Nov 03

U.S. policy toward Colombia has come up only rarely during the long U.S. presidential campaign. The pending free-trade agreement was discussed on occasion, including a brief mention in the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Colombia has been mentioned, usually in vague terms, in the candidates’ few policy declarations about Latin America. And McCain paid a visit to Colombia in early July that got little media attention.

Nonetheless, between those few words, their records, and their choice of advisors, it is possible to divine how the two candidates would, if elected, carry out U.S. policy toward Colombia.

One thing is certain from the start. The arrival of a new administration – even an Obama administration, with its promises of “change” – would not mean Year Zero for U.S. policy toward Colombia. Nobody is proposing to start over. President Álvaro Uribe and his government would continue to be one of the United States’ only close friends in South America. Colombia would continue to be one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. military assistance. Despite its evident failure to reduce cocaine supplies, the current drug-war paradigm will not shift quickly.

While neither candidate proposes to rethink the entire approach, each would take U.S. policy toward Colombia in significantly different directions.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona)

Past Latin America experience: McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone where his father, an admiral, was stationed. During the 1980s, he was an ardent supporter of the Reagan administration’s military support for El Salvador and sponsorship of the contra insurgency in Nicaragua. McCain was associated with the U.S. Council for World Freedom, a far-right organization headed by retired Gen. John Singlaub, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1985, McCain traveled to Chile for a “friendly and at times warm” meeting with then-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. He traveled to Colombia at the beginning of July to pay a very friendly visit to President Uribe.

Most visible Latin America advisors:

  • Adolfo Franco, a Cuban-born lawyer who headed the Inter-American Foundation in 1999-2000, then spent five years during the Bush administration as the assistant administrator for Western Hemisphere Affairs at USAID.
  • Otto Reich, a Cuban-born official who held Franco’s USAID post from 1981-1983 before serving as director of Public Diplomacy at the State Department, ambassador to Venezuela, and, for a brief time during the Bush administration, as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Reich is considered one of Washington’s hardest-line conservatives where Latin America policy is concerned; the “extreme” label doesn’t apply as much to Franco, though both advisors would maintain or strengthen the Bush administration’s approach to Cuba.

Recent statements mentioning Colombia:

Relations with President Uribe: For geopolitical reasons – the utter lack of governments in the region who are anywhere near as friendly to the United States – both candidates are likely to continue the special relationship that has developed between the U.S. government and Uribe’s administration.

As he made clear during his July visit to Colombia, though, McCain views Uribe as the model of the type of leader whom he would support in the region, and he would tighten this relationship still further. Criticisms of human rights abuse, or concerns about checks and balances on presidential power in Colombia, would likely be muted at best.

Plan Colombia and U.S. aid: Due to the U.S. financial collapse and the cost of the federal bailout, there may be less money available for foreign aid over the next few years – regardless of who is elected president. In fact, it is not unreasonable to expect an across-the-board worldwide cut in the foreign aid budget, in which Colombia would participate.

Even if the size of Colombia’s pie is reduced, however, we can expect a McCain administration to fight the Democratic Congress to ensure that the majority of this aid continues to go to Colombia’s armed forces and police. We can expect a McCain administration to continue the Bush administration’s anti-drug strategy in Colombia.

Free trade: The McCain campaign has repeatedly affirmed its support for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and Sen. McCain has attacked Sen. Obama for opposing its ratification this year. The brief discussion of the topic during the last presidential debate is illustrative of the contrast between the candidates on the FTA issue.

Outlook: During the 1980s McCain aligned himself with the Oliver North wing of the Republican Party when it came to Latin America policy. It is not clear whether, in the moments when he has focused on Latin America or Colombia over the intervening years, his thinking has evolved. A McCain presidency, at least at first, might resemble the first terms of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, when those running U.S. policy toward the region were from the party’s more ideological, less pragmatic tendency.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois)

Past Latin America experience: Senator Obama has done very little work on U.S. policy toward Latin America in the past, though his upbringing in Indonesia would indicate a familiarity with the challenges faced by developing countries. During his four years in the Senate, he co-signed at least two letters expressing concern about human rights in Colombia. [PDF] [HTML]

Most visible Latin America advisors:

  • Dan Restrepo worked on Western Hemisphere issues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the 1990s, when Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana) and Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Connecticut), both of them foreign-policy moderates, were the respective committee and Western Hemisphere Subcommittee chairs. Restrepo now directs the Americas Program at the left-of-center Center for American Progress, which has hosted events for President Uribe and top Colombian government officials, while also publishing a 2007 report by Columbia University’s Aldo Civico urging greater U.S. support for a negotiated peace in Colombia.
  • Arturo Valenzuela, a professor at Georgetown University, directed Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council during President Clinton’s second term. He was an important supporter of the Plan Colombia aid package in 2000.

Recent statements mentioning Colombia:

Relations with President Uribe: The above statements have included praise for Alvaro Uribe and his government. However, it is easy to infer that an Obama administration’s embrace of President Uribe might not be as tight as it was under George Bush or would be under John McCain. Some distancing in the relationship could result from (a) Obama’s opposition to ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement; (b) a greater emphasis on human rights, which could lead to disagreements about impunity and some of President Uribe’s past statements about human rights defenders; (c) concerns about the relationship should Uribe seek a third term; and (d) a perception – fair or not – that President Uribe and his circle favored McCain during the 2008 campaign, including Uribe’s status as one of a small handful of world leaders to have met with Sarah Palin in New York in September.

