiated with the Dutch and the Ecuadorian
governments, respectively. We are now in the final rounds of
negotiations with both governments for long-term, ten-year-plus
agreements. Longer-term FOL agreements are essential before we can
begin spending on the necessary physical upgrades at the three
airports. The upgrades will, in turn, enable us to position more
aircraft at each location to ensure full coverage of the drug
trafficking transit and source zones once covered out of Howard Air
Force Base in Panama.
The United States and Ecuador are close to concluding a long-term
agreement. We also plan to meet soon with the Dutch to continue
negotiating a FOL long-term agreement for Curacao/Aruba.
While there has been some interim degradation in aerial
counter-narcotics coverage, we anticipate that when a third FOL is
established, coverage will likely exceed what we had at Howard. We
plan to establish a third FOL site in Central America at an
appropriate location as conditions warrant and funding permits.
At this time Panama is not a realistic FOL option. At some point in
the future we may revisit an approach to Panama, but only under some
very specific circumstances: after the expiration of the Canal treaty;
once all U.S. forces have been withdrawn; and only when the recently
installed government of President Miriam Moscoso is well established
and willing to enter into discussion on this issue.
U.S-Cuba Counter-narcotics Cooperation
Geography dictates that any successful narcotics interdiction strategy
must include a strong Caribbean component. Cuba's Caribbean location
between the major drug-producing countries of South America and the
United States means we have to consider Cuba as we design our
strategy. Nonetheless, any possible counter-narcotics cooperation with
Cuba will not come at the expense of our overall policy towards Cuba
and does not signify a normalization of relations with the Cuban
Given that Cuban airspace and territorial waters are at risk of being
used by traffickers seeking to smuggle illegal drugs into the U.S.,
the U.S. law enforcement community has begun exploring potential ways
to plug these interdiction gaps. In June a working-level team from the
Department of State and USCG held talks with Cuban officials in
Havana. These talks were technical and exploratory in nature and
included discussions on:
-- the possible upgrading of the current telex link between the Cuban
Border Guard and U.S. Coast Guard to a voice link;
-- the identification of radio frequencies so that U.S. and Cuban
vessels can communicate in real time when that would facilitate
interdiction of traffickers;
-- our willingness to consider stationing a USCG officer in USINT in a
liaison capacity in order to facilitate real-time communication (the
USCG officer would be on detail to the State Department); and
-- the provision of technical expertise on a case-by-case basis.
While the Cubans indicated they would accept the USGC detail and the
telecommunication upgrade, and expressed interest in expanding
contacts with U.S. law enforcement personnel, nothing has been agreed
to formally. In addition, several issues were not raised with the
Cubans: sharing intelligence, providing equipment, and carrying out
joint operations.
Directly relevant to our counter-narcotics engagement with Cuba is the
7.2 ton cocaine shipment bound for Cuba that was seized by Colombian
authorities in Cartagena in December 1998. The Intelligence Community
is conducting an "all source" assessment of that shipment and possible
Cuban Government complicity in it. We will consider the results of
that assessment in determining our future narcotics control relations
with Cuba.
Again, it is important to emphasize that the meeting of our
working-level counter-narcotics experts with their Cuban counterparts
was governed by our desire to look for possible ways to address the
drug menace. We have for many years been engaged in case-by-case
cooperation with the Government of Cuba when it is in our national
interest to do so, and these contacts are within those parameters. The
counter-narcotics discussion we have had with Cuba does not signify a
change in overall U.S. policy to Cuba. This discussion does not mean
we are formalizing our are relations with the Cuban Government. The
Administration will continue to press the Cuban regime to democratize
and to respect human rights, while seeking to engage and assist the
Cuban people in order to promote a peaceful transition to democracy.
Evidence of this was the successful effort we led at the Human Rights
Commission in Geneva earlier this year to score human rights practices
in Cuba.
Panama Canal and Chinese Influence
In accordance with our treaty with Panama, the final transfer of the
Panama Canal to Panama must be completed by December 31, 1999.
Nonetheless, the U.S. will maintain a close interest in the operations
of the Canal well beyond that date.
In 1996 the Government of Panama initiated a process to privatize the
operations of ports at both ends of the Canal. U.S. firms and the U.S.
Embassy in Panama believed that an unorthodox bidding process
prejudiced U.S. firms' opportunity to win the concession to operate
the ports. Despite vigorous protests to the Government of Panama by
the then U.S. Ambassador, the concession was awarded to a division of
the Hong Kong-based company Hutchison-Whampoa.
Since that time, the process leading to the award to Hutchison-Whampoa
has been reviewed by several official U.S. entities, including a
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff delegation and the Federal
Maritime Commission. These studies concluded that, though the bidding
process for this concession was unorthodox, there did not appear to be
discrimination against U.S. companies under U.S. law because other
port concessions in Panama were won by U.S. companies.
