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Majority Leader Hoyer Needs to Know that the Uribe Government of Colombia is Not Fit for an FTA

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The most outspoken Democratic proponent of an ill-deserved Free Trade Agreement with Bogotá has not only reversed his own position on the deal, but has defended and legitimized a corrupt, venal government, heavily tied to political scandals and human rights violations, whose legislative backers are being indicted in droves. Only Colombia’s elite will be the major beneficiaries of an FTA and not the average American or Colombian. Is the Majority Leader sufficiently resolved in his convictions to debate the issue?

Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe will be in Washington on Monday, mainly to drum up support for his signature economic policy, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA). The trade deal was negotiated under the second Bush administration but blocked by House Democrats in April 2008, primarily in response to the endemic violence against trade unionists that continues to plague Colombia. Although President Obama echoed his party’s criticisms of the CFTA during his presidential race, he has not taken long to respond to the persistent courting of the Colombian government, which has aggressively lobbied in favor of the agreement. At the April 2009 Summit of the Americas, Obama and Uribe joined for an unplanned lunch to discuss the agenda for the security and development of Colombia, reaffirming the close, if ill-deserved relationship the two nations have enjoyed under previous administrations. The following day, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced that he would begin extensive consultations with Congress to work toward the ratification of the CFTA. Uribe’s invitation to the White House, another outcome of the Summit, offers him a chance to bolster the growing chorus of Congressional, media, and business voices that are prioritizing the CFTA over an adhesion to high human rights and democratic principles in Colombia.

Opposing Delegations
Far less publicized than the Obama-Uribe meeting at the Summit, but equally important in paving the way for the resumption of CFTA discussions, was the visit to Colombia two weeks earlier by a eleven-member Congressional delegation led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Hoyer’s ardently pro-FTA delegation traveled to Cartagena, Colombia to meet with President Uribe and several of his Cabinet Ministers. Hoyer lauded the Uribe administration’s use of Plan Colombia aid, its reported “progress” on human rights, its fight against drug traffickers, and its petition for an FTA with the United States. He expressed his personal support for the FTA, claiming its importance “not only [for] the economic relationship of Colombia and the United States, but also [for] the people of Colombia.” The sad fact is that Hoyer is probably bereft of a serious understanding of Colombia’s grim realities which, under Uribe, have transformed Colombia into a dictatorial democracy where otherwise innocent Colombians are under constant danger from the security forces and corrupt factions tied to the presidency itself.

Hoyer’s assessment starkly differed from the evaluation advanced by a contemporaneous delegation of twenty U.S. and British legislators and trade unionists, which took the time to meet with average Colombians—mothers, peasants, labor rights workers—and listened to testimonies of the atrocities perpetrated by right-wing paramilitaries in the name of fighting leftist rebels and drug traffickers. The members of this counter-delegation, which included U.S. Representative James McGovern (D-MA), became “convinced” that the Colombian government and military fully support and condone the paramilitary activities. In a final statement, they demanded that, “there will be no free trade pact with Colombia whatsoever until human rights and union rights are respected in an internationally verifiable way.”

Hoyer Leads the Way
While Representative Hoyer’s delegation was by far the more widely publicized, the House Majority Leader has not always served as a mouthpiece for the Uribe government. In June 2007, following the vote of the Colombian Congress in favor of the trade agreement, he joined with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel (D-NY) and member Sander Levin (D-MI) in issuing a statement against immediate approval. The Congress members cited “the level of violence in Colombia, the impunity, the lack of investigations and prosecutions, and the role of the paramilitary” as significant problems that could not be solved with the insertion of a few additional clauses into a trade agreement. Therefore, they demanded that “concrete evidence of sustained results on the ground” precede Congress’ ratification of the agreement.

Soon, though, it became clear that Rep. Hoyer’s acquiescence to this statement was nothing more than a thin veil for his staunchly pro-free trade agenda. As a keynote speaker before the National Foreign Trade Council in October 2007, Hoyer expressed his desire to “build bipartisan support behind trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea.” The following April, Hoyer, along with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), introduced the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement Implementation Act. This bill sought to approve of the FTA and to allow for its “entry into force” after January 1, 2009, without any provisions to address the human rights shortcomings plaguing the nation as well as the government.