Plan Colombia and U.S. aid:While the financial crisis may force a reduction in aid to Colombia no matter who is elected, it is likely that an Obama administration, working with the Democratic Congress, might seek a greater balance between military and non-military aid. (That balance right now is 65% in favor of military aid.) An Obama administration could take a more stringent approach to enforcement of human-rights conditions that foreign-aid law applies to military aid. And while the Obama campaign’s statements about anti-drug programs in Colombia have been vague – along the lines of “we’re going to stop doing what’s not working, and do more of what is working” – there is at least some possibility that this could translate into a move away from the failed aerial herbicide fumigation program, and toward a more comprehensive rural governance strategy to curb coca production.

Free trade: Obama has made clear during the campaign that he opposes quick ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, citing concerns about labor rights. He has also made clear that he supported the Peru FTA, however, which probably means that he would probably not seek to re-negotiate the similar Colombia agreement. Obama said in the last debate that instead, he wants to see improvements in levels of violence against Colombian labor leaders, and in levels of impunity for past cases.

Outlook: While a Democratic administration and a Democratic Congress might place greater weight on human rights, labor rights, poverty and inequality, the Democratic Party is not a monolith. It was the Democratic Clinton administration, after all, that gave us a package of mostly military aid in the 2000 “Plan Colombia” appropriation, while bitterly opposing congressional Democrats’ efforts to attach human rights conditions to the aid. The Clinton administration also supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, which continues to be unpopular with organized labor, and signed into law the Helms-Burton provisions tightening the embargo on Cuba. To its credit, though, it also launched some important multilateral forums, such as the Summits of the Americas and the regular Defense Ministerials, which have foundered during the past eight years.

An Obama presidency’s policy toward Colombia, and indeed toward Latin America as a whole, could be the product of constant give-and-take – and occasionally outright disagreement – between the more pro-elite, “realist” officials that dominated during the Clinton years, and the more progressive, human-rights-and-development tendency that has been strongly represented among the Democrats’ congressional leadership. The Colombia policy that results would likely be stronger on human rights, economic development, and encouragement of multilateral solutions, while maintaining the security focus and rhetorical support for President Uribe that have characterized the U.S. approach over the past several years.

Oct 17

An editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal criticizes Sen. Barack Obama for saying the following about Colombia in Wednesday’s presidential debate:

The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination, on a fairly consistent basis, and there have not been any prosecutions.

This, the Journal says, is an example of Obama “repeating union distortions” about labor violence in Colombia.

It is true that Colombia has seen progress on labor violence according to one measure: the absolute number of labor-union leaders, organizers and members killed. Estimates vary, and labor-rights defenders contend that acts of anti-union violence have, in fact, increased dramatically this year. Nonetheless, killings of unionists have dropped since the worst period of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Journal’s argument, however, cannot overturn Sen. Obama’s second objection: that prosecutions, another very crucial measure, have seen little improvement.

Today’s editorial tries to make the case:

As for prosecutions: In union-member killings, there were zero convictions from 1991-2000 and one in 2001. But from 2002-2007, there were 80.

The argument collapses right here. Eighty convictions in six years is an extremely poor result. It is not a number to celebrate – especially when the total universe of cases from the past twenty years is well over 2,000. This statistic is one of the strongest arguments that opponents of the free-trade agreement could employ.

It shows that even though labor killings are reduced from 2002 or so, the impunity rate for such killings has barely budged. In nearly all labor killings, the murderers – both the planners and the trigger-pullers – are still at large and have little to fear from the justice system.

Until the prosecution rate for unionist killings improves, the Free Trade Agreement will continue to be a hard sell in Washington.

Hopes for improvement hinge on the work of the Labor Sub-Unit of the Colombian government’s Prosecutor-General’s Office, which is trying to make progress on dozens of “benchmark cases.” Observers, notably Rep. George Miller (R-California), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, have questioned whether this Sub-Unit will be able to make significant progress at current levels of funding, political and institutional support.

If it does not, the agreement’s opponents will continue to have a very strong argument.

Oct 15

The Colombia Free-Trade Agreement got a brief mention in tonight’s debate between Barack Obama and John McCain.

When Obama mentions labor-union killings in Colombia, McCain – perhaps not realizing he was on camera? – grimaces oddly. The liberal blog called it “McCain’s Freaky Eyebrow Moment“:

Sep 10

From Colombian Embassy lobbying materials being distributed this week (PDF).

We’re hearing reports from Capitol Hill that an enormous delegation of Colombians has descended on them.

Led by Colombian Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata and funded (or at least mostly funded) by the Colombian government, at least eighty government officials, businesspeople, pro-trade labor unionists, former combatants and others have fanned out across the U.S. Congress this week. Divided into eight separate groups, each with a different agenda of legislative lobby visits, their goal is to sell the controversial U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

The FTA’s ratification has been stalled since April, when House Democratic leaders responded to the Bush administration’s effort to force a debate by removing the strict timetable, known as “fast track,” in the rules governing congressional consideration of trade treaties.

The Colombian visitors hope to nudge the U.S. Congress into considering the FTA before the 110th Congress adjourns at the end of the year. That is unlikely to happen. Congress will recess on September 26 – two-and-a-half weeks from now – so that members can return to their home states and campaign for the November 4 elections. It is not clear whether they will come back between the elections and the early January inauguration of the 111th Congress, a period punctuated by the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays known as a “lame duck session.”

There may not be a lame duck session this year, Reuters, repeating what we have also been hearing, reported yesterday: “Democratic leaders in Congress say their plan is to finish up whatever work there is to do in the next several weeks and not return until early 2009, when a newly elected president and lawmakers will take office.”

The Colombian government has nonetheless pulled out all the stops. Just consider the expenses incurred for the current lobby visit.

