A Politician Says That If the U.S. Doesn’t Pass a Free-Trade Agreement, His Country Could Be Forced to Withdraw.
From: Los Angeles Times (CA)
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — A prominent politician closely allied with President Alvaro Uribe said his nation should pull out of a U.S.-financed effort to fight drug trafficking and terrorism if the American Congress does not pass a free-trade agreement with his country.
Sen. Carlos Garcia, a presidential aspirant and leader of the largest bloc in Colombia’s Congress, said Monday in an interview that the failure to pass the trade accord could force the government to withdraw from Plan Colombia, which has cost the United States about $5 billion over seven years.
“If the U.S. Congress does not support Colombia in expanding its markets, there is absolutely no reason to accept Plan Colombia aid. That’s just one component of the solution. The best way out of poverty and the cultivation of illegal crops is the marketplace,” said Garcia, who heads Uribe’s Social National Unity Party.
The move would salvage “national dignity” and possibly prompt Colombia to move away from its close relationship with the United States and to closer ties with the European Union and Canada, Garcia said.
Asked whether he spoke for Uribe, Garcia answered, “I believe he feels the same way. It would be a logical consequence.”
The Uribe government is incensed over the diminished chances for a bilateral free-trade agreement, which it has long viewed both as the main path to the First World and a reward for carrying on the drug fight under Plan Colombia.
Congress and the Bush administration made a deal this month that eased the way for passage of bilateral trade accords with Peru and Panama, but put Colombia’s on hold.
Uribe told an audience of national police Friday that Colombia would not accept treatment as a “pariah” and pointedly told representatives of the U.S. Embassy in attendance to “take that message back to your Congress.”
The harsh tone of Uribe’s remarks was unusual.
A week before, Vice President Francisco Santos said the failure to pass a free-trade agreement would force Colombia to redefine its relations with the U.S.
“From a slap-in-the-face standpoint, it would be pretty bad for Colombia,” said Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington. “The foreign policy repercussions for the United States in rejecting a Colombian agreement also would be severe…. You’re talking about adding another unfriendly government down there.”
Hufbauer said the potential rupture of relations with the country commonly referred to as Washington’s best friend in Latin America would be such a diplomatic reversal that the free-trade agreement ultimately would be salvaged.
“I think it will get through Congress on a squeaker,” he said.
Uribe’s stock in Washington has fallen as revelations have surfaced alleging close ties between political allies and outlawed paramilitary groups.
Democrats already were unhappy about weak environmental protection and the slayings of scores of Colombian labor union organizers in recent years and said that parts of the trade agreement completed last summer would have to be rewritten.
Congressional observers say chances of passing a trade bill in any form are slim.
“The Uribe government paid very little prosecutorial attention to these labor union murders when the Republicans were in control of Congress. But they had an election in November and the Democrats took charge and they want labor on their side,” said Bruce Bagley, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “For that reason I don’t see a free-trade bill passed before the 2008 elections.”
Uribe, who has not been linked directly to the paramilitaries, said he has made Colombia a safer place by fighting leftist rebels and demobilizing the right-wing militias. He said that revelations of past massacres, electoral fraud and extortion are an inevitable part of the peace and truth process.
Reporters Without Borders, a media-rights group, issued a report Tuesday saying that Uribe has allowed demobilized paramilitary fighters to maintain their broad criminal enterprises.
Uribe has staked much of his local prestige and political reputation on getting Colombian industries and opinion makers to accept a free-trade deal, which he has sold to the public as a way to end four decades of civil war.
Plan Colombia’s results are mixed. It has helped Colombia expand and modernize its armed forces and improved security in the cities. But the supply of cocaine to U.S. markets has not fallen significantly, and prices for the drug remain low, recent studies show.
In an e-mailed comment, U.S. Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) a Plan Colombia critic, said she found it “hard to believe that Colombian government leaders would walk away from a massive international aid package that they themselves have lobbied for over the years.”