US-COLOMBIA: Uribe Presses FTA in First Encounter with Obama

  • by Danielle Kurtzleben and Jim Lobe* (washington)
  • Tuesday, June 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

After hosting Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at the White House Monday, President Barack Obama told reporters that, while 'there are obvious difficulties involved in the process... I am very confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States.'

Uribe himself expressed guarded optimism Tuesday that Obama would try to move the accord, which was signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, two and a half years ago, through Congress.

'Yesterday, the conversation with President Obama was very constructive,' Uribe told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars here. 'I found him very interested in moving ahead with Colombia.'

Uribe, a frequent visitor to the White House during the Bush years, was perhaps Washington's closest and most favoured ally in South America, particularly given his prosecution of the U.S.-backed 'war on drugs' and his efforts to defeat left-wing insurgencies, notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Under Washington's Plan Colombia, which was actually launched by former President Bill Clinton, the U.S. has poured nearly six billion dollars into fighting Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine production, making Bogota by far the biggest U.S. aid recipient in the Americas.

Bush had long sought a FTA with Colombia and finally signed an agreement – the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Act – on Nov. 22, 2006.

By then, however, Democrats had taken control of Congress here, and their leadership made clear that they were most unlikely to ratify the FTA until Uribe took far-reaching steps to better protect labour rights and union activists in Colombia.

Over the past decade, hundreds of trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia. Most have been the targets of right-wing paramilitaries, many of them linked to the armed forces as well as major landowners and drug traffickers. Based primarily in the major labour unions here, foes of the accord demonstrated their opposition in a protest outside the White House during Monday's meeting.

Uribe has pinned his hopes for gaining Congressional approval of the FTA on his country’s improving security and human rights record. In his Wilson Centre remarks, he noted that, under his administration, some 30,000 paramilitaries have been demobilised, and some 10,000 former guerrillas have defected.

He particularly touted his success in reducing violence against trade unionists. He said his government had provided individual government protection to over 10,000 Colombians, including some 2,000 trade union leaders and activists.

Indeed, killings have declined sharply from a peak of 274 in 1996, and especially rapidly since Uribe took office in 2002. Uribe said there were 38 unionist killings in 2008 (though the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation puts this figure at 49), and 17 thus far in 2009. 'We want zero, zero cases,' he said Tuesday.

With U.S. support, his administration has also tried to improve the judicial and prosecutorial systems. Before he took office, he claimed, only two men accused of killing unionists had been convicted in a court of law. Under his administration, nearly 200 convictions have been obtained, he said.

Obama himself commended Uribe's record, noting that 'obviously, we've seen a downward trajectory in the deaths of labour union (activists), and we've seen improvements when it comes to prosecution of those who are carrying out these blatant human rights offences.'

'President Uribe acknowledges that there remains more work to be done, and we look forward to co-operating with him to continue to improve both the rights of organised labour in Colombia and to protect both labour and civil rights leaders there,' Obama said.

He also noted more recent controversies, however, that have contributed to the dimming of Uribe's star here, including reports by human rights groups that, even as paramilitary activity has declined, Colombian army and police have been killing poor young men and subsequently claiming they were leftist guerrillas killed in combat.

In one report, U.N. investigators confirmed that these extra-judicial killings have been taking place on a 'systematic and widespread' basis. Gimena Sanchez-Giroli, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) here, said that security forces have killed well over 1,000 civilians since 2002.

A more recent scandal – the uncovering of a large-scale wiretapping and surveillance programme by Colombia's intelligence service of Uribe's political foes and critics and their family members – has also contributed to a decline in his image here, even though Uribe himself has denied any prior knowledge, let alone approval, of such an initiative.

Referring to both the reports of killings and the surveillance, Obama stressed in his remarks that 'it is important that Colombia pursue rule of law and transparency, and I know that is something President Uribe is committed to doing.'

For his part, Uribe insisted he was dedicated to human rights and transparency and said that new decrees regarding the state security agencies will be issued in the coming three weeks to 'solve the endemic problems of these institutions for good'.

But Uribe insisted that his main priority here was to gain ratification of the FTA, and Obama offered him some encouragement in that regard. He said he had instructed Trade Representative Ron Kirk to 'begin working closely with President Uribe's team on how we can proceed on a free trade agreement'. Uribe also met with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke Tuesday.

Like most other Democrats, Obama voiced disapproval of such a deal when he ran for president. He justified his stance by arguing that 'we have to stand for human rights, and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organise for their rights.'

FTA proponents argue that it would benefit the U.S. economy by further opening Colombian markets to U.S. exports. They argue that this would 'level the playing field', as over 90 percent of Colombian goods already enter the U.S. duty-free under the Andean Trade Preference Extension Act. If approved, the FTA would allow 80 percent of U.S. goods to enter Colombia duty-free as well.

The FTA would also increase security within Colombia by creating jobs for poor people who would otherwise be working in the drug trade or joining the paramilitaries.

Sanchez-Giroli, however, said early action on the FTA was unlikely for a number of reasons, including persistent concerns about the human rights situation. Just last week, Rafael Antonio Sepúlveda Lara, a member of the public servants' federation who was also associated with the national hospital workers’ union, was murdered under suspicious circumstances.

Moreover, the paramilitaries, while officially demobilised, have not been fully dismantled and continue to operate both illegal and legal enterprises. An FTA may help many Colombian businesses and enterprises, but 'many of them have links to these paramilitary networks', said Sanchez-Giroli.

In a recent investigative article in The Nation here, journalist Teo Ballre detailed cases in which the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had provided assistance for the development of palm plantations acquired through violent or other illegal means by paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?