Assume a four-day stay in Washington for 80 people. We have hosted enough visitors from Latin America over the years to know that a visit to Washington is not cheap. These are very conservative estimates:

  • Airfare, visa fees, aiport taxes – assume $900 per person. (More if the visitor didn’t fly coach, or had to fly first from a Colombian city without an international airport.)
  • Hotels, four nights – assume $1,000 per person. (Go to and try to find a room in downtown DC for less than $250, including taxes, this time of year.)
  • Food and ground transportation, four days – assume $200 per person.

That brings us to $2,100 per person, or $168,000 for this week’s lobby visit. The real figure is likely higher, but even this is about 50% higher than CIP’s expenditures on all Colombia-specific work this year. On the other hand, it is equal only to what the U.S. government provides to Colombia’s police and military every 3 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, President Álvaro Uribe will be passing through Washington next week, while visiting the United States to attend the UN General Assembly. The blitz continues.

Apr 12

Good morning from Bogotá. I spent the entire day yesterday in a conference / strategy meeting attended by more than 100 human-rights defenders from all over Colombia. Though it was fascinating and informative, it did have a few slow moments, during which I wrote the following about this week’s fight over the free-trade agreement.

Many Republican members of Congress from blue-collar, swing districts no doubt breathed a sigh of relief yesterday. Thanks to the House Democratic leadership’s unprecedented change in the “fast track” rules, these vulnerable legislators would not have to cast a potentially damaging vote for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement before the November elections.

While opinions about the FTA diverge sharply, few members of Congress could have been anxious to debate and vote on a controversial free-trade agreement in the midst of an election year (an election year in which the free trade issue has already arisen a few times), while the economy appears to be in recession. In this climate, even an FTA with Canada or Norway would have been in trouble – and Colombia is not Canada or Norway.

Now that “fast track” is stripped out, though, what happens next? This week’s move in Congress leaves some key questions unanswered.

1. Is the agreement dead, or is the intention to bring it up in 2009?

While the White House and House Republican leaders clearly believe that the FTA was “killed” on Thursday, that is not certain. Some speculate that the Congress might try to vote on the FTA between the November election and the January negotiation. A more likely scenario could be that it comes up in 2009, with a new (presumably Democratic-majority) Congress and a new (anyone’s guess which party) administration.

Bringing up the agreement in 2009 would give Colombia’s justice system more time to reach verdicts in dozens – we would prefer hundreds – of cases against union-members’ murderers. A year to take a big piece out of the impunity that labor leaders’ killers have traditionally enjoyed. If that progress takes place, one of the Democrats’ main objections to the FTA would be weakened, and even a President Obama or a President Clinton might argue that their expectations for change in Colombia have been met.

2. Will the agreement have to be re-negotiated?

Even if Colombia locks up dozens of unionist killers by next year, however, the agreement will still be very controversial. The U.S. labor community will continue to oppose the FTA as another example of an objectionable “model” or “template” that dates back to NAFTA and CAFTA. Others will remain concerned about other aspects of the treaty like its effect on smallholding agriculture in Colombia or the impact of higher intellectual property standards.
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Apr 09

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has just announced that she will take the unprecedented step of stripping “fast track” language from the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. This would allow the House to postpone consideration of the FTA for months – or indefinitely.

AP reports:

Pelosi said she will bring a procedural change to the House floor on Thursday that would remove the timetable under which Congress would have had to take up trade bills within 90 legislative days after they are received from the White House.

“The president took action” in submitting the Colombia free trade agreement to Congress on Tuesday, she said. “I will take mine tomorrow.”

Pelosi’s statement is here.

A January story from Reuters reporter Doug Palmer explained that the House Rules Committee has the prerogative to remove fast-track authority, but that doing so sets a precedent that may affect future trade treaties.

Now with the Doha round of world trade talks edging toward a possible conclusion, the fight between the White House and Democratic-controlled Congress over the Colombia deal threatens to unravel the inner workings of fast track.

On the surface, the law requires both houses of Congress to approve or reject a trade deal within 90 days of receiving it from the White House and without making any changes.

But ultimately, parliamentary experts say, fast track is a congressional “rule” for considering trade deals. Lawmakers can vote to change the procedures if they want or even exclude a certain trade agreement from fast track protection.

“The parts that deal with procedures in the House and the Senate remain exercises of the rule making power and subject to change by further rule making,” said a congressional expert on House legislative procedures.

So, if Bush submits the Colombia agreement to Congress over the objections of senior Democrats, it is possible lawmakers could create a new rule releasing themselves from the obligation of having to consider the pact.


In the long run that could be worse for U.S. trade policy than an outright rejection of the Colombia trade pact. It would destroy fast track as a procedure for getting trade deals through Congress, said R.K. “Judge” Morris, president of the Global Business Dialogue, a trade advocacy group.

“Once you have demonstrated that the law isn’t a law, in the sense that it can’t be tested by the courts and you can’t enforce it, then it loses value,” Morris said.

Apr 07

As he sent the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress this morning, President Bush painted a picture of the Colombian government’s human-rights efforts that sounded nothing sort of miraculous.

In discussions about the Colombia free trade agreement, some members of Congress have raised concerns about the conditions in Colombia. President Uribe has addressed these issues. He’s addressed violence by demobilizing tens of thousands of paramilitary figures and fighters. He’s addressed attacks on trade unionists by stepping up funding for prosecutions, establishing an independent prosecutors unit, and creating a special program that protects labor activists. He’s made clear that the economic benefits the agreement brings to Colombia would strengthen the fight against drugs and terror, by creating a more hopeful alternative for the people of Colombia.

If this isn’t enough to earn America’s support, what is? President Uribe has done everything asked of him.

