President Barack Obama and Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe took a few questions from reporters after their meeting yesterday afternoon. The Washington Post has published the transcript. The record is mixed. A few quick observations.
1. President Obama should have made a clearer public statement of concern about human rights. Colombia’s community of human rights defenders feels increasingly intimidated by President Uribe and other members of his government, who regularly threaten their security with public statements alleging, without proof, that they are tied to guerrillas. They can derive little comfort from President Obama’s statement yesterday that “I commended President Uribe on the progress that has been made in human rights in Colombia and dealing with the killings of labor leaders there.”
Also confusing was President Obama’s reference to “steps that have already been made on issues like extrajudicial killings and illegal surveillance,” since President Uribe frequently makes statements seeking to minimize the extrajudicial killings problem and has said very little about the illegal surveillance carried out by the DAS, his presidential intelligence service.
It was good that President Obama voiced the concern “that it is important that Colombia pursue a path of rule of law and transparency,” but he then nullified the impact by adding, “I know that that is something that President Uribe is committed to doing.”
2. Human rights concerns were probably conveyed more strongly to President Uribe in private. We can infer that from President Uribe’s unprompted declaration that “We are very receptive to receive any advice, any suggestions, on how we are going to fulfill our goal of civil — civil violations of human rights in Colombia; about surveillance.”
3. The message on free trade is not new. Here is what President Obama said:
I have instructed Ambassador Kirk, our United States trade representative, to begin working closely with President Uribe’s team on how we can proceed on a free trade agreement.
There are obvious difficulties involved in the process, and there remains work to do. But I’m confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States. …
I don’t have a strict timetable, because I’m going to have to consult with Congress, obviously, on this issue. We’ve got a lot on our plates, if you haven’t noticed.
And I think that the burden is not simply on Colombia. I think Colombia has done a lot of excellent work. It is a matter of getting both countries to a place where their legislatures can feel confident that it will be ultimately to the economic benefit of these countries.
I have noted a special concern that is bipartisan and shared both both by this administration and Congress that the human rights issues in Colombia get resolved.
Compare that with the statements of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk after the Trinidad and Tobago Summit of the Americas more than two months ago, as reported by Reuters, and it’s clear that little has changed.
Kirk told reporters on Monday that Obama “is a great admirer of President Uribe and more significantly the very substantive work that he has done on issue of safety and protecting workers.”
“Having said that, the president has asked me now to follow up and take the lead in meeting with the Colombian ambassadors and others to map out a strategy to identify what remaining issues we have,” Kirk said.
4. The message on re-election was surprising, but welcome. Few observers expected President Obama to express an opinion on President Uribe’s possible pursuit of a third term in office. But his message, while qualified with “every country has to make decisions on their own,” was quite clear: two terms are enough.
We know that our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us and that after eight years usually the American people want a change.
You know, I related to President Uribe the fact that our most revered president, or at least one of our two most revered presidents, George Washington, part of what made him so great was not just being the founder of our country, but also the fact that at a time when he could have stayed president for life, he made a decision that after service he was able to step aside and return to civilian life. And that set a precedent then for the future.
But as I said, each country, I think, has to make these decisions on their own. And I think what’s ultimately most important is that the people feel a sense of legitimacy and ownership, and that this is not something imposed on them from the top, that it’s not — does not involve manipulations of the electorate or, you know, rigging of the electoral process or repression of opposition voices, but that whatever is determined is done in an open, transparent way so that people feel confident that whoever’s in power represents their voices and their interests.