In an editorial published in The Washington Post on May 10th, Robert Novak described Colombian President Alvaro Uribe´s latest visit to Washington as ¨catastrophic.¨ On May 3rd, President Uribe, who was reelected in 2006 for a second four-year term by 62 percent of voters, illustrated many of his administration´s achievements before a congressional committee in order to promote the approval of the free trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S, the future of which has been clouded in uncertainty since the Democrats´ victory in November´s elections. President Uribe referred to his policy of ¨Democratic Security,¨ a strategy that has ensured that millions of Colombians are once again able to use the country´s roads after they remained for years under the control of the FARC and other Marxist guerrillas, terrorists who would take advantage of the state´s absence in order to extort, to kill, to kidnap, to traffic narcotics. He referred to the peace process with the vicious right-wing paramilitary organizations, a procedure which, although problematic, has resulted in thousands of armed men surrendering their weapons and either returning to civilian life or serving prison sentences. He referred to Colombia´s unflinching alliance with the U.S in the war against drug-traffickers, a stern battle that is being waged with utmost courage by Colombia´s servicemen in the country´s ports, in its mountains, in its almost impenetrable jungles. All this, however, proved of little avail, for it seems the Democrats had made up their minds about Colombia and the trade agreement before the president could utter a word.
Before the meeting with Mr. Uribe, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated the Democrats ¨have serious questions about Colombia,¨ and that they hoped ¨to resolve them¨ with the president. It is reported, however, that during the conference she seemed more inclined to lecture Mr. Uribe than to listen to his account of Colombia´s situation. After the discussion she merely expressed her ¨growing concerns about the serious allegations of connections between paramilitary groups and a number of high-ranking Colombian officials,¨ adding that ¨those within Colombia who are calling for full disclosure about paramilitary influence should be commended for their constructive efforts to build a stronger democracy.¨
What Speaker Pelosi did not mention, however, is that these very links between Colombian officials, many of them pro-Uribe congressmen and army officers, would never have surfaced were it not for information gathered once the peace process begun by Mr. Uribe was underway. Instead of crediting the Uribe administration for giving the first impetus to a process of inquiry into hideous past crimes which would have otherwise remained concealed, the Democratic-controlled Congress has prolonged its hostility toward the Colombian government, most recently signaling that it would approve free trade agreements with Peru and Panama but not with Colombia. For Colombians, to receive such treatment from our principal ally is catastrophic indeed.
What is most worrisome about the Democrats´ stance is that their opposition to the trade agreement is not based on strictly commercial interests. Although the U.S, as Colombia´s principal trading partner, was the destination of just under 42 percent of total Colombian exports in 2005 according to UNCOMTRADE, a United Nations database, the U.S imported a meager 0.53 percent of total imports from Colombia in that same year. Therefore, it is not a majority of congressmen fearful of a potential threat from Colombian competition who are opposing the agreement. Rather, the antagonism stems from the Democratic leadership itself, and its hostility seems to be purely ideological and perhaps even driven by a desire to punish President Uribe for his closeness to President Bush. In their retaliatory stance toward Colombia, however, Speaker Pelosi and other influential Democrats are ignoring the great majority of citizens who have supported the Uribe administration and its policies for five years, and instead they are heeding the interests of individuals like Mr. Gustavo Petro, a current Senator who is also a former member of the M-19, the radical leftist guerrilla group which seized Colombia´s Supreme Court in 1985 and caused the slaughter of 53 civilians, including 11 Supreme Court Justices.
Invited to Washington in early March by the United Steelworkers Union, Petro stated before Congressman Sander Levin and other prominent Democratic leaders that the free trade agreement would benefit only the paramilitary groups and large landowners, that the opposition in Colombia lacked guarantees and that President Uribe´s close associates were linked to right-wing death squads. Despite the fact that such outcries ring hollow in the ears of most Colombians, who are understandably skeptical when they hear such rhetoric from a former terrorist after withstanding the scourge of the world´s largest guerrilla force for five decades, Petro´s diatribes have been received warmly by Speaker Pelosi and other influential Democrats. It is curious, however, that while Speaker Pelosi claims to be greatly concerned about charges of human rights violations in Colombia, she is at the same time seeking closer dealings with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, an open supporter of Hezbollah who may shortly be forced to answer to the United Nations for his alleged involvement in the 2005 murder of a former Lebanese Prime Minister.
The Democrats´ views on the situation in Colombia are therefore skewed, and they fail to take into account several important details about the so called para-political scandal. As mentioned before, the incarceration of numerous congressmen, mostly supporters of Uribe´s policies, is a phenomenon that would not have arisen were it not for the peace process that President Uribe himself initiated. Most importantly, the computer files linking numerous politicians and the illegal right-wing groups were found after the state gained access to the PC of a paramilitary leader involved in the peace negotiations. This clearly demonstrates that, as columnist María Isabel Rueda wrote in February, ¨Uribe began a process that, despite its defects, allowed the hand of justice to reach the political class.¨ While most Colombians are keenly aware of this, Democratic leaders believe that they are better informed about the country´s problems after listening to reports from Uribe´s critics at their Capitol Hill offices.
