Rebels Continue to Disarm in Colombia

Rebels and paramilitary fighters who have laid down their arms in Colombia (search) could soon be slaughtering hogs and cultivating blueberries if a proposal by members of Congress succeeds.

The American proposal, outlined in letters obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, has been embraced by Colombia's president as a "significant and critical initiative."

More than 5,000 Marxist rebels (search) and their right-wing paramilitary foes have disarmed since President Alvaro Uribe took office two years ago. The president launched a military offensive that has pushed Colombia's outlawed groups deep into the jungles and mountains of this Andean nation.

Fearing that the former fighters will be sucked back into the conflict or enter Colombia's cocaine and heroin-producing business, Rep. Henry Hyde (search), R-Ill., and eight other lawmakers have urged Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development to help create jobs for them and other Colombians.

So far, most of the $3.3 billion in aid Washington has given Colombia since 2000 has been military assistance. Now, because of the success of military operations by Colombian troops, the lawmakers say jobs must be provided to consolidate these victories.

"Colombia ... remains a top national security priority," the U.S. lawmakers said in almost identical Sept. 22 letters to Veneman and USAID administrator Andrew Natsios. "Today, as we build on our record of success and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe brings the rule of law to previously uncontrolled areas of Colombia, we are reaching a critical turning point."

Uribe told Hyde in a letter Tuesday that he is enthusiastic about the plan and that it is important to promote job creation as the United States and Colombia establish a free-trade agreement.

"Both of our countries must ensure, as we deepen our trade and investment relationship, that we do not undermine the significant gains in security and rural employment," Uribe wrote.

While some alternative development projects have been launched in Colombia with U.S. aid, the new proposals, which would cost more than $3.5 million, are aimed at demobilized fighters and Colombians who have fled their homes because of the war:

— Swine fever eradication effort. "This effort would not only be consistent with long-term U.S. agricultural policy dedicated to eliminating animal diseases posing a threat to U.S. livestock, but it would also create a significant number of manual jobs (e.g., vaccinations) in Colombia," the letters said.

— Mobile swine slaughter facilities.

— Promoting the exportation of uchuvas, an orange-colored sour fruit, "thus allowing a larger volume of exports of this small fruit and creating jobs in key areas of Colombia ... where the demobilized can be used to pick the fruit and gain legal employment."

— Expanding blueberry cultivation, especially in cool, mountain climates where heroin-producing poppies are grown. "Blueberries could provide an alternative to growing illegal drugs," the lawmakers' letters noted.

Hyde, the chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, and the other lawmakers also called for continued funding of a center dedicated to facilitating trade in agricultural goods and for a new position to be added in the United States that would guide Colombia in U.S. regulations on pest-risk analysis.

Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert with the Center for International Policy in Washington, said the plan opens the door for more Colombian products to be exported to the United States, which would fuel job growth in Colombia.

"It sounds like a smart idea," Isacson said in a telephone interview. "They're talking about improving the quality of everything from pigs to uchuvas and raising the standards that imported agricultural products have to meet in the United States."

In addition to Hyde, the lawmakers who signed the letters were Tom Davis, R-Va.; Cass Ballenger, R-N.C.; Jerry Weller, R-Ill.; Katherine Harris, R-Fla.; Dan Burton, R-Ind.; John L. Mica, R-Fla.; Mark E. Souder, R-Ind.; and Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill.