Saturday, April 19, 2008

The U.S. Betrayal of Colombia (Translation Included)


A FARC Commander Examines Kidnapped Colombian Hostages at a FARC Concentration Camp in the Colombian Jungle

This post will be the first of several I will make over the next 10 to 14 days on the subject of the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement.  I want to begin with my own clear assertion that I am a strong supporter of the agreement on economic, social, political, and national security grounds.  In direct reference to my interests in supporting democracy and human freedom in this blog, I also want to say that I do not believe there is any other piece of impending legislation before the U.S. Congress which could do more to strengthen these twin causes than this proposed free trade agreement.  And I am convinced that there is nothing our Congress could do this year which would result in greater harm to the causes of democracy and freedom in our hemisphere than to fail to pass it.

Colombia:  A True Friend of the United States

The United States has friendly relations with a number of countries in Latin America, but most of those who we could count as "friends" are not among the largest and most powerful nations in the region.  With the exception of Colombia we could include among those whose governments are amicable towards us; Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Panama, El Salvador, Paraguay, and Peru.  From there we could proceed to Mexico and Chile, two of the more important nations in Latin America, as somewhat neutral in their relations with the United States and who have cemented close commercial ties with us but who also have outstanding differences on issues such as immigration policy, in the case of Mexico, and a perceived American inattention to the problems of international development, with regard to Chile.  Most of the remainder of Latin America has a very negative disposition to the United States, at least in so far as their current regimes express themselves officially, and at least five of these; Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Cuba, probably can be viewed as "enemies" given the public pronouncements of their leaders.  And sitting just outside of that group we would list Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay; not necessarily identifying them as enemies, but perhaps "unfriendly," since these three seem to have much closer relations with the preceding five and they pursue foreign policies that are frequently at odds with our own in the region.

It is within the larger context of an examination of the geopolitical map of Latin America, coupled with a knowledgeable understanding of what is taking place in Colombia and other nearby nations whose ruling regimes are either already under the control of leftist governments usually referred to as "Populist" in their orientation, or supportive of the thrust of populism, that we can best understand what Colombia's true significance to the United States is and why it is important that we pay close attention to what is transpiring there.

Colombia is a genuine democracy that has a truly open, secure ballot where the vote is exercised free of government intimidation; an autonomous press that practices journalism free from government interference, though like Mexico journalists do face threats from drug gangs and narco-guerrillas; a legal system that operates under the principle of equality before the law when given the chance -- it does on occasion face significant intimidation from drug cartels, but its political independence is such that recent indictments have been returned against the family of the Attorney General and even relatives of President Alvaro Uribe; and a growing economy that has moved steadily towards free market reforms that are producing significant economic growth and prosperity for its people.  But Colombia is also a nation under assault from Venezuelan and Ecuadoran-backed narco-guerrillas who have killed thousands and currently hold over 700 Colombian citizens hostage as kidnap victims, which intimidates the government from acting against them, especially where protection of guerrilla-controlled opium poppy and coca fields are at stake.

Hugo Chavez and FARC Commander Ivan Marquez

The significance of Colombia's choice for democracy can best be understood when contrasted with neighboring Venezuela, the nation the American Left seems to love.  In Venezuela electoral intimidation is a regular fact of life, the inflated numbers of voter rolls speak of fraud, fingerprints are taken and time-stamped at the moment votes are cast electronically, permitting a one-to-one correlation of the two, and by prior agreement election observers are not able to examine all aspects of the voting process nor comment upon them officially, only those which the government permits them to see.  Nor can it be said that Venezuela has a truly free press, especially in the opinion of international press associations who have criticized the Chavez government repeatedly for intimidation and restrictions of press freedoms.  The Venezuelan legal system has deteriorated shamefully since Chavez came to office and political prosecutions are becoming more common everyday.  And the economic disruption of Venezuelan life also has been significant; statistics on poverty are suspect to say the least, supermarket shelves are frequently empty leading to occasional mass protests and even riots, the level of corruption in state-owned enterprises has angered even many of Chavez's former supporters, and in the aftermath of recent electoral setbacks Chavez is now moving to create his own personal militia, with legally-sanctioned authority, such as it is.

Chavez's international ties are also a major concern.  He supports the FARC guerrillas with financial aid, military and logistical support, and the facilitation of their drug smuggling operations, the sum total of which amounts to a direct attempt to overthrow the sovereign government of Colombia and which sustains the FARC in their massive kidnapping and extortion operations as well.  Chavez has funneled financial aid to leftist regimes now in power in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.  He is also sending financial aid to the FMLN in El Salvador, to Peruvian militias now organizing in the southern part of the country, and to various leftist groups in Mexico.  Chavez's disruption of Latin American political life is serious and its long-term implications are dangerous for the interests of the United States.