This is a terribly partial portrayal, ignoring some huge concerns in order to portray Colombia’s rather ugly human-rights situation in the best possible light. While Colombia has taken some initial steps on crucial human rights issues, what remains to be done is huge, and the political will to do it is uncertain.

The Latin America Working Group Education Fund reminds us of this with a newly released, well-researched, balanced memo about Colombia’s human rights situation. Entitled “So Far to Go: Human Rights in Colombia” (PDF), the 17-page document adds a badly needed dose of perspective. No recent document produced by any group provides a similar synthesis of the very serious issues that Colombia is confronting, or failing to confront.

“So Far to Go” is a necessary accompaniment to the partial version of events one reads in the U.S. and Colombian governments’ celebratory statements. Below is an overview from LAWGEF Executive Director Lisa Haugaard.

A new report [PDF] by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund shows that on a variety of indicators, human rights problems in Colombia persist and in some cases are intensifying.  “So Far to Go: Human Rights in Colombia,” citing reliable nongovernmental, U.S. State Department, UN and OAS sources, reveals that extrajudicial executions of civilians by the Colombian armed forces appear to be on the increase, guerrilla violence continues, and paramilitaries, far from being completely disarmed, continue to threaten, intimidate and kill the civilian population, including human rights defenders and trade unionists.  The report shows, for example, that:

  • Colombia’s major human rights groups documented 955 extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by the Colombian armed forces between July 2002 and June 2007, compared with 577 over the previous five-year period, a 65 percent increase. The Colombian Commission of Jurists documents 13 cases in the first month of 2008. These cases, which are deliberate rather than cases of civilians caught in the crossfire, typically involve groups of soldiers detaining a civilian, who is seen by witnesses, and who later turns up dead, dressed in guerrilla clothing and claimed by the army as killed in combat.
  • From the start of the ceasefire agreement between the Colombian government and paramilitary forces in December 2002 until June 30, 2007, the Colombian Commission of Jurists documents at least 3,530 killings and disappearances by the paramilitaries (outside of combat). The guerrillas (FARC and ELN), who are not “demobilized,” and who have not signed a ceasefire agreement with the government, were responsible for 1,805 killings and disappearances of civilians during nearly the same time period (July 2002 through June 2007). Paramilitaries in a period of ceasefire and demobilization killed and disappeared nearly twice the number of civilians as the guerrillas who were still in active combat.
  • According to the government’s National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, paramilitary groups have killed at least 15 victims participating in the process and over 200 have received death threats. (“Nueva rebelion de los ex ‘paras’ profundiza rezagos en reparacion,” El Tiempo, 25 de julio de 2007)
  • “Although kidnapping, both for ransom and for political reasons, continued to diminish, it remained a serious problem. According to the Presidential Program for Human Rights, there were 289 kidnappings during the first eight months of the year, compared with 476 in the same period in 2006. The government’s National Fund for the Defense of Personal Liberty (Fondolibertad) reported 393 kidnappings for extortion during the first nine months of the year.” (State Department 2007 human rights report) The majority of kidnappings were carried out by common criminals and guerrilla groups.  Kidnap victims continued to be held for years in deplorable conditions. The release of a handful of high-profile kidnap victims provided one of the few rays of hope recently for kidnap victims’ families.
  • CODHES, the primary nongovernmental group tracking displacement, estimated that 305,966 people were displaced in 2007, a 27 percent increase from 2006.
Apr 03

One of Mark Penn’s employers, Hillary Clinton, opposes the Colombia FTA. Another, Burson-Marsteller, has been hired by the Colombian government to promote the FTA.

The Bush administration is nearing a likely exercise of the so-called “nuclear option” – introducing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement for ratification in Congress, against the will of the House Democratic majority and with no assurances that it will have enough votes to pass.

Once the bill is introduced, the so-called “fast track” rules for congressional debate would set in motion a countdown: the Congress would have ninety days in session (about five months) to bring the bill to a vote in both houses. That means the House of Representatives could be voting on the bill by June or July.

This will usher in a period of high-stakes political theater. And it is getting underway while the Democratic presidential candidates are competing in primary states – last month Ohio, now Pennsylvania – whose decaying industrial bases are believed to have been hit hard by free-trade agreements.

In these states, the whole idea of free trade is quite unpopular, especially with Democratic primary voters. A Democratic candidate who professes support for new free-trade agreements risks a voter backlash. As a result, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not only declared their opposition to the Colombia FTA, they have even been promising to re-negotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Now, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is threatening to become a new source of presidential campaign controversy. As the April 22 vote in Pennsylvania nears, we may see both Obama and Clinton competing to show which one opposes the Colombia deal more.

On Wednesday, Obama, citing the dangerous climate for labor organizing, reiterated his opposition to the Colombia agreement. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe put out a statement later that same day angrily rebuking Obama. “I deplore the fact that Senator Obama, aspiring to be president of the United States, should be unaware of Colombia’s efforts,” Uribe said. “I think it is for political calculations that he is making a statement that does not correspond to Colombia’s reality.”

Now the Wall Street Journal has a story on Friday’s front page pointing out that Senator Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, met on Monday with Carolina Barco, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, to discuss the FTA. In addition to working for the Clinton campaign, Penn heads a public-relations firm that the Colombian government hired last year to strategize on behalf of the FTA’s ratification.

To some extent, this isn’t surprising – Penn’s firm, Burson-Marsteller, is one of the largest PR agencies in the world. However, the perceived conflict with Senator Clinton’s anti-FTA stance could work to Obama’s advantage in Pennsylvania.