Hoyer’s bill was never reported to a Committee because House Democrats, led by Speaker Pelosi, passed a resolution eliminating the 90-day window that Congress normally has to ratify trade agreements. However, in a January 16 interview with Colombia’s prestigious Semana magazine, Hoyer portrayed Congress’ vote to postpone the consideration of the FTA as a response to the Bush administration’s “[failure] to adequately consult Congress” on the agreement, not a result of the human rights violations he had addressed a year earlier. When directly confronted by Semana about his 2007 statement, Hoyer avoided the reality of his unanticipated as well as unwarranted policy shift, responding, “The reduction in violence is clearly a positive step, and I continue to believe that a U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would be beneficial to both nations.” During the interview, Hoyer also dodged questions regarding the shortcomings of Plan Colombia, the likelihood that Obama and Pelosi would support the legislation, and Uribe’s bid for a third term in office.

A Disillusioning Reality
Given Hoyer’s apparent change in tune on Colombia, one wonders what, if any, “concrete evidence of sustained results” he has seen in the past two years since he initially expressed his reservations about the FTA. On one hand, it is undeniable that the Uribe administration has increased the sense of security of average Colombians, resulting in the President’s consistently high popular approval ratings. Violent crime and kidnappings have decreased since Uribe took office, while the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the 2008 cocaine production levels were the lowest in ten years. However, when such “progress” comes at the expense of hundreds of innocent lives and the integrity of Colombia’s democratic institutions, it is critical to reconsider the U.S. policy of providing tens of millions of dollars to the Colombian military every year, before moving forward with gusto toward an FTA.

In reality, the human rights situation on the ground in Colombia has not improved significantly since 2007; fresh evidence surrounding labor rights violations and new political scandals are consistently being brought to light. Violence against trade union leaders continues to be of particular concern for those opposing the FTA. In 2008, 49 trade union leaders were murdered, 10 more than in the previous year, and as of June 10, 17 union leaders have been killed this year. As of April 2008, there had been only 22 convictions for the murders of over 400 trade unionists since Uribe took office. Even more appalling, Uribe’s administration has been jolted by a series of “false positive” scandals over the past years, involving the alleged murders of hundreds of innocent civilians by the Colombian military as a means to increase the body count in its war against FARC guerillas. While Uribe himself has stayed clear of accusations, the scandal forced him to fire 27 officers and soldiers and led to the resignation of the Colombian Army Chief. It is clear, moreover, that these civilian deaths are connected to the government: since 2006, 70 congressmen—mainly from Uribe’s own ruling coalition—have been investigated and 7 convicted for involvement with the right-wing paramilitary groups that have served as death squads for the Colombian Army. Further marring the government’s credibility, Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the secret intelligence organization that reports directly to Uribe, has been implicated in a wiretapping scandal against opposition politicians and human rights workers that led to the firing of 22 officials.

Furthermore, President Uribe has consistently undermined the integrity of Colombia’s democracy in his drive to consolidate his personal control over the country. Particular controversy surrounds his potential candidacy for an unprecedented third term in office in 2010. While Uribe has not been forthcoming about his desire to seek a third term, there is currently a bill undergoing negotiations in the Uribe-backed legislature that would allow for a referendum to amend the Constitution and enable Uribe to run again. By inhibiting the transfer of authority that is essential for a healthy democracy, such an amendment would lead to a dangerous concentration of power in the executive. However, this would not be the first time Uribe has attempted such a move: a similar referendum in 2004 amended the Constitution to allow Uribe to run for his current term. Since 2006 Uribe has appointed his personal lawyer and two staunch supporters to the Constitutional Court, one of the four highest courts in the country, which will further bolster his power to alter the Constitution at his will. Uribe also recently appointed two Central Bank directors with close links to his finance minister, and throughout 2008 consistently interfered with the bank’s monetary policy. For those who would oppose Uribe’s undemocratic actions, the President is quick to employ pejorative rhetoric. He has referred to human rights activists as terrorist sympathizers and cowards, and in August 2008 he called for a criminal investigation of Daniel Coronell, a television reporter who broadcasted an interview alleging a bribery scandal during the 2004 referendum.