The U.S. Intelligence Community also studied the related question of
the influence of the People's Republic of China in Panama as a result
of the concession awarded to Hutchison-Whampoa. After reviewing the
results of this study, we have concluded that the presence of
Hutchison-Whampoa in Panama and the ports of Balboa and Cristobal does
not represent a threat to Canal operations or other U.S. interests in
The provisions of the "Neutrality Treaty," signed by the U.S. and
Panama in 1977, establish a legal framework to ensure security of the
Canal and to guarantee that it remains open to ships of all nations on
an equal footing. Nothing in the arrangement between the Government of
Panama and Hutchison-Whampoa modifies or supersedes the provisions of
the "Neutrality Treaty."
Moreover, the Panamanian National Constitution confers solely upon the
Panama Canal Authority, an autonomous public entity, the function of
operating and administrating the Canal. Therefore, barring a
constitutional amendment, the operation of the Canal itself will not
be privatized as were the ports discussed above.
Status of U.S. Property Claims in Nicaragua
Seeking resolution of U.S. citizens' claims for property confiscated
during the Sandinista regime remains our most important -- and most
difficult -- bilateral issue with the Government of Nicaragua. After
1990, the elected Violeta Chamorro government established an extensive
administrative process to sort out pending claims for land and
properties which the Sandinistas had expropriated. Since then, more
than 5,500 Nicaraguans and non-Nicaraguans have filed some 16,000
claims against the GON. The current government of President Arnoldo
Aleman has continued this process and has consistently promised to
work with the United States to find acceptable, fair forms of
compensation for American citizens.
The U.S. Embassy in Managua has set up a special Property Claims
office staffed by a full-time American officer and two Nicaraguan
employees dedicated solely to assisting U.S. claimants. Thanks in
large part to the work of Embassy officials from the Ambassador on
down, successive Nicaraguan governments have made encouraging progress
in stepping up the pace of claims resolution. As of August 31, 1999,
the Nicaraguan Government has resolved 2564 U.S. citizen claims. Of a
total of 2330 claims filed at the Embassy, 1436 have been resolved. In
addition, 1128 cases have been resolved despite never having been
filed with the Embassy. 330 U.S. citizens have had all their claims
resolved. Separately, 321 U.S. citizens have physically recovered some
or all of their properties.
In July, Secretary Albright issued the sixth annual waiver of Section
527 provisions which, had they not been waived, would have prohibited
most forms of bilateral aid to Nicaragua. Her decision was based first
on the fact that Section 527 would have provoked disastrous results
for Nicaragua's economic reform process, particularly in the wake of
the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch. But her decision was also
based on our sense that the Government of Nicaragua (GON) --
particularly under President Aleman -- is making good progress in
resolving claims. The rate of claims resolution has increased
significantly. The GON resolved 466 U.S. cases during the August
1998-July 1999 waiver year and 434 during the 1997-1998 waiver year --
as compared to an average of 277 cases per year from 1991 to 1996.
These figures represent not only a dramatic increase, but also an
"evening out" of the pace of resolution, with the GON now steadily
resolving a consistent 30 to 40 American claims per month.
While we know of 2564 resolved cases, there are still 894 unresolved
U.S. claims in the Embassy data base as of August 31, 1999. Many of
these cases involve lands which are occupied by legally constituted
cooperatives or other entities. Removing them would cause considerable
social and economic disruption, and could, in many cases, be illegal.
Several U.S. claimants in this situation have accepted 15-year, local
currency government bonds as compensation. However, this solution is
unsatisfactory to many claimants, who are now seeking compensation
either in property of comparable value, hard currency or in shares in
companies to be privatized. Legislation exists to permit property
swaps, but a new law would have to be enacted to allow equity shares
to be used as compensation. In addition, many claimants are seeking
resolution of their claims via the Nicaraguan court system. The GON
has promised to set up special property courts, although this
mechanism has not been established or tested.
The U.S. Government has emphasized to the GON the importance of
establishing property courts and the property swap and equity shares
compensation alternatives, and the Embassy is committed to working
with the GON to ensure that these mechanisms function efficiently and
We are making solid progress on the property issue, but we must
maintain constructive pressure on the Government of Nicaragua.
Americans have been patient in seeking resolution and deserve a fair
shake. Like many members of the Subcommittee -- and like many U.S.
citizen claimants. We are frustrated with this difficult, slow
process. Alternate forms of compensation, the opening of the property
courts and continued direct engagement by the Embassy are crucial.
With perseverance and insistence, I believe we can eventually find
acceptable resolutions to all outstanding property claims.
Political Situation In Venezuela
Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela by a wide margin in
December 1998 on the promise of eliminating corruption and
inefficiency in government and ensuring social justice. Seven months
after his inauguration, Chavez continues to enjoy an approval rating
around 80%.
In April, Venezuelans returned to the polls to vote on a referendum,
voting overwhelmingly in favor of the formation of a National
Constituent Assembly (ANC) to draft a new Constitution. Elected on
July 25, the vast majority of the 131-member ANC supports President
Chavez. The ANC was given 6 months to complete a draft of a new
Constitution; however, Chavez has asked the ANC to accelerate its work
and to finish within 3 months.