In February, Obama saw his Ohio campaign hurt badly by revelations that one of his economic advisors, University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee, had sought to reassure a Canadian consular official that Obama’s desire to re-negotiate NAFTA was nothing but idle campaign talk. Branding it “NAFTA-gate,” the Clinton campaign took maximum advantage of Goolsbee’s comments, and the attacks seemed to contribute to the margin of Obama’s loss in Ohio.

Now, with the Wall Street Journal running it on page one, we can expect a few days of counter-attacks from the Obama campaign about Mark Penn’s firm’s work in favor of the Colombia FTA.

As the Pennsylvania primary draws near, Colombia may become the subject of a national campaign controversy. If that comes to pass, we can expect an onslaught of distorted, simplistic rhetoric about security improvements, labor-union killings, Alvaro Uribe’s popularity, the drug trade, and much else.

Readers who know Colombia well: prepare to have your patience sorely tested.

Mar 19

As noted before, CIP is not an active participant in the debate over the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. But in the past week the Bush administration has unearthed a “national security” justification for the FTA that can’t be allowed to stand.

“As your national security advisor in that region, I will tell you that it is very important that the free trade agreement be passed from a national security perspective,” the commander of U.S. Southern Command, Adm. James Stavridis, told the House Armed Services Committee last week. “And, I hear that not just from senior people in Colombia, but from my interlocutors in the region. They’re watching very closely to see what happens to a nation that stands with the United States for a decade or more.” The admiral echoed an argument that President Bush used in speeches on March 12 and yesterday.

The administration is employing this argument in a specious, misleading and cynical way. As currently formulated, it could become a pretext for a host of irresponsible and counter-productive policies in Latin America and the Caribbean.

To the extent that it has been thought through, this “national security” argument seems to be based on four main debating points. Each of these points makes little sense, though, when considered on its own.

1. The FTA will make Colombia more secure by increasing economic prosperity, which will weaken the FARC.

White House “fact sheet”: A free trade agreement with Colombia would bring increased economic opportunity to the people of Colombia through sustained economic growth, new employment opportunities, and increased investment.

Dan Fisk, director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council: The free trade agreement, in our view, is critical to helping Colombia address the continuing threats it faces. First and foremost is the threat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the FARC. It continues — the FARC continues its assault on Colombian democracy, and its assault against the Colombian people. … In fact, if there’s one argument, I think, that is paramount in this is that we know that the main recruitment ground for terrorists, for guerillas or drug traffickers is poverty. The best way to get out of poverty is to create more and more opportunities for Colombians. That’s what President Uribe and the Colombian government is trying to do. That’s what the Colombia free trade agreement will do.

Whether the FTA will create prosperity in Colombia can be endlessly debated between credible experts on both sides. There does seem to be a rough consensus on two points, though:

  • Increased access to U.S. markets would probably mean job growth for Colombia’s export-oriented manufacturing sector, which is mainly based around big cities like Medellín, Bogotá and Barranquilla. (There is less consensus, obviously, about whether these would be unionized jobs or even “good jobs at good wages.”)
  • In rural areas, export-oriented agribusiness (capital-intensive crops like African palm, timber, or rubber) would do well. But these crops produce very few jobs per acre.

Smaller-scale farmers, on the other hand, would be dealt a strong short-term blow. As has happened in Mexico since NAFTA, family farms, cooperatives and communities producing foodstuffs for local markets could find it impossible to compete with a flood of cheaper products coming from the United States.

Even if the rural situation somehow restructures itself in a decade or two, over the next few years the FTA will mean a severe shock for many of Colombia’s small-scale rural producers. Past experience with FTAs makes it reasonable to expect a sharp economic downturn in the remote, “unglobalized” rural areas.

In Colombia, the trouble is that these are the very areas where coca is grown and guerrillas are strong.

Dealing a blow to small-scale producers in places like Cauca, Nariño or Putumayo could damage the livelihoods of thousands of farmers who, as it is, are just getting by. It could add to the ranks of rural dwellers who see no other option but to plant coca. It could add to the population of young rural Colombians susceptible to recruitment by guerrillas or “emerging” paramilitary groups.

In the absence of a “Marshall Plan” for Colombia’s countryside – which is not forthcoming – the FTA could deal an economic shock to zones that, while sparsely populated, are of central importance to the effort to combat armed groups and the drug trade. Rather than making the Andes safer, the FTA could trigger a more immediate national-security threat.

2. Failure to pass the FTA in 2008 would be a victory for Venezuela.

Continue reading »

Mar 14
  • “Chemical Reactions,” a new report from the Washington Office on Latin America on the U.S. fumigation program in Colombia. The report, the culmination of a long research project over at WOLA, is the definitive dismantling of this failed policy, and does an expert job of questioning claims that the fumigation program poses no health or environmental risks.
  • Sorry not to have posted in 48 hours during such an eventful week; I spent my blogging time yesterday writing a post-mortem of the Venezuela-Ecuador-Colombia crisis that will soon be available on the website (not there yet). [3/17: here it is.]
  • In the wake of the crisis, the Bush administration has decided to go for the so-called “nuclear option” – introducing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement in Congress, setting in motion the countdown for a required vote, with no certainty that the accord can pass. In the middle of a presidential election campaign and an economic recession, no less.

How do you make such a difficult sale? Apparently, by making it a “national security” issue. The pitch uses language reminiscent of the Reagan adminstration’s 1980s appeals for aid to El Salvador and the Nicaraguan contras. Said President Bush: “The region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe.”

(So apparently, it’s Uribe’s way or the terrorists’ way. Needless to say, we reject this false, dishonest dichotomy in the most strenuous terms.)