There is no doubt, however, that the concerns of Democrats such as Congressman Levin about the state´s ties to paramilitaries are legitimate. ¨History,¨ nevertheless, ¨is a better guide than good intentions,¨ as Jeanne Kirkpatrick once wrote, and any objective analysis of Colombia´s past would reveal that blaming the Uribe administration for paramilitary activity in general and its close ties to the state apparatus is simplistic and short-sighted. Paramilitarism, in fact, is a complex phenomenon which first arose over two decades ago, which originated from the institutional weakness that has characterized Colombia since the nation gained its independence, and which is being corrected for the first time under the current government. Increased access to the U.S market, however, would greatly diminish the paramilitaries´ strength, for the new financial opportunities would allow thousands of Colombians to pursue legal ways to make a living instead of being forced to join the ranks of an illegal armed group or to depend on the drug trade out of sheer poverty.
It is clear, therefore, that while approving a free trade agreement with Colombia would neither greatly harm nor benefit the American economy, the effects of such a deal would be significant for Colombia. According to Business Week´s Robin Farzad, who describes Colombia´s progress under President Uribe as an ¨improbable journey from a crime capital to an investment hot spot,¨ the free trade deal is ¨crucial both for the tangible economic benefits and the conceptual ones.¨ ¨Winning full trade benefits with the U.S,¨ Farzad explains, ¨would do much to bolster the fragile investor confidence¨ which has nevertheless led to an ¨investment miracle.¨ This, he adds, could in turn bring about ¨long-term economic development.¨
Rejecting a trade agreement with Colombia, however, would be disastrous, and perhaps not so much commercially as psychologically, for Colombia has stood firm beside America in recent history. A firm ally against Communism since the Korean War, Colombia has fought drug-trafficking alongside the U.S for two decades, and it has declared itself an unwavering ally in combating terrorism. This is not to suggest that Colombia´s support can compare to that of a world power. Nonetheless, the obvious inequality between the U.S and Colombia in terms of economic and military capacity does not violate the fact that an alliance is never completely one-sided. As Vice-President Francisco Santos confessed recently, a rejection of the trade agreement would only force Colombia to carefully reconsider the grounds of a partnership that yields only vague benefits. Although the Uribe administration and most Colombians would prefer to avoid this scenario, some are awaiting it eagerly, for they would regard any distancing from Washington as a silent triumph.
Congress´ rejection of the free trade pact would certainly be a victory for the FARC and the ELN, terrorist groups who not only oppose the deal themselves, but who would be partially vindicated in their traditional criticism of the government´s alliance with the U.S. It would be a victory for Colombia´s protectionist dinosaurs, backward socialists who, as Alvaro Vargas Llosa explains, hold on to an ¨idiotic¨ faith in ¨revolution, economic nationalism, (and) hatred of the United States....¨ This view is reflected perfectly in a recent ELN press release stating that a free trade agreement with the U.S would ¨undermine Colombia´s sovereignty, the future of the nation and the interest of the great majority of Colombians,¨ and this coming from a group that seeks to advance ¨the future of the nation¨ by murdering, kidnapping, and drug dealing while espousing the Marxist-Leninist ideology that led to the downfall of the Soviet states.
Last but not least, a failure to ratify the deal would be a victory for Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and his ambitions to dominate Latin America. Unopposed in the Venezuelan Congress, ruling unchecked and by decree, having created his own private armed militia, having placed military personnel in key civilian positions, having shut down large independent media sources, Mr. Chávez, who already has followers in every corner of South America, would undoubtedly be strengthened further in the Andean region by the U.S´ rejection of a trade agreement with Colombia. If the U.S Congress shuns its principal ally in South America- perhaps its only unconditional Latin American ally- Mr. Chávez would undoubtedly seize the opportunity. Using his typical demagoguery, he would let the world know how the U.S treats its friends while spreading his petrodollars and his authoritarian ideology into the neighboring nation.
In short, Congress´ refusal to ratify a trade deal with President Uribe would only strengthen South America´s illiberal, anti-democratic and anti-American elements, forces which are already enjoying much momentum across the continent. Let us therefore hope that the Democrats will overcome their present short-sightedness, and that the Colombo-American alliance will not be shattered to the benefit of narco-terrorists, backward protectionists and Venezuela´s expansionist tyrant.
See Speaker Pelosi´s press release, http://www.speaker.gov/newsroom/pressreleases?id=0165.