That the human rights abuses and undemocratic actions of the Uribe government are the inevitable side effects of Uribe’s repeatedly cited achievements in fighting crime and drugs remains a dubious argument. The 2008 reductions in cocaine production and cultivation are more the result of the government’s eradication and aerial spraying programs than of its war against FARC rebels, while Uribe’s conspicuous efforts to distance himself from the scandals suggests that he realizes the detrimental effect they could have on his popularity. Moreover, no kind of security progress can justify the litany of crimes overseen by the Colombian government. The fact is that Washington’s embarrassing lionizing of Uribe and his “end justifies the means” argument leaves little room for a victory for principle. To offer Colombia a free trade agreement now would endorse the strategies that have killed and displaced thousands, removing any incentive the Uribe administration might have to improve its deplorable human rights record.

Lobbying for Free Trade
Majority Leader Hoyer and his supporters, however, seem to be entirely unaware of this reality, and the Uribe government has been quick to capitalize on their naïve support. In June 2008, Hoyer was identified by the Fratelli Group, a New York lobbying firm hired by the Government of Colombia to push the FTA in Congress, as one of 23 Democratic Congressmen toward whom pro-FTA lobbyists should direct their efforts. The list was included at the end of a document prepared by the firm, “What to Say/Not Say (and Why) on International Trade,” which suggests to lobbyists various strategies for promoting a free trade agenda, based on a survey commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The report instructs lobbyists to frame the argument for a Colombia FTA in terms of economic justice, by emphasizing that currently, most Colombian exports enter the U.S. duty free, while U.S. products are heavily taxed at the border. It posits that the FTA is needed to “level the playing field.”

Of course, if the U.S. were really at the disadvantage in trading with Colombia, then Uribe’s government would not be so adamant about the implementation of the FTA; clearly, this agreement is about creating economic and geopolitical gains for the government of Colombia, not about concern over the welfare of American workers. The clever, if specious, argument of the Fratelli Group mounts its entire free trade argument around domestic concerns and ignores the implications of supporting a government that openly flaunts basic standards of democracy and human rights. It thereby directly undermines the Democratic party’s case against immediate ratification of the FTA. Given Hoyer’s past record, though, it is doubtful that he even needed the prodding of lobbyists.

An Imminent Concern
Despite President Uribe’s forthcoming visit to Washington, it seems unlikely that Hoyer and his allies in Congress will be able to marshal enough support to push through a vote on the FTA by the end of this year. Speaker Pelosi—Hoyer’s massive intra-party rival—and many other top House Democrats have not yet expressed their support for the agreement, and domestic matters such as the economy and the distractions posed by the fight over healthcare will dominate Congress in the immediate future. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said recently that Colombia “needs to address the issue of violence against union leaders” before Congress can proceed with a vote on the agreement, while Rep. Levin has concluded that Bogotá must amend its labor laws to comply with International Labor Organization standards. Moreover, Congress is currently working out the details of the less controversial U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement, and is likely to seek a conclusion to this deal before moving on to Colombia.

Nonetheless, Hoyer’s crusade in support of the Colombia FTA is a cause of serious concern for those who want to prioritize human rights and democratic values in our Latin America policy. His actions as the second most prominent Democratic legislative leader, which undoubtedly contributed to Obama’s own drift from his party’s initial stance on the agreement, indicate the erosion taking place in the Democratic front line against the neoliberal policies that have consistently defined the U.S. approach to Latin America. It is imperative that Hoyer’s and Obama’s gestures toward the Uribe government are not mistaken as signs of the real change that must occur in Colombia before Washington can legitimately consider a free trade deal with the Uribe government. Bogotá must show that it has significant work to do before it can approach the U.S. as a business partner—and if this fails to clean up its much stained record, the U.S. would be well to seriously reconsider its policy toward its putative closest ally in Latin America.