The rhetoric is familiar – only this time, the “evil empire” in question is not Soviet expansionism but Hugo Chávez, who leads a country of only 26 million people and gets his dollars from our own oil purchases.

  • Will the Bush administration put Venezuela on the list of U.S. terrorist-sponsoring states? Probably not, for now at least.
  • At a House hearing yesterday, the Southern Command gave its annual “Posture Statement” (PDF). Southcom’s commander, Adm. Jim Stavridis, urged Congress to pass the FTA (an issue apparently popular [PDF] with Southcom chiefs) and presented plans to make Southcom into an “inter-agency coordinator” of U.S. policy toward the region.
  • Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa remains angry at the United States. “In Washington, they say we help the FARC. Let them come and put American troops on Colombia’s southern border,’ Correa said. ‘Let them suffer deaths and bloodshed, and we’ll see if they keep talking.’”
  • Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos was in Washington from Tuesday to Thursday, but he held no public events and didn’t even talk to reporters. This is either because of the seriousness of his mission, or because the Colombian government didn’t want him to say anything he’d have to apologize for later.
Mar 05

It is not news that Latin American sensitivities are high about issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Regional condemnation of Colombia’s incursion into Ecuador Saturday, which killed FARC leader “Raúl Reyes,” has been nearly unanimous. The move has been criticized by Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and even by more conservative governments like those of Alán García in Peru and Felipe Calderón in Mexico.

This makes for an interesting contrast with the United States, where even the two “liberal” Democratic presidential candidates defended the Uribe government’s action.

  • Barack Obama: “[T]he Colombian government has every right to defend itself against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The recent targeted killing of a senior FARC leader must not be used as a pretense to ratchet up tensions or to threaten the stability of the region.”
  • Hillary Clinton: “The Colombian state has every right to defend itself against drug trafficking terrorist organizations that have kidnapped innocent civilians, including American citizens. … Rather than criticizing Colombia’s actions in combating terrorist groups in the border regions, Venezuela and Ecuador should work with their neighbor to ensure that their territories no longer serve as safe havens for terrorist groups.”

John McCain, reports CBS news, sees in this crisis a reason to bring back the super-hard-line “Just Say No” drug policies of twenty years ago.

“I want to reiterate our partnership and friendship with President [Alvaro] Uribe and the government of Colombia. … They are a vital ally. … I hope that tensions will be relaxed, President Chavez will remove those troops from the borders – as well as the Ecuadorians – and relations continue to improve between the two. … [The FARC] are a terrorist organization and one that I believe we must assist the Colombian government in repressing.”

For his part, President Bush’s three-minute statement on the crisis yesterday was partly a show of support for Colombia, partly a call for a diplomatic solution, and mostly a “commercial” for congressional ratification of the Colombia free-trade agreement.

President Uribe told me that one of the most important ways America can demonstrate its support for Colombia is by moving forward with a free trade agreement that we negotiated. … Our country’s message to President Uribe and the people of Colombia is that we stand with our democratic ally. My message to the United States Congress is that this trade agreement is more than a matter of smart economics, it is a matter of national security. If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region, and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere.

A State Department spokesman sent a more helpful message on Monday. After making clear that the U.S. government supports Colombia, Tom Casey called forcefully for diplomacy.

 ”[L]ook, I think right now our focus is on trying to encourage Colombia and Ecuador to work out diplomatically the concerns that have been raised about this military strike. Certainly, we expect that that’s how this is going to be resolved. And I don’t think anybody at this point ought to be talking about military action.”

This sentiment was echoed in a letter to the OAS (PDF), released Tuesday, which bore the signatures of fifteen members of the U.S. Congress. The message, calling for OAS leadership of a diplomatic solution, is the only Colombia-related letter in memory signed by both the hawkish Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) and the dovish Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts).
While this letter was signed by both parties’ senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere (Burton and Rep. Eliot Engel [D-New York]), the ranking Republican on the full Foreign Affairs Committee was absent. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) put out her own, more bellicose statement.

The courageous men and women of the Colombian National Police, its intelligence unit and the country’s security services have shattered the myth that FARC’s leadership is invincible. … Recent State Department reports cite deepening ties between the Chavez regime and Iran and Cuba, and an unwillingness by Chavez to prevent Venezuelan territory from being used as a safe haven by FARC. These reports are alarming and require the careful attention of our government and those of our neighbors. … Rather than rattle sabers, Colombia’s neighbors need to play a more constructive role in bringing about a durable peace and removing FARC’s foreign sanctuaries that have been exposed by this operation.

Feb 01

  • Wílber Varela, alias “Jabón” (”Soap”), appears to have been killed Wednesday by hitmen in the western Venezuelan town of Mérida. Varela was one of the last remaining leaders of the North Valle cartel, Colombia’s largest of the past few years. After the September capture of his arch-rival Diego Montoya, Varela was the most notorious of Colombia’s still-at-large drug lords.

His feared personal army, the Rastrojos, exerts much influence throughout Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and he was believed to be making inroads in and around Medellín. Along with other at-large narco-paramilitary figures like Vicente Castaño and the Mejía Múnera brothers, Varela was believed to have been one of the main sponsors of re-armed “emerging” paramilitary groups in Colombia. While not a victory for Colombian or Venezuelan law enforcement, the death of “Jabón” is likely to cause a significant shake-up in Colombia’s narco-underworld.

  • Colombian media outlets published the disturbing testimony of a sergeant whose unit killed civilians and presented them as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to reap rewards. Sergeant Alexánder Rodríguez of the 15th Mobile Brigade told Semana, “at the beginning of November Sergeant Ordóñes went around collecting 20,000 pesos ($10) per soldier, to pay for the pistol that he had planted on the person they had killed … Ordónez said to them: ‘if you want to give the money, good, if not, let’s leave it like that, but remember that it means five days off [for every guerrilla killed]…’” Sgt. Rodríguez’s order from the captain who commanded him, he told Caracol, “was to clean up. What each unit was doing was supposedly cleaning the town of people who were guerrilla collaborators.”

