Thursday, September 18, 2014

Colombia’s Eternal Agony

Colombia is in better shape today than it has been for years, thanks largely to President Alvaro Uribe’s leadership, but it remains a bizarre place, one facing strange and intractable challenges. Colombia’s FARC guerrillas have held some of their kidnapping victims for many years. Child soldiers still linger in paramilitary groups, and there are compromising video recordings of leading Colombian politicians and drug lords. Perhaps weirdest of all, there are imprisoned guerrillas who refuse to be set free, and a government that insists on liberating them, even against their will.

Uribe was re-elected just over a year ago by a landslide, a tribute to the popularity and effectiveness of his “democratic security” policy of combating both the guerrillas and the country’s generalized violence. Latin America’s oldest standing two-party system was decimated in that election, as the Polo Democrático presidential candidate won more votes than the Liberal Party’s contender, finally giving electoral expression to left-wing forces that had never been able to see more potential for change at the ballot box than by fighting in the mountains.

Negotiations on Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States had been finalized. Even the questionable deal Uribe cut with the right-wing paramilitary AUC groups, pardoning up to 30,000 of their members for often horrendous crimes in exchange for their disarmament, appeared successful. With Uribe in charge, Colombia seemed to be on a roll.

But much of this success has since been squandered, with both Colombia and Uribe now in deep trouble. The so-called parapolítica scandals have rocked Uribe’s government, forcing the resignation of some cabinet ministers, and embarrassing others, including the president himself. Photographs, videos, and audio recordings of politicians and paramilitary thugs (including one who boasts of having personally killed more than 300 of his enemies) have discredited a political elite that, while never very popular, has now had some of the worst suspicions that many held about it graphically confirmed.

For years human rights activists and scholars suspected the obvious: the emergence of an enormous, vicious, well-armed, and well-trained parallel army to fight the guerillas was not some spontaneous act. It was, many believed, a deliberate policy devised and carried out by the official military and the political elite to wage war “off the books.” The parapolítica or paragate revelations seem to confirm another suspicion as well: the distinction between the paramilitaries and the drug cartels, like that between the guerrillas and the cartels, is a nuanced one.

Unfortunately, these revelations come at the worst possible moment. Colombia’s FTA with the US was in danger the moment the US Republicans lost their majority in both houses of Congress last November. Still, it seemed more likely to pass than the other two pending Latin American trade deals with Panama and Peru. Now it appears that President George W. Bush’s closest ally in the hemisphere will not only have its FTA rejected, owing to human rights concerns in the US House and Senate. Moreover, it might also lose Plan Colombia, the huge – and hugely controversial – American aid program that has funneled tens of billions of dollars into Colombia since the late 1990’s, ostensibly to fight the drug cartels, but also, in fact, to wage counter-insurgency.

Uribe has spent weeks directly and personally lobbying key American legislators, and he is undoubtedly his own best advocate. But, just as former US Vice-President Al Gore recently refused to share a dais with Uribe in Miami, many members of Congress refuse to approve a trade agreement or an aid package that may link them to a government tainted by egregious human rights abuses, complicity with drug lords, or both.

The US has never really wanted to include human rights issues in trade agreements; at best, and only when forced, US presidents have consented to incorporating labor and environmental chapters. The European Union thinks differently; in its economic cooperation and free trade agreement with Mexico, for example, it insisted on – and achieved – the inclusion of a “democracy clause” that made its economic benefits conditional on ongoing respect for democratic rule and human rights.

Colombia’s blemished human rights record is affecting its government’s international standing and providing ammunition for those who wish to sabotage the FTA. For example, protectionist Democrats in the US Congress have been able to insulate themselves from charges of opposing free trade if they scuttle Colombia’s FTA, because they will most likely ratify the deals for Panama and Peru.

Can Uribe survive his current travails? The answer is almost certainly yes, unless the parapolítica mess reaches him directly, or the US explicitly rejects the FTA and postpones or attaches conditions to renewal of funding for Plan Colombia.

Uribe’s political demise would hurt everyone, but the rejection of the FTA on human rights grounds could set a healthy precedent. In a region where threats to democracy and human rights are growing, linking trade and economic policy to these considerations is not a bad idea. Uribe may not deserve such a fate, but history works in strange ways.

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