02/04/08: Hundreds of Thousands of Colombians Demonstrate Against the FARC

But there is one nation in the region whose people have decided to stand against Chavez and with the United States; Colombia.  The Colombian government has been fighting drug cartels since the 1980's and left wing guerrilla groups since the 1960's.  Some of the latter, like the FARC, turned to narcotics trafficking in the 1980's which reinvigorated their operations.  The government has also been battling right-wing paramilitaries (the paras) since the 1990's, most of whom have been successfully demobilized though the process is ongoing and worrisome, but continues to be monitored with the participation of international human rights groups, most prominently the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.  The Colombian people have been suffering through all of this, and it is really only since the administration of current President Alvaro Uribe that genuine progress was made in demobilizing the paras and the FARC has been forced to withdraw from many areas where it once moved with impunity.  But through it all Colombia's democracy has remained intact.

So why would the United States, which has provided aid for Colombia in its fight against all these threats and which has seen some tangible results in the ongoing demobilization of the paramilitaries and a reduction in the geographical reach of the FARC and other narco-guerrillas, not finalize the Free Trade Agreement now before the U.S. Congress?  Colombia has shown clearly that it is our friend, its people look to the democratic free market model for development we have urged for Latin America as their preferred choice, and they have suffered tremendous pain over the past few decades dealing with threats that all have either a direct or indirect origin in the American appetite for illegal drugs, which fuels so much of the conflict.  Colombia has also shown a willingness to act in cooperation with international agencies looking to monitor compliance in settling these difficult problems and progress is reported on a continuing basis.  That answer lies within American domestic politics, which I intend to examine more completely in upcoming blogs.  The question I want to address here is the Colombian reaction to the recent decision to postpone, and possibly kill, consideration of the proposed Free Trade Agreement.

A Colombian View of the U.S. Congress's Decision to Shelve the Free Trade Agreement

I am going to post a translation of a Spanish language blog from the Alambre Politico (Political Wire) blog site of the viewpoint expressed by Jorge Pareja, a Colombian blogger from Medellin.  I am putting this up to give American readers an opportunity to see what I consider to be a more honest examination of the merits of the agreement and an expression of the disappointment Colombians feel for its current non-consideration.  Please keep in mind that Colombia is a nation that has suffered enormous pain over the past twenty-five years and Colombians are acutely aware of the geopolitical stakes of the moment and the implications for their future if the close relationship they desire with the United States cannot be finalized.

I also want to make a couple of comments here.  One; Pareja's reference to Lara Bonilla refers to the 1984 assassination of Colombian Minister for Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was killed on the orders of Medellin cartel chief Pablo Escobar.  Two; contained within this post are quotations from sources originally published in English.  I have only translated directly from the Spanish of the article and given that there are instances in which quotes have been translated twice, their exact wording may differ from what one would find in the original English.


Translation:  The Color of the Glass

President George Bush described Colombia last January 28th as "a friend of the United States who is confronting violence and terror, and is fighting against narcotics traffickers," and he warned the Congress that "if we do not approve this treaty [Free Trade Agreement -FTA-], we will strengthen those who favor false populism in our hemisphere.  The way in which we must come together, is to approve this treaty and show our neighbors in the region that Democracy brings a better life."  The U.S.-Colombia FTA would be the last of a series of treaties -- negotiated by the Bush administration -- with five countries of Central America, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Peru.

The problem is that already on the 29th of June, 2007, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi and other leaders of the Democratic Party had announced their opposition to the FTA with Colombia.  With respect to the treaty they protested:  "There exists a generalized worry in the Congress for the level of violence in Colombia, the impunity, the lack of investigations and judgments, and the role of the paramilitaries . . . we consider that, concrete proofs of sustainable results in Colombia should be included, the members of the Congress will continue working with all the interested parties to reach this objective before considering any FTA.  As a consequence, we cannot support the FTA with Colombia at this moment."

Daniel T. Griswold and Juan Carlos Hidalgo, who carried out a study for the CATO Institute entitled:  "A U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement:  Strengthening Democracy and Progress in Latin America," instruct us in this respect:  "The labor organizations of the United States, especially the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations -- AFL-CIO by its acronym in English -- a key voting bloc of the Democratic Party, made the defeat of the treaty with Colombia one of its main political goals."  Why?

They are manipulating information and for that reason it is serious, according to the comment of the researchers:  "The AFL-CIO cites the number of the 2,245 union members killed in Colombia since 1991 as the central argument against the approval of the free trade agreement.  But the greater part of the killings occurred at the beginning of the period considered, since more than four out of five killings happened before Uribe took office -- the AFL-CIO accepts a nosedive of nearly 90% in killings of union members during Uribe's administration.  Instead of recognizing the merits of Uribe in the drastic decline of the crimes, the AFL-CIO insists on sanctioning the sitting president, and those who elected him, for the failures of previous governments."  "The color of the glass," through which they are able to manipulate statistics in such a way as to reach an objective.  And they are achieving it!