Three days after testifying to authorities, Semana reports, “the whistleblower was punished: a committee of generals headed by the Army commander, Mario Montoya, decided to retire him from active service; meanwhile Col. Santiago Herrera, who commanded the Brigade where the acts occurred [in Catatumbo, in northeastern Colombia], was transferred to Bogotá to take up duties as Montoya’s own official aide.”

  • Monday’s Los Angeles Times tells the story of one of thousands of Latin American nationals recruited by U.S. firms to serve as private security guards in Iraq. Peruvian citizen Gregorio Calixto was wounded in Iraq while employed by a U.S. contractor called Triple Canopy. “He lives on $492 in monthly disability checks provided through the Triple Canopy insurance. But he says he doesn’t know how long that’s going to last. Nor does he consider it sufficient: The injury has severely limited his prospects in a country where the maimed can often be found begging in the streets. He also says he is owed two months’ back pay.”
  • On the Colombia free-trade front, President Bush mentioned the accord in his SOTU speech Monday, warning Congressional Democrats that failing to ratify the agreement would “embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere.” Key Democratic leaders made clear that they think the FTA has to wait. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said passage of the FTA is “doubtful,” while Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), who was a bit more enthusiastic about the FTA last year, said Wednesday that the accord should not be considered until the administration first expands a program that helps U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, put out an eight-page letter to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab recommending delay of FTA approval until a series of conditions are met.
  • The 2009 foreign aid budget request will be issued next week. Watch this space on the State Department website to find out whether or not Latin America will be cut back once again – and whether the Bush administration will seek to undo the changes Congress made to this year’s Colombia aid package.

Jan 24

They did a good job of keeping it under wraps. We heard nothing about Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Colombia until it was announced on Tuesday. (Not surprisingly, nobody at the U.S. embassy mentioned it to us when we were in Bogotá last week.)

Only yesterday did we see a list of the ten Democratic members of Congress who will be accompanying the Secretary. This made it impossible to prepare any briefing materials or lists of suggested questions to ask.

Those ten members, who will spend about 24 hours in Medellín, are:

  • Eliot Engel (D-Bronx/Westchester, New York), the Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee;
  • Jane Harman (D-El Segundo/Wilmington, California);
  • Solomon Ortiz (D-Corpus Christi/Brownsville, Texas);
  • Alcee Hastings (D-Ft. Lauderdale/West Palm, Florida);
  • Jim Moran (D-Alexandria/Reston, Virginia);
  • David Scott (D-Jonesboro/Smyrna, Georgia);
  • Rick Larsen (D-Everett/Bellingham, Washington);
  • Melissa Bean (D-Schaumburg, Illinois);
  • Ron Klein (D-Ft. Lauderdale, Florida); and
  • Ed Perlmutter (D-Lakewood, Colorado).

Three of these ten (Bean, Moran and Ortiz) were among the fifteen Democrats who voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005. Two (Moran and Ortiz) have voting records that reflect support for Plan Colombia over the years, while six (Engel, Harman, Hastings, Scott, Larsen and Bean) have tended to vote for amendments to cut military aid and increase economic aid to Colombia. The other two, Klein and Perlmutter, are in their first term.

CIP’s Colombia Program is not an active participant in the Free Trade Agreement debate – our expertise is security and human rights, not economics. (We share Human Rights Watch’s view, however, that the U.S. government should use the pending agreement as “leverage to press Colombia’s government to effectively confront impunity and break the paramilitaries’ power.”)

Beyond the FTA, though, we worry that some of these ten Democrats might come back to Washington with a skewed view of Colombia, and U.S. policy toward Colombia, after their two highly staged days there.

Over the years, we’ve seen trips like these distorting the views that members of Congress hold about Colombia, a country about which they probably don’t think too often. Normally thoughtful members of Congress, prefacing their remarks with “I’ve been to Colombia, I’ve talked to the Colombian people,” go on to declaim about the wonders of Plan Colombia and President Uribe’s hard-line policies.

“I don’t know what you’re going on about, Plan Colombia is working,” they will say to congressional colleagues who have paid longer, unofficial fact-finding visits to less-charming regions of the country. “I think you’re being overly negative.”

We ask the members of Congress in Medellín today: please return to Washington wanting to know more. You’ve only heard half the story. After one day in the Secretary of State’s bubble in Medellín being shown just what they want you to see, you’ve “been to Colombia” as much as a Cancún spring breaker has “been to Mexico.” Your intellectual curiosity should be provoked, not satisfied.

Incidentally, while in Medellín it’s a shame that you won’t be meeting with any of the following people. These uninvited individuals and groups could have given you a much fuller idea of how complex the situation really is in Colombia, and what the true consequences of your aid and trade decisions will be.
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Nov 09

The editorial-writers at the Washington Post are usually a politically moderate bunch, but when the topic is Latin America they move to the right of Attila the Hun. Worse, they get sloppy, embarrassing themselves with ad hominem attacks and “straw man” arguments.

These pieces do a lot of damage, though, because they are widely read among Washington decisionmakers who, by and large, also pay little attention to Latin America.

We have two examples from the past three days.

On Wednesday, they had this to say about “Plan Mexico,” the supplemental aid request that the Bush administration sent to Congress last month.

