Colombia's Fall From Grace
Friday, August 17, 2007; 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Colombia will be left to sit back and watch this fall as two of its neighbors -- Peru and Panama -- become the latest Latin American countries to enter into free trade agreements with the United States.
As the nation regarded as the most favored by Washington's Latin American policy, Colombia expected better treatment. But for a terrorism-fighting, free-market-promoting and right-leaning ally in a left-leaning continent, Colombia is discovering that bilateral relations and U.S. rewards are not what they used to be.
Since Democrats took control of Congress this year, the once pesky concerns of a minority party have become in-your-face demands concerning Colombia and its not-yet-ratified free trade deal. Democrats pushed Colombia -- a country where labor activists say that more union workers are killed than in the rest of the world combined -- to comply with core International Labor Organization (ILO) standards and pester President Alvaro Uribe to address serious accusations of official acquiescence to the murders of human rights and labor activists by right-wing paramilitaries.
Uribe reacted with a flurry of activity. He and senior Colombian officials traveled to Washington to "put all the cards on the table." Uribe also met with labor activists in Colombia and agreed to open a permanent representative office of the ILO in Bogota. He pushed his trade negotiators to swiftly accept Democratic labor and environmental modifications to the U.S.-Colombia free trade pact.
But by late spring, it was becoming clear that no effort by Uribe would be enough to satisfy Democrats seeking more to score political points at home than to establish sound foreign policy.
When Uribe visited Congress in May, Democrats circulated harshly worded talking points questioning Uribe's leadership and the seriousness of his peace deal with paramilitaries. Later that month, Democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling into question the entire relationship with Colombia and suggesting that Colombia may not be worth the expense of U.S. assistance. But the hardest blow came in June, when House Democratic leaders declared that they could not support a free trade agreement with Colombia.
Colombians were aghast. Uribe publicly decried that his country was being treated as an "underling" rather than an "ally." One Colombian official claimed that Uribe was treated as a defendant before Congress rather than a champion of U.S. foreign policy objectives. Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos suggested that if the free trade agreement didn't pass, Colombia should reconsider its alignment with the United States. In a matter of months, the Democrats had managed to create a perception that U.S. support -- to the tune of nearly $5 billion over the last seven years -- for Colombia's strategy to end four decades of internal conflict had been a wasted effort.
Relations could continue their decline in the months ahead. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and trade subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin, D-Mich., skipped Colombia last week on their way to discuss free trade details with Peru. In addition, the Colombian free trade agreement is nowhere to be seen on the Democratic schedule when Congress returns from its August recess.
But there are also signs the worst may be over. For one thing, the seeming inflexibility of the U.S. labor movement's opposition to trade with Colombia may be more imagined than real. "We are not trying to hurt Colombia by slowing down the FTA," said Thea Lee, AFL-CIO's policy director. The labor federation, in fact, supported extending Colombia's trade preferences with the United States that were to expire in June.
Sources also tell me that many Democrats now feel they overreached earlier this year and that criticism of Uribe was sometimes unjustified or unrealistic. There is a general feeling that Democrats "have to come up with a line that is more constructive and more subtle," according to a Democratic congressional staffer.
Also, party elders, particularly former President Clinton, have reminded Democrats that the current U.S. policy toward Colombia began with the Clinton administration and enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Future dealings with Colombian officials should acknowledge the significant progress achieved under Plan Colombia and show respect for the great sacrifice that Colombians continue to make in the service of shared objectives.
Or as Clinton told a New York audience in June, "Those of us who want to continue progress owe it to our friends in Colombia to know what they've been through, and to express a little humility in the face of people who have already lost so much."
Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.