The process was off to a difficult start in August, when turf
conflicts between the new ANC and established institutions threatened
to overtake action on Venezuela's needed reforms. In August the ANC
issued two decrees to establish committees to investigate the judicial
and legislative branches. The Assembly's claim to "originating" powers
(in essence, establishing its superiority to the existing branches of
government) was indirectly upheld in a Supreme Court opinion and the
President of the Court resigned in protest. The Congress attempted to
come back into plenary session, despite a previous agreement to remain
in recess, and the ANC issued emergency decrees limiting Congress's
powers. Approximately two weeks after the crisis began, an agreement
brokered by the Catholic Church, resulted in a new written
"cohabitation" accord. Under the terms of the agreement, the Congress
will resume plenary sessions on October 2, the traditional end of the
summer recess.
In the wake of the public dispute with the Congress, the ANC declared
it would intensify its work on the new Constitution. While further
political friction is almost certain, it appears that the GOV, the ANC
and the opposition are buckling down to the work of writing the
constitution and revamping the country's institutions.
The majority of Venezuelans believe that profound change of their
national institutions is necessary, and they have tasked the ANC with
that responsibility. As a long time friend of Venezuela we recognize
the importance of that undertaking. At the same time, we emphasize in
our contacts with Venezuelans that democracy begets democracy. That
is, changing the rules of democracy must take place in a democratic
fashion and requires constant attention to the principles of due
process, respect for minorities, compromise, and reconciliation of
divergent interests. The process of change must respect checks and
balances as well as fundamental democratic principles. The ideal, of
course, is consensus; and when unanimity is not possible, it is
essential that debate on the issues be open, cordial, and inclusive.
In addition, we believe that the current focus on political and
institutional issues has obscured the dire need for Venezuelan
government engagement on economic policy. The nation is in its deepest
recession in a decade with unemployment at 15 percent while
protectionist rhetoric and political uncertainty dampen investor
sentiment. These economic issues must be addressed forthrightly even
as the ANC continues its work on the proposed new constitution.
Haiti: Elections and the Status of U.S. and UN Forces
September marks the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led effort that
restored elected and constitutional government to Haiti. Although
Haiti's political and economic progress has been impeded by a
prolonged and divisive political impasse, we remain committed to
helping the country achieve sustainable democracy and a level of
economic growth that will lift the Haitian people out of abject
poverty. Since the intervention, Haiti has achieved five continuous
years of elected government, and the human rights situation --
although imperfect -- has improved. The macro-economic situation has
stabilized. The Haitian government has made initial progress in
privatizing state-owned industries but much remains to be done.
Illegal migration, which surged to some 40,000 annually during the
1991-94 period of de facto military rule, is now greatly reduced.
Despite some problems with low-level corruption and attrition, the
four-year-old Haitian National Police has become the most professional
and apolitical security force Haiti has ever had.
The deadlock between the Haitian Executive and Legislative branches
hindered progress in many areas. Although international assistance to
the justice sector has made some inroads -- particularly in giving
average Haitians access to legal counsel -- the judicial system
remains weak. While the economy is stable, it is not growing at a
sufficient pace to bring Haiti out of its profound poverty.
U.S. Military Support Group
The U.S. Military Support Group has contributed significantly to U.S.
objectives in Haiti and provided much needed assistance to the Haitian
people. Although the Support Group's focus has been humanitarian
assistance, its presence has been invaluable in promoting stability
and security during Haiti's transition. Plans are underway for the
redeployment home in early 2000 of the 400-strong U.S. Military
Support Group in Haiti. This redeployment does not constitute the
termination of our military presence in Haiti. We will continue to be
engaged militarily and are currently reviewing proposed programs for
the area. Furthermore, this redeployment does not in any way indicate
a retreat by the U.S. from helping Haiti develop its economy and
strengthen its nascent democratic institutions.
The UN International-Civilian Police Mission (MIPONUH)
The UN International Civilian Police Mission (MIPONUH) has been
critical in helping Haiti develop an increasingly credible police
force. MIPONUH's mandate is due to lapse November 30. We are currently
working with the UN and other donors to obtain passage in the United
Nations General Assembly of a new mandate for a smaller and
restructured UN police assistance mission. The proposed entity will
consolidate under the Representative of the Secretary General both
MIPONUH's police mentoring functions and aspects of the human rights
monitoring role now conducted by the OAS/UN International Civilian
Mission in Haiti (MICIVIH).
In a few months from now, Haiti will hold legislative, regional, and
local elections. These elections are critical to fully restoring the
Parliament that lapsed January 11 of this year. We are urging the
Haitians to hold these elections as soon as possible in a free, fair
and transparent manner. President Preval appointed a
broadly-acceptable Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), which --
although encountering some organizational difficulties has performed
in a credible and competent manner. The CEP added to its credibility
when it decided to rerun in upcoming elections the two still-contested
senate seats from the flawed April 1997 vote. The U.S. and
international community are actively engaged in helping Haiti prepare
for the upcoming elections. We are contributing $16 million (over two
fiscal years) for assistance to the CEP and international monitors as
well as for support to civil society groups to promote a climate
conducive of free and fair elections.
(end text)

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