Here is a translation of the inaugural post that Ãlvaro JimÃ©nez and I published to our joint blog about U.S.-Colombian relations, which is appearing on a new Colombian political news and analysis website, La Silla VacÃa. The site’s name, “The Empty Chair,” refers to a political reform proposal, which failed in Colombia’s Congress in 2007, that would have left empty the congressional seats of legislators who lost their posts due to their ties to paramilitary groups.
Look at this list of U.S. contacts with leaders from the region, all of them in a three-week period, with three weeks remaining before the beginning of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. This list reveals an interesting pattern:
- March 13: Obama places a phone call to President Cristina FernÃ¡ndez de Kirchner of Argentina.
- March 14: Obama hosts Brazilian President Lula in Washington.
- March 18: Obama places a phone call to El Salvador’s president-elect, Mauricio Funes.
- March 25-26: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Mexico.
- March 27-28: Vice President Joe Biden visits Chile to meet with the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
- March 29-30: Biden visits Costa Rica to meet with the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama, and high officials from Honduras and Nicaragua.
- April 2: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney-General Eric Holder visit Mexico.
The pattern? There is only one example of contact with Colombia during this period:
- March 29: The secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner,Â attends the Inter-American Development Bank summit in MedellÃn. Geithner holds a brief bilateral meeting with President Uribe at 7:30 that Saturday evening.
This represents a notable change from the last few years of the Bush administration, whose image in the hemisphere was so poor that it sometimes seemed like they were desperately clinging to the figure of Ãlvaro Uribe as the last good friend they had left in Latin America.
Obviously, after that experience, the Obama administration has a strong incentive to direct its energies toward other countries in the region beyond Colombia. The objective of all these trips and visits is, in a few words, to “re-start” many bilateral relationships that had become stuck like an old Windows computer.
For the United States, it is understandably desirable to have Colombia as one ally among several, instead of the only remaining ally in the entire region. But for Ãlvaro Uribe’s administration, this change is terrible news.
If Colombia is just “a” friend, and not “the” friend, the new administration in Washington will feel more comfortable distancing itself from those aspects of the Uribe administration that are troubling. Like the unpunished murders of unionists, extrajudicial executions, para-politics, the DAS wiretaps, and the president’s constant verbal attacks on his critics, whom he apparently cannot distinguish from terrorists.
And if, as everything seems to indicate, President Uribe is headed toward a second reelection, the relationship will become more complicated. Relations will probably continue to be cordial, but no high Obama administration official will enjoy sharing the frame of a photograph with a leader who has shown himself unable to part with power.
With their recent petulant calls for Colombia to distance itself from the United States, Vice President Francisco Santos and former presidential advisor Jose Obdulio Gaviria fed concerns in the United States that the current administration in Colombia lacks the necessary maturity and perspective to be a solid partner. These qualities can be found in greater quantities elsewhere, like in Brazil and Mexico.
But Santos and Gaviria are not entirely wrong when they talk about the need to de-emphasize the bilateral relationship with the United States and diversify Colombia’s friendships with “Europe, China, India and the Arabs.”
The reality is that the United States, for months now, has already been going around the region trying to do the same thing.