The saying is that everything has "the color of the glass" through which it is viewed.  Today, with the freezing of the FTA in the North American Congress this popular saying is more valid than ever because each one of the players in the process has an extreme opinion on the subject, pitifully they have used Colombia as the first victim of the North American electoral process.  Today we can say that the FTA is dying.  And lamentably Colombia really needs it.

What moves Colombia to look with despair for the approval of the FTA?  With things being as they are, is the United States sending a negative message to Colombia?

Mary Anastasia O'Grady, Editor of the Wall Street Journal's "Americas" column, at the end of 2007 presented us with a revealing interview with Luis Guillermo Plata, Colombia's Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.  In this interview the excellent Colombian Minister instructs us on the Irish model and on how the government's team has outlined this course for Colombia.  Let's take a look:

Luis Guillermo Plata spoke about the transformation of the Irish economy, of how it passed from being "the poor ugly duckling to the beautiful swan of Europe in just two decades," and how a "similar model of growth is just what Colombia needs."

The minister said to Mrs. O'Grady:  ". . . We began traveling to Ireland years ago, because we were looking at those countries in the world that have been successful in attracting direct foreign investment.  What we discovered was that Ireland reduced its corporate taxes from 40% to 12.5% and as a result began attracting investment; it had reduced the advantage of tax evasion and incremented tax collections.  We returned to Colombia and we said "why should we not reduce (our corporate taxes) from 38% to 12.5%?

Mrs. O'Grady continues:  "In a perfect world, he would have obtained a fixed corporate rate.  But he had to arrive at compromises and, in its place, the "singular free enterprise zone" was what he got.  The initiative extends the low tax rate to companies located within the "free zone," usually an industrial park, to any company that fulfills certain investment criteria.  Companies -- excluding those involved in mining and petroleum -- who qualify by fulfilling the minimum investment objectives and commit themselves to fulfilling certain employment goals will then pay a fixed tax of 15% instead of 33%.  Also, they import all raw materials without tariffs and they do not pay the value added tax.  Besides offering these tax advantages, the government is doing "stability contracts" to guarantee that the rules of the game are not going to change with the next president.  They are also working to reduce the regulatory load, since bureaucratic obstacles are one of the most common complaints of foreign investors."

The Minister contributes this important reflection:  "In 2006, American official aid for development, destined to alleviate poverty in the world, was US $23.5 billion and was a waste of money.  That is because development requires economic liberalization, and the leaders of the poor countries have few incentives to disturb the status quo of monopolies and protectionism that placed them in power . . . Colombia appears on this scene with a leader, President Alvaro Uribe, who is prepared to risk political capital to open domestic markets, to trim taxes and to push competition ahead on a track to fast growth in the Irish style."  "The only thing that his government requests of Washington is bilateral commerce," the journalist finishes.

The FTA, Minister Plata asserted, is as important for the growth of Colombia as entrance to the European Union had been for Ireland:  "That is the reason for which the FTA is so important . . . companies that invest in Colombia are looking beyond the domestic market and the recent dispute with Venezuela in which President Hugo Chavez threatened the closing of the border demonstrates the fragility of the Colombian export market.  Around half of Colombian exports at the moment go to Venezuela and Ecuador.  Having access to the American market and duty free imports originating in the U.S.A. are crucial questions for producers."  It cannot be seen more clearly, this is "the color of the glass."  We truly need this treaty.

We return to Daniel T. Griswold and Juan Carlos Hidalgo, the CATO Institute researchers, who with sufficient arguments demonstrated to us the benefits that the United States would obtain with the FTA:  "The Free Trade Agreement with Colombia is designed to strengthen the civil society of Colombia and, at the same time, to generate economic opportunities so that U.S. producers sell their products to 44 million Colombian consumers, who would enjoy an upward mobility and would have a positive view of the United States.  Like other similar treaties the United States already negotiated in the region, this one would demolish barriers to American exports.  More than 80% of U.S. exports to Colombia are of products destined for industry that would become duty free to those consumers if the treaty were promulgated, and the remaining tariffs would be eliminated progressively throughout the next ten years.  For agricultural producers of the United States, the FTA would allow duty free immediate access for high quality beef, cotton, wheat, soybean flour and most fruits and vegetables -- like apples, pears, peaches and cherries -- and many processed foods, like potato chips and crackers.  The treaty would improve the sale of exports of pork, beef, corn, fowl, rice and dairy products."

