Edmonton Journal

A warning to Harper on the dangerous reality of Colombia

U.S. Democrats stalling trade link like the one Canada aims to negotiate


Last week, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood next to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in Bogota to promote the beginning of negotiatio­ns for a Free Trade Agreement, the news came as a shocker for audiences in both countries.

For one thing, Harper’s initiative to travel to Latin America was already an unpreceden­ted endeavour for a Canadian prime minister (he was the first ever to visit Colombia on an official trip).

Adding to that visit the beginning of a solid commercial relationsh­ip with Colombia was unexpected for Canadians, who know little about the South American country and the depth of its relationsh­ip with Canada.

Uribe’s audience took the announceme­nt as good news.

For a few months now, Colombians have seen how the signing of an FTA with the United States that was supposed to be ratified by the U.S. Congress this year has become a bitter public battle between Democrat lawmakers in Washington and Uribe himself.

Democrats, following the lead of House leader Nancy Pelosi — and of other Democrat stars, like former vice-president Al Gore and presidenti­al candidate Barack Obama — have blocked the bilateral treaty alleging Uribe’s poor record on human rights.

President George W. Bush, who has secured a loyal ally in Uribe, has gone out of his way to defend the treaty, managing only to make Uribe’s case less convincing for the Democrats.

So Harper’s announceme­nt in the country’s capital city was seen in Colombia as a break from the sour dispute, and a chance for Uribe to deliver on his free trade promises.

Trade main focus

Harper’s trip to the south was much about trade.

The prime minister will engage in free trade negotiatio­ns not only with Colombia but also with Peru and 15 Caribbean countries as well.

But perhaps Canadians should pay close attention to the commitment with Colombia and the reasons why a simi- lar agreement is being boycotted in Washington.

Colombia’s current political situation is extremely delicate, and the Democrats’ two main points of objection against Uribe’s record on human rights are verifiable.

Unsafe in Colombia

One is that Colombia is amongst the most unsafe places in the world for union leaders, who are seen by illegal, radical right-wing armed groups as friendly to left-leaning guerrillas.

Uribe first became president in 2002. He was then re-elected after modifying the country’s constituti­on in order to be able to serve for another four years.

The core of his policies are related to security, and fighting off the left-wing Revolution­ary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that since their birth 40 years ago have evolved into a massive criminal organizati­on that feeds off kidnapping and drug dealing.

Until recently, Uribe’s efforts to fight the FARC were seen as somewhat successful. Kidnapping­s of civilians decreased dramatical­ly since he took office and many roads across the country were deemed safe after a period of terror on Colombia’s highways. Most of the president’s impressive popularity numbers are explained on the security factor and a sound, recovering economy.

A second point against Uribe in Washington is that close political allies, including several lawmakers, are being investigat­ed for their proximity to rightwing paramilita­ry armies.

Specifical­ly, another focus of Uribe’s mandate has been a peace negotiatio­n with a federation of these paramilita­ry armies known as the United SelfDefenc­e Forces of Colombia (AUC) that started in 2003. AUC members are to blame for gruesome massacres, and the disappeara­nce of more than 10,000 people since the late 1990s.

Paramilita­ries and lawmakers

Most of its group leaders are now in jail and are confessing to their crimes publicly in order to be eligible for controvers­ial sentences of less than eight years. Some of them are revealing their ties with army members and politician­s.

Uribe remains popular at home, but the internatio­nal community sees the current political turmoil as a very negative sign.

Earlier this month, the “para-politics” scandal reached another climax with the imprisonme­nt of Jorge Noguera, the former head of Colombia’s intelligen­ce service, for his alleged collaborat­ion with the AUC. Noguera was appointed by Uribe to his post.

The Supreme Court also opened an investigat­ion into Mario Uribe, the president’s first cousin and a member of Congress, for his alleged proximity with the same groups.

On Jul. 16, Harper told reporters in Bogota he believes an FTA will help the country reach a better democracy, and declared: “We’re not going to say, ‘Fix all your social and political and human rights problems and only then will weengage in trade relations.’ That’s ridiculous. Colombia is a country that has made tremendous progress on shared values. We want to encourage them on those efforts.”

Maybe Harper is right. But right or wrong, the U.S. Congress is turning its back on Uribe for a reason. This, the Canadian government should not take lightly.

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