A warn­ing to Harper on the dan­ger­ous re­al­ity of Colom­bia

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

Edmonton Journal - - OPINION - GABRIELA PER­DOMO

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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