But the benefits do not end there:  In addition, "The FTA would strengthen protection of investments of American companies who are trying to reach Colombian consumers by means of a direct presence.  The treaty would guarantee the nondiscriminatory rights to U.S. companies in their presentation of bids to obtain contracts with a great variety of ministries, governmental bodies, and regional governments of Colombia, as well as better access for American suppliers of telecommunications services.  This FTA surpasses other bilateral treaties in order to satisfy the ever changing demands of the critics of trade treaties concerning the fulfillment of certain labor and environmental norms within Colombia."

"A study made in December of 2006 by the International Trade Commission of the United States considered that the treaty would increase American exports by 1.1 billion dollars.  Since Colombian exporters already enjoy a virtually duty free access to the market of the United States, a trade treaty would allow the equality of conditions that trade skeptics do not cease demanding . . . Because U.S. tariffs already are low or null for the majority of imports originating in Colombia, the treaty would not have to generate the opposition of local special interests. . . ."

". . . Bilateral trade between Colombia and the United States grew to 15.9 billion dollars in 2006 and is on track to surpass 17 billion in 2007.  This value is similar to the bilateral trade with Chile, another country with whom a FTA exists, and almost double the trade with Peru, which became a trade associate in 2007."  The truth, I think, is that we only can find ourselves in this situation for reasons of squalid political motivations, lamentably they chose us, the country that least deserves this treatment.

Well now, in a zone plagued by populist governments, with a leader who has won a place for himself thanks to an expansionist eagerness patronized with petrodollars, we do not understand how the United States would try to throw away Colombia, which is the only country that has put up a defensive wall against the growth of this socialist and anti-North American fever.  What an unfortunate message this is sending to the region!  With respect to this matter our friends at the CATO Institute pronounce themselves:  "The importance of Colombia has grown in the last few years owing to the ideological battle that we are waging in the Andean region.  With the coming to power of presidents of the populist left in South America, President Uribe represents the closest ally of the United States in Latin America."

Yes, Bush is totally right when he says: [ Colombia is ] "a friend of the United States who faces violence and terror, and fights against narcotics traffickers," that is certain, because a serious North American problem that we have faced bravely is drug trafficking.  It is estimated that 90% of powdered cocaine that is consumed in the United States comes from Colombia.  This represents a multimillion dollar business that illegal armed groups have been exploiting for more than one decade, and we have paid for it with deaths.

Compared with the United States, Colombia has compiled a relatively recent gangster history and we were released into the front lines of the war on narcotics trafficking very rapidly, it could be said from the murder of Minister Lara Bonilla.  Whatever tragedies have followed from that time, however many dead we have put away since then, however many generations of the young have been failed, whatever territorial wars we have had to overcome on account of armed groups fed by drug trafficking, it is all fed on an unbridled consumption in the "developed world."

Each North American who decides to consume drugs does so individually and they are far and away the world's major consumers, but they are imposing this war on us, which did not belong to us, because of "Say's Law," which says "all supply creates its own demand" and which is now in the process of being totally reevaluated, as we are sure that for the consumption of drugs "all demand creates its own supply."  From this point of view: if we managed to defeat drug trafficking and stopped being the world's leading producers, logically the business would be transferred to another country, probably in South America, because it is completely certain that they will continue being the world's major consumers and someone is going to produce drugs for them.

Peru, Mexico, Chile and Central America have free trade agreements with the U.S.A., which means that Colombia is automatically left at a disadvantage with the negation of our agreement.  We asked ourselves: Have they made Peru, Mexico, Chile and Central America more deserving to gain admittance to the FTA?  How many more deaths have these countries suffered in the war on drugs?  What iron positions have they taken in defense of the American people?  Which country, aside from Colombia, has been in the lead in restraining the expansionist plans of Hugo Chavez and his "Socialism of the 21st Century?"  Perhaps they do not realize that we are their last friend in a region of enemies?  Our people are not Bush's allies.  Our people are allies of the American people!  It is sad to see what they have done on the subject of the FTA.  But, President Uribe already made clear that the relationship with the United States would be affected if the FTA is rejected, during a visit to Washington, he said that Colombia will not be part of "a relationship in which the United States is the master and Colombia is the slave."

Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, was incisive in saying:  "If the United States gives it back to Colombia, the misfortune that we would suffer would be greater than that which no Latin American dictator could aspire to obtain."  As for me, I totally share the main conclusion of the CATO Institute in the study in question:  "To approve a free trade agreement with Colombia is to support a free market democracy in a region in which liberal values are in danger, it is being a reliable partner in turbulent times.  To reject a free trade agreement with Colombia due to the persistent violence that country suffers would be an irresponsible error of the Congress.  It would imply sacrificing our national interest in a stable hemisphere and prosperous Pacific in favor of ideological interests and partisan shortcomings of perspective."

Jorge Pareja

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