A Conversation With Álvaro Uribe

Sunday, April 20, 2008

President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia is in a corner. A staunch U.S. ally in a region where anti-American sentiment is fashionable, Uribe has successfully fought the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States considers a terrorist group, and has combated drug traffickers. But his attempts to secure a free-trade pact with Washington have recently been stymied. Last week, at a World Economic Forum meeting in Cancun, Mexico, Uribe talked with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth.


Q. The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was not brought to the floor of the House at the direction of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, essentially killing its chances for success until after the upcoming election. What is your reaction?

A. There is concern in our government, but we cannot lose our optimism. [We have a] long tradition of good relations between our two countries, and we cherish common democratic values. . . . We recognize our problems, but we are working every day, doing our best to overcome them. These circumstances make us optimistic.

Q. Haven't you stuck your neck out to be a good U.S. ally in the war on terror ism and the war on drugs? Are you thinking about alternatives to your strategic alliance with the United States if this treaty does not go through?

A. We have considered that. As for the House's approval of the Free Trade Agreement, the sooner the better. The more they analyze the current situation in Colombia -- the efforts Colombia is making, the progress Colombia has made, the problems Colombia faces -- the more they have to rethink and consider the possibility to approve the Free Trade Agreement.

Q. What would you say to members of the House?

A. I invite them to visit Colombia -- especially Speaker Pelosi. If she comes, she will find problems and progress, but she will see our total determination to overcome these problems.

Q. Are the Colombian people upset by the U.S. action?

A. There are people who are upset, but my duty as president is to solve the impasse. We need to continue working with President Bush and the members of Congress and have Speaker Pelosi visit Colombia. Since the beginning of my administration, we have fought to overcome violence, to protect trade union leaders and to strengthen the administration of justice. There's a long way left, we recognize.

Q. How much of Colombia now is under the control of your government?

A. At this moment, we have weakened all the terrorist organizations in Colombia -- paramilitaries, guerrillas -- we have restored law and order in the vast majority of our territory. They no longer have portions of our territory under their control, but they still have the power to harm citizens.

Q. But I understand that today you can walk down the streets of Bogota safely, whereas five years ago it was far too dangerous.

A. We have seen the reduction of homicides from 35,000 per year to less than 17 last year, and kidnappings [have dropped] from 3,000 per year to 270 last year. Remember that before the beginning of my term, the FARC destroyed almost 200 municipalities. In the last months, they have been unable to destroy municipalities. Now we have increased the effectiveness [of our law enforcement] to protect the union leaders. We have almost doubled the budget for the justice administration.

Q. Why are the union leaders in the United States so adamant about the poor treatment of union leaders in Colombia? They claim that four union leaders were killed recently in Colombia and allege that it was the fault of your administration.

A. When my government began, Colombia suffered the assassination of more than 250 trade union leaders per year. . . . Last year, [it was] 26. This year, if we consider trade unions plus teachers, we have seen 19 assassinations. We have seen a reduction, but we are not happy because we need zero cases. At this moment, Colombia has a program under which we protect 9,000 Colombians -- [of these] 1,900 are trade union leaders. They are beneficiaries of this individual protection. This program is very expensive.

In the last two weeks, we have arrested the murderers in two cases. In one recent case, when a teacher who was seven months pregnant was stabbed to death, the murderer is now in jail. Two weeks ago, [in the case of] one other teacher who was killed, the students who killed him are in jail. We have more than 130 murderers in jail because of the determination of our government.

Q. Try to explain to the American people how important the Free Trade Agreement is to your country -- what it means in terms of growth and how damaging it would be to you, who have been a strong U.S. ally, if the agreement is rejected.

A. It creates concerns in our people.

Q. Concerns, or are they really upset?

A. Many people are upset.

Q. You put so much on the line for an ally, and Washington doesn't come through for you?

A. We have problems and the determination to overcome those problems. We have extradited to the United States during my term almost 700 individuals who have been indicted in the United States.

Q. Are you talking about FARC leaders?

A. They are drug traffickers, members of the FARC, members of the paramilitaries. But we need to give Colombians alternatives. One alternative is legal investment -- the Free Trade Agreement is a way to bring much more investment to Colombia. Therefore, it is an alternative for my citizens to eliminate illicit drugs. The Free Trade Area of the Americas has failed so far. Therefore, the only way for countries to have a friendship with the United States is by way of bilateral agreements.

The other point I want to make is that the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, in economic terms, is very tiny in comparison with the size of the economy of the United States. However, it is very important for Colombia. We consider that we won't have the possibility to increase our exports to the United States in the coming years, but the Free Trade Agreement gives us the possibility to increase the investment rate in Colombia.

Q. But if you're turned down by the United States?

A. I cannot give space in my mind to the hypothesis that this agreement will be turned down. In economic terms, if you look at our bilateral balance, you see that at first glance there is a surplus for Colombia, but when you deduct oil, even without deducting coal, this balance turns against Colombia. The United States is the first supplier of capital goods to our country. There are many agricultural products, raw materials, that we buy from your market.

Q. And if the agreement passes, Colombia would have to remove its tariffs on U.S. products entering its markets?

A. Yes. With the Free Trade Agreement, we have to take away the tariffs. In political terms, nobody can understand [why the agreement is being rejected]. Colombia has a long tradition of friendship and loyalty with the United States. Colombia shares the democratic values of the United States. Colombia has had difficulties with other countries because other countries did not understand the reasons for our loyalty to the United States. Therefore I ask this question: Given these circumstances, how can anyone understand that the United States does not approve this agreement?

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