SOTU: Shout Out for Colombia

In his final State of the Union address, President Bush specifically called on Congress to pass the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia:

These agreements also promote America’s strategic interests. The first agreement that will come before you is with Colombia, a friend of America that is confronting violence and terror, and fighting drug traffickers. If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere. So we must come together, pass this agreement, and show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely. House Majority leader Steny Hoyer stated that it was “doubtful” the Colombia Free Trade Agreement would be brought to a vote.

While the Democrats have legitimate concerns about the agreement a failure to ratify the Colombia Free Trade Agreement will have a substantial negative impact on American standing (rarely high) in Latin America. Not rewarding Colombia for its progress in a terrible war against the narco-terrorist FARC will send the message to Latin America that cooperation with the U.S. doesn’t pay. But this is the wrong message to send a region Latin America with substantial lawless zones, a growing Islamist presence, and being swept with anti-American radicalism.

The Colombia deal faces the opposition faced by many free trade agreements, concerns about U.S. jobs. But it also is opposed because of the problematic human rights record in Colombia. There is ongoing concern that the full extent of the government’s complicity with the vicious paramilitary groups. These groups arose when the government was unable to defend major portions of the country from FARC and ELN revolutionaries. But the paramilitaries entered the narcotics business and became as bloodthirsty as their adversaries. While the paramilitaries have disarmed under an amnesty program, there are persistent reports that many have remained in business. Organized labor in the U.S. is particularly incensed because labor activists are targeted by the paramilitaries (over 700 have reportedly been killed since 2002 – more than the rest of the world combined.)

In addition U.S. aid to Colombia has had, at best, a mixed record in reducing the amount of cocaine coming to the United States.

While all this is true, the overall progress made by Colombia is difficult to dismiss. The Administration says there has been a 76-percent drop in kidnappings, a 40-percent drop in homicides and a 61-percent drop in terror attacks since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002. Uribe won re-election in 2006 with 62% of the vote and currently has an 80% approval rating. Most critics of Uribe and Plan Colombia (the multi-billion dollar US aid package to Colombia), such as The Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program will grant that security in Colombia has improved. At the beginning of the decade Colombia was on the verge of being a failed state, while violence continues it is far more stable now.

At the same time Colombia has been a loyal U.S. ally, when anti-Americanism is on the rise throughout the Latin America. Failing to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement will effectively punish a country – and its President – who has remained firmly in the U.S. corner. While this will not have an immediate effect on Colombia’s fight against the FARC narco-terrorists, it will tell the entire region, which frequently distrusts U.S. interests and is perturbed at American inattention to their concerns, that the United States is an unreliable ally. If the U.S. fails to reward one of its closest allies, Latin American leaders will have little incentive to go to bat for the United States.

Latin America has made enormous economic, social, and political progress over the last several decades. But the region faces many strategic problems including: the petro-dollar funded spread of Chavezismo populism, the regional arms build-up, the lawless areas such as the Tri-Border region, the, the growth of super-gangs and criminal cartels in Mexico, Central America, and Brazil, and the increased Iranian and Chinese influence throughout the region. Now is the wrong time to neglect or punish Latin America.

This is not to say that the Democrats in Congress do not have legitimate concerns. They do. They also have multiple avenues for addressing them. Most notably, through shaping the funding of Plan Colombia and dedicating funds to address human rights concerns.

The Democrats have promised to improve the U.S. image in the world – a very welcome initiative. However, punishing the allies the United States already has is not an ideal way to begin.

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