From the July 10, 2008 Weekly Standard online
July 10, 2008
by Jaime Daremblum
Last week's daring rescue of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages (including three Americans) by Colombian commandos is cause for rejoicing. As Colombian President Alvaro Uribe put it, the rescue mission was "an unbelievable military achievement." It marked yet another huge victory for Colombia in its war on terrorism and another embarrassing defeat for the country's main leftist guerrilla group--known by its Spanish acronym, FARC--which had been holding Betancourt since 2002.
During the six years of her captivity, Colombia was transformed. Murders, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks have all plunged dramatically. The FARC has been devastated by combat deaths and desertions; its remaining forces inhabit remote camps deep in the Colombian jungle, far away from the urban areas. As a result, foreign investment is pouring into the biggest cities. The World Bank has lauded Colombia for its economic reforms, which helped GDP grow by 6.8 percent in 2006 and by more than 7 percent in 2007.
When we consider the progress made under President Uribe (who was first elected in 2002), it is appalling that the U.S. Congress has refused to approve a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia, ostensibly due to concerns over violence. By any serious measure, Colombia is a far less violent place today than at any time in recent years. Democratic House leaders argue that Colombia has not done enough to stop attacks on trade unionists. That depends on the meaning of the word "enough": According to official Colombian statistics, murders of trade unionists declined from 196 in 2002 to 26 in 2007. Uribe established a special government-funded program to protect union members from violence, and there is no question that their safety has increased enormously.
Unfortunately, American labor unions--a bulwark of the Democratic party--are strongly opposed to the free trade pact. (Never mind that the FTA would mostly benefit U.S. exporters.) If the deal has any chance of winning congressional approval, it will happen after the 2008 election.
Like most Democrats, Barack Obama has come out against the Colombia FTA and has chastised the Uribe administration for not doing more to reduce violence. Though Obama speaks often of his desire to improve U.S. credibility abroad, the Democrats' treatment of Colombia is having precisely the opposite effect. Uribe is our closest ally in Latin America. If Congress is willing to humiliate him, what message does that send to other countries in the region?
Obama has an opportunity here. Throughout Latin America, people of all ages are excited about his campaign. If he were to visit Colombia and meet with Uribe, that would signal his strong commitment to the region and his appreciation for all that the Colombian president has achieved. Indeed, if Obama saw the results on the ground in Colombia, he would be less inclined to denounce Uribe over human rights. John McCain was in Colombia last week (the same week Betancourt was rescued). Obama's upcoming travels will take him to Europe and the Middle East, and apparently will include a visit to Iraq. Sometime between now and Election Day, he should find time to spend a day in Colombia.
This is not just a matter of symbolism. If Obama becomes president, he will have to work with Uribe--and perhaps with some future Colombian president--to coordinate anti-drug efforts. Since 2000, the United States has spent billions of dollars on "Plan Colombia," an aid package designed to help Colombia stamp out narcotics trafficking. Though it was expanded by President Bush, Plan Colombia began as a Clinton administration initiative that enjoyed strong bipartisan backing in Congress. In other words, close cooperation with Bogotá is not a "Bush policy."
Colombia is located in a region where Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is trying to spread radical populism. If Obama intends to maintain U.S. influence in that region, he should travel to Colombia and affirm his support for a robust U.S.-Colombia partnership--even if it angers some prominent Democrats and the AFL-CIO crowd. That's what true statesmanship is all about.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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