El Tiempo asked me yesterday to briefly discuss the political implications of President Bush awarding Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The focus of this piece, as a result, is different from the joint NGO statement we signed on to yesterday – more of a “news analysis” than a protest.
Here is the English. The Spanish is on El Tiempo’s website. My byline doesn’t appear (a blessing, perhaps), but it’s me.
President Uribe has little to gain or lose by accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington Tuesday. The negative and the positive nearly cancel each other out, leaving his ability to pursue his agenda in the United States little changed.
There are clear political risks, though. For many of the now-ruling Democrats, President Bush’s decision to give Uribe the United States’ highest civilian honor reignites the past two years’ bitter debates over the Free Trade Agreement and the future of U.S. assistance. These debates raised the profile of Colombia’s continuing human rights scandals, para-politics, and President Uribe’s own repeated attacks on human rights defenders, the media and the judiciary. For many, then, the spectacle of President Bush appearing to ignore these concerns will increase their desire to remake his Colombia policy.
Another, equally serious, risk is that the medal increases the perception that Uribe is partisan. Uribe, who met with both John McCain and Sarah Palin, already has to confront a perception that Obama was not his candidate. Now, he will be visiting Bush in his final days to receive the same award to the CIA Director and the civilian and military leaders of the Iraq invasion, which generated an enormous outcry in December 2004.
President Uribe has not done enough to dispel the notion that he is in Washington to offer a final valedictory to George Bush. His public message to the next administration appears to be one of nostalgia for the Bush years, instead of a desire to work constructively with the incoming team.
On the other hand, it’s not all risk for President Uribe. Despite recent politicization, the Medal of Freedom remains prestigious. He is receiving an award that only thirteen other foreign leaders have received in the past sixty years. Foreign Medal of Freedom awardees are an elite group that includes Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. Among the majority of U.S. policymakers who pay little attention to Colombia, the medal confers a strong measure of legitimacy: “He has a Medal of Freedom. His critics must be exaggerating.”
Uribe, then, will return to Colombia with a shade more prestige, but also with stronger questions about human rights and a greater perception that he is tied to a deeply unpopular U.S. president and his out-of-power party. The Medal of Freedom’s net effect is likely to be minimal.