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U.S.-Colombia ties turning to human rights

Spare a thought for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in these waning days of the Bush administration.

Few foreign leaders were banking more heavily on Republican continuity in the White House. After all, his country has received some $5.5-billion in U.S. aid over the last eight years to help fight a tough war with drug traffickers and illegal armed groups on both the left and the right.

The icing on the cake was supposed to be a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. President Bush pushed hard for it, but Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Barack Obama, blocked it.

Now comes President-elect Obama, armed with a new foreign policy agenda that includes giving human rights higher priority in international negotiations. One can almost hear the plates smashing in the Casa de Narino, Colombia's presidential palace.

Uribe and Obama make for an odd couple, and how they deal with each other will be a revealing test for both men. Obama is known for his calm under pressure. Uribe, like Sen. John McCain, is an inspiring leader but with a reputation for hot-headedness.

In a last-ditch — some say futile and ill-advised — effort to save his free trade deal, Bush used his White House meeting with Obama last Monday to advocate for its passage.

But his timing could not have been worse. The Uribe government faces its worst human rights scandal in decades. This month, 25 military officers, including three generals, were fired over allegations involving the execution of innocent civilians to fraudulently inflate the body count of dead insurgents. The army chief also quietly resigned on Nov. 4.

To be sure, Uribe has moved quickly to deal with this outrage, promising a thorough investigation and appropriate punishment. But that is never easy in wartime, especially in a country where the security forces have so often gotten away with murder.

Let's be clear, free trade with Colombia makes a lot of sense, especially for Florida. Greater trade with our hemispheric neighbors generally brings commercial benefits. And Colombia is without question an important long-term strategic ally.

But something else must also be made clear. Republicans cannot continue to look at free trade simply in business terms.

Uribe has indeed turned the war around since taking office in 2002, reducing violence and kidnapping, demobilizing 30,000 right-wing paramilitaries and pushing the left-wing FARC guerrillas back into the jungle. But Colombia remains a glass half full.

The cocaine industry continues to exert its corrupting influence. Colombia's justice system remains weak and lacking in transparency. Decades-old massacres and other killings have gone unpunished.

High on Democrats' list of concerns are abuses against Colombian labor organizers. Last year I visited a major coal mine in northern Colombia that was the scene of several murders of union leaders.

Though current union bosses are being afforded protection by government security agents, threats and intimidation persist. Senior Colombian officials I interviewed downplayed the violence, sometimes even ridiculing reported incidents as no more than crimes of passion.

U.S. policy can help Colombia rethink its attitude toward unions by demanding that these crimes are taken more seriously.

U.S. aid programs are already strengthening Colombia's justice system, in recognition of the men and women who risk their lives investigating and prosecuting cases. Colombia's military is also now blessed with a rising new generation of professional soldiers, schooled in human rights.

Most observers expect a free trade deal will pass Congress next year. Obama has surrounded himself with a foreign policy team of centrists, not moralists. He has himself repeatedly said he supports free trade and foreign aid for "Plan Colombia," recognizing that the drug war is a shared responsibility.

"It's not going to be overdone. Obama is not a single-issue guy," said Michael Shifter, with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "He looks at all the issues, and human rights is up there."

David Adams can be reached at

U.S.-Colombia ties turning to human rights 11/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 3:43pm]
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