Putting Colombia back on the agenda

David Bass Contributor
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Colombia has been intermittently on and off the Obama administration’s agenda since it took office in 2009. When Hillary Clinton delivered her foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, she remarked that Mexico is “looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago.” Shortly thereafter, President Obama rebuked the comparison in an LA-based Spanish newspaper. The turnaround is characteristic of Washington’s unjustified ambivalence towards one of our greatest and most promising Latin American allies.

Few nations can boast such an impressive comeback in as little time as Colombia. As Secretary Clinton noted, “nearly 40 percent of the country…was controlled by insurgents.” As recently as 1999, 70 percent of the countryside was in control of drug traffickers and criminal guerilla groups. FARC forces and paramilitaries were spread throughout the nation, making daily life for Colombians a risk in itself. Throughout the 1990s, the country teetered on the brink of civil war, with insurgents openly engaging the army, using guerilla warfare, and dominating a lucrative drug trade.  Perhaps Secretary Clinton should have used the more appropriate comparison of Colombia twenty years ago to Afghanistan today.

Contrast this picture with the immense progress that’s been made in the past decade. Homicides have been halved, kidnappings have been reduced by 88 percent and terrorist attacks by 84 percent, and there is no longer a single municipality in the country that is ungoverned. The improvements in security have been followed by impressive economic growth. Foreign direct investment reached a historic high of $10 billion in 2008.  Despite the fact that the 2008 global recession has had its own negative effects on the economy, Colombia was named one of the top ten reformers in the 2010 Doing Business report. The country has held this distinction for four of the past seven years. Compared to the economic climate of neighboring Venezuela, which was ranked 177 out of 183 countries in the same index, Colombia is a huge success story.

Furthermore, the election of Juan Manuel Santos this past June was a victory for conservative leaders not only in Colombia but also throughout the hemisphere. Santos, a former defense minister who oversaw several devastating blows to the remaining FARC militias, represents a long-overdue rebuke to the leftist ideology espoused by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Throughout his extended presidency, Chávez has exported his radical ideology to other countries in Latin America, funded FARC operations, and initiated a massive military buildup of his own. Santos is joining the ranks of recently elected conservative presidents in Peru and Mexico, Alan García and Felipe Calderon, in fighting back against Chávez’s offensive.

Despite Colombia’s progress and increased reliability as an ally, Congress is dragging its feet on giving the country the free trade agreement it deserves. The U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement has yet to be passed. Many Democratic senators seem to equate trade agreements with outsourcing of labor and wage instability — two flawed assumptions that can be traced to political opposition to the Bush administration’s high number of such pacts. Democrats must look past the labor unions that fund their congressional campaigns and see a trade agreement for what it really is; what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called “a good deal for America and a good deal for Colombia.”

In Bogotá, Secretary Gates recently spoke of the “remarkable” and “historic” transformation that Colombia has made in recent years and expressed his hope that such a pact would pass in Congress. Yet the country is past the stage of lavishing praise and is now deserving of action; the free trade agreement is the first step.

David H. Bass is President and CEO of Washington-based Raptor Strategies, LLC, an independent public relations and public affairs firm specializing in media, issue advocacy, state and federal government affairs.