A serious wave of threats Praise for Amb. Brownfield, jeers for “José Obdulio”
Mar 192008

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.

President Bush: As it tries to expand its influence in Latin America, the [Venezuelan] regime claims to promote social justice. In truth, its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power. It has squandered its oil wealth in an effort to promote its hostile, anti-American vision. And it has left its own citizens to face food shortages while it threatens its neighbors.

The stakes are high in South America. As the recent standoff in the Andes shows, 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. I’ve made my choice. I’m standing with courageous leadership that believes in freedom and peace. (Applause.) And I believe when the American people hear the facts, they will make their choice and stand with a person who loves liberty and freedom.

And there is no clearer sign of our support than a free trade agreement.

House Minority Whip Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri): Hugo Chavez is actively working to undermine the democratic Colombian government by advancing the argument that Colombians can no longer rely on the United States as an ally.

Congress’ failure to pass the Colombian trade deal may just be the smoking-gun example Mr. Chavez needs to make his case. Our reputation as a global leader is at stake. And the world is watching how Congress responds to this challenge.

Reading these quotes, you would think that Venezuela – a country with one-twelfth the population of the United States, and an economy one-fortieth as large as the U.S. GDP – were the Soviet Union reincarnated. This view appears to propose a badly misguided new framework for U.S. security policy in the hemisphere: a “mini-Cold War” in which the FTA is a critical tool.

Hugo Chávez is no model of good governance, and he does seek to promote the ascendance of Latin American leaders who are critical of the United States. He is unlikely to be a friend to Washington anytime soon.

But even if the United States were to engage in a battle with Chávez for Latin America’s hearts and minds, the FTA would not be the most appropriate tool. A free-trade agreement is a blunt instrument. It creates winners and losers, and can have unintended consequences as the “losers” become more radicalized.

A true effort to “compete” with Venezuela would require the United States to reassert itself in several other areas in which it has ceded dominance to Caracas, such as economic assistance, high-level diplomatic engagement, and public diplomacy throughout the hemisphere.

Meanwhile, the Chávez “threat” is growing less credible all the time, despite the current price of a barrel of oil. The Venezuelan president is increasingly unpopular at home and is beset by a host of domestic problems, including region-high inflation, food shortages, rising violent crime and narcotrafficking.

3. Failure to pass the FTA in 2008 would be a “betrayal” in the eyes of a region that is watching events closely.

President Bush: The agreement would signal to the region that America’s commitment to free markets and free people is unshakable.

And now it calls on Congress to decide — to decide whether this agreement will take effect. People across the hemisphere are watching. They are waiting to see what Congress will do. … If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, we would validate antagonists in Latin America, who would say that the America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends. We would cripple our influence in the region, and make other nations less likely to cooperate with us in the future. We would betray one of our closest friends in our own backyard. In the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, “If the U.S. turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin America dictator could hope to achieve.” Congress needs to listen to those wise words as they consider this important bill.

Why, exactly, would it be a “betrayal” to hold out publicly for progress in prosecutions of those who murder trade unionists? (These killings may be down somewhat, but those who committed them continue to walk the streets among their fellow Colombians; efforts to reduce impunity have barely taken root.)

That said, congressional Democrats and other FTA opponents do need to work on their messages, because right now they are easily caricatured as seeking to “punish” Colombia. It is noble to hold out for a safer labor-organizing climate. It is noble to seek to give a greater voice to Colombian workers, small farmers, and others who didn’t have a seat at the negotiating table the first time.

The FTA’s opponents do need to make clearer that this is indeed what they are doing. Nothing about this can be called a “betrayal” – and in fact, this message is a very positive one to send to the rest of the region.

4. The FTA will help Colombia shoulder more of the burden, allowing a drawdown in U.S. military-aid programs.

Defense Department press release: The Minister [Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos] and Secretary agreed that Colombia needs to shoulder more of the financial burden itself, with its own resources, but will be unable to do so without a substantial boost to its economy.“ A free trade agreement with the United States would lock in opportunities to create businesses and expand employment rolls, thus providing a tax base for the government to continue strengthening institutions that protect ordinary citizens,” Gates said.

First, any drawdown of U.S. military-aid programs should be accompanied by an increase in U.S. economic assistance: as a principal cocaine-consuming country, we have a responsibility to help Colombia’s state deliver basic services and strengthen the rule of law.

Second, the argument that the FTA will increase Colombia’s tax base is an interesting one, but the past few years’ experience makes it doubtful that economic growth in Colombia will bring any proposals to reduce U.S. military assistance. Since 2002, Colombia’s economy has grown by about 25 percent – yet the Bush administration’s military-aid requests to Congress have been unchanged.

This argument leads in some bad directions

On the whole, what is most worrisome about this “national security” argument is its one-size-fits-all nature. If it works as an FTA sales pitch, it can be used to usher in a host of other bad policies in the Americas.

The Venezuelan “menace” could come to be used to justify new military-assistance programs that would never otherwise meet with congressional approval. Fear of “losing face” in the region could lead Washington to offer unquestioning support to abusive governments, as has happened in the not-too-distant past.

In general, the fostering of a new “mini-Cold War” in the region – a new “war” to replace the old Cold War, the unsuccessful “drug war,” and the not-too-relevant-to-the-region “war on terror” – would be a huge step backward for U.S. relations with, and democratic stability in, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The “national security” pitch is not a serious argument, and it can lead us to some places we should not be going. It should be dropped now.

4 Responses to “The specious “national security” argument”

  1. jcg Says:

    Painting Chávez as some sort of “bogeyman” must resonate with certain conservative sectors, but I honestly think that’s far too premature, and doesn’t really have much to do with an FTA anyways.

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

    And that’s precisely what any realistic FTA should have taken into consideration…or, to be more accurate, the Colombian government should have made that the first (or among the first) priority on and off the negotiation table, even if the U.S. negotiators refused to discuss “non-economic” arguments, as was supposedly reported at the time, Colombia cannot afford that luxury.

    But that things went forward without too many protests, even without a “Marshall Plan”…which would, incidentally, be a far better use of Plan Colombia resources than what we’re seeing today, as several of us would probably agree.

  2. Jaimes Bustos Says:

    I replaced all references of the FTA for “legalizing drugs/legalize drugs” and suddenly everything starts to make sense:

    1. Legalizing Drugs will make Colombia more secure by increasing economic prosperity, which will weaken the FARC.
    2. Failure to Legalize Drugs in 2008 would be a victory for Venezuela.
    3. Failure to Legalize Drugs in 2008 would be a “betrayal” in the eyes of a region that is watching events closely.
    4. Legalizing Drugs will help Colombia shoulder more of the burden, allowing a drawdown in U.S. military-aid programs.


  3. Boli-Nica Says:

    There is a realistic political calculation to Bush’s position. By framing it in “National Security” terms, it gives cover to Democrats who might be inclined to vote for the agreement, but who do not want to alienate their labor constituency.

    If the Bush administration is cynical in using this argument, so are many anti-trade representatives, who use the human rights violations as an excuse to push their protectionist agenda.

  4. Chris Says:

    I like your idea of the Marshall Plan! (shout out to my alma mater while I am at it)

    You’re right….it would take something along that level to bring true economic prosperity to the many instead of the few, which is what NAFTA didn’t do (hence 2nd richest man in the world).

    I am all for a Colombian Marshall Plan…but given political corruption and all, even with that much aide I would expect someone very good, competent, and honest (like George Marshall) to run the thing without any preconditions and without one hand tied behind his back.

    Would Colombia accept that?

Leave a Reply