Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 dadams@sptimes.com.

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals

    Transportation

    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
  2. No lack of issues facing St. Petersburg's six council candidates

    Elections

    ST. PETERSBURG — The six candidates for City Council gathered Monday evening in the very chamber to which they aspire to serve.

    St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left)  Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless in District 2; Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice in District 4; and Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll of District 6. All six candidates appeared at Monday night's forum at City Hall sponsored by the League of Women Voters. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]

  3. Iraq's Kurds vote on independence, raising regional fears

    World

    IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq's central government. Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.

    People celebrate Monday after voting closed in a referendum on independence in Irbil, Iraq.
  4. North Korean diplomat says Trump has 'declared war'

    War

    UNITED NATIONS — North Korea's top diplomat said Monday that President Donald Trump's weekend tweet was a "declaration of war" and North Korea has the right to retaliate by shooting down U.S. bombers, even in international airspace.

    North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, center, speaks outside the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York on Monday.
  5. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions more toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]