Almost all of the funds would cover the cost of training police or supplying planes, helicopters, detection equipment for use by customs and communications gear. Mexican officials say that none of the U.S. aid would be in cash and that no new U.S. personnel would be deployed in Mexico.

The package nevertheless will probably become a target for leftists in Mexico and the United States who reflexively oppose any military or security collaboration between the two countries.

As we have pointed out, military and police aid do not make up “almost all” of the funds in the Mexico aid request. (This is what we mean by sloppy.) Such aid is just over half of the dollar amount, and nearly all of that amount is taken up by eight helicopters and two planes. Much of what is in the package – port scanning equipment, judicial strengthening assistance – makes perfect sense.

We know a lot of people whom the Post editorialists would consider to be “leftists,” and very few of them have any problem with a U.S.-Mexican partnership against organized crime. Of course we should have a discussion about whether the Mexican Army is the best tool for the job, about the missing U.S. response on drug treatment, money-laundering and cross-border gun control, and about whether some of the money going to those expensive helicopters might be put to better use on other priorities. Those who “reflexively” support the proposed aid package should be prepared to participate in this more nuanced discussion.

Today (Friday), the Post launched a spirited defense of the Colombia free trade agreement, repeating many of the talking points coming out of the Colombian government’s lobby firms (the murder rate of labor unionists is lower than the overall murder rate, et cetera). While CIP has not been a major participant in the free-trade debate, we found the first sentence cited here to be repugnant and offensive.

To make them wait indefinitely while Colombian authorities go through cold-case files would be to substitute some Americans’ priorities for those of the Colombian voters who reelected Mr. Uribe last year with over 60 percent of the vote. The United States should not write Mr. Uribe a blank check, but the appropriate means of pressuring him already exist in human rights conditions Congress has attached to Colombia’s military aid packages.

What the Post dismissively, repellently, calls “cold-case files” are the whole point. When the trail goes cold on nearly 99 percent of union-member killings, then we have no guarantee that the recent decline in these killings is going to last. If such killings are virtually certain to go unpunished, they can resume at any time.

One can even argue that a country that doesn’t punish union-member killings has an unfair competitive advantage over a country that does punish such killings. Wages and benefits will always be worse in a country where to bargain collectively is to risk being killed with impunity. Progress on punishing labor cases should be a sine qua non condition for U.S. ratification of the FTA.

Or could it be that the Washington Post editorialists have happened upon a magic formula for conflict resolution? Why don’t the Arabs and Israelis, the Albanians and Serbs, the Cubans in Miami and Havana just forget about those “cold case files” from the past, the same way that the Post expects thousands of slain unionists’ family members and former colleagues to move on?

And why don’t those victims and their U.S. advocates get out of the way of the more than 60 percent of Colombians who voted for Uribe? Does the Post editorial board believe the same logic applies to regime opponents in Venezuela (62 percent for Chávez in December 2006) and Bolivia (53 percent for Morales in December 2005)?

As for the human-rights conditions on U.S. aid, which the Washington Post editorial regards to be an “appropriate means of pressure”? A Post editorial in May criticized those conditions’ principal congressional proponent, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), for “reflexively resist[ing] U.S. military aid to Latin America.”

“Reflexively” – there’s that word again. And it’s an appropriate one. Where Latin America policy is concerned, the Post editorial-writers’ reflex is to defend the status quo, no matter how unsatisfactory it may be. The search for a better policy would be better served by reason and reflection, not reflexes.

Oct 19

  • “This free-trade agreement is dead.”
  • “This free-trade agreement isn’t going anywhere.”
  • “The Colombia free-trade agreement won’t come to a vote [in Congress] while Bush is president.”

I heard these statements, or variations of them, several times while accompanying Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro on a series of meetings with members of the U.S. Congress this week. The general sense I got from House Democrats was that, due mainly to domestic political concerns, there is little that the Colombian government could do at this point to guarantee enough U.S. Congressional support to allow the current free-trade agreement to come to a vote. As the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, it will become even less likely that this controversial issue will be debated.

Notice, though, that the Democrats we spoke with were talking about “this” free-trade agreement – the accord that the Bush and Uribe governments signed a year ago, in its current form. “That” agreement indeed appears to be going nowhere.

Right now, in the House (and probably in the Senate, though I have less of a sense there), most members of the Republican minority would vote for the existing Colombia FTA. Among the Democrats, as with most things, the picture is more complicated.

  • A first group would join the Republicans and vote for the existing free-trade agreement. Members of this group, which is a small but vocal minority, tend to be quite supportive of Plan Colombia and President Álvaro Uribe’s security policies.
  • A second group would be unlikely to support this or any other free-trade agreement. Many members of this group, whose size is anyone’s guess, are motivated by concerns about declining wages and job losses in their home districts.
  • A third group opposes the existing free-trade agreement in its current form, but is also concerned about the negative message that a flat-out rejection might send to the rest of Latin America. Recognizing that a vote will be unlikely in 2008, they wish to spend the coming year trying to come up with a “better” model of what an FTA should look like. Members of this group asked Senator Petro questions along the lines of, “What would you want? How would you change this agreement? Should it be conditioned, and if so according to what criteria? How can we incorporate the concerns of sectors in Colombia who didn’t have a voice in the negotiations that led to the current agreement?”

I have no idea how many members of Congress are in each of these three groups. I also have little idea about the mechanism by which the trade agreement would be “improved” – whether this would mean starting from scratch, amending some of the most controversial sections, or simply attaching strong pre-conditions and benchmarks to the existing accord. It could be a combination of all of these.

The Colombian government has been lobbying Democrats very hard lately, with little to show for it. That will continue to be the case as long as they insist on trying to move them into group one above, because the FTA is clearly headed back to the drawing board.