Colombia held hostage; (and an observation on the governor's divorce filing)

by Guy W. Farmer

It's a shame that one of our best friends and staunchest allies in Latin America, Colombia, is being held hostage to partisan politics in the U.S. Congress. Influential Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, are blocking action on a free trade deal with Colombia that would be highly beneficial to both nations.

Here's how the conservative (but usually reliable) Weekly Standard describes the standoff between Congress and the White House: "A war-torn country with a democratically elected government, plagued by militias, terrorists and drugs " but one that is steadily making progress against all these evils " wants to strengthen its ties to the United States. The Bush administration acts to help this ally. What does the Democratic Congress do? It changes the rules so that the 2006 Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) ... can't come to a vote." Apparently, that's how we "help" our Latin American friends during economic hard times.

The Weekly Standard goes on to urge " tongue firmly in cheek, of course " Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez to send flowers to Ms. Pelosi; our own Sen. Reid also deserves a bouquet. What are our congressional leaders thinking? As the Standard points out, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is locked into a bitter power struggle with Chavez over the future of South America. "Chavez wants that future to be socialist, authoritarian, friendly to other dictators, and belligerent toward the U.S. Uribe wants it to be market-oriented, democratic and integrated into an international system friendly to freedom ..." So why doesn't Congress approve the CFTA?

Well, according to the Standard, "Congressional Democrats say the deal would hurt U.S. workers, but more than 90 percent of Colombian imports (mostly coffee and flowers) already enter this country duty-free. Therefore, the main economic effect of the agreement would be to eliminate tariffs on U.S. exports to Colombia," which would benefit American farmers to the tune of $690 million per year. That sounds like a good deal to me.

At this point I should confess that I'm not objective about Colombia because I lived and worked in that beautiful but troubled country for three years in the mid-1970s. Although my more persistent critics will allege that I parked cars and/or served coffee at the American Embassy in Bogota, I actually served as the Embassy's press attache' and made many friends in the national media ranging across the political spectrum.

Two of my best media friends were assassinated after I left Colombia in 1976, losing their lives for telling the truth about increasingly powerful drug traffickers. Hard-working, law-abiding Colombians have been fighting that uphill battle for more than 30 years and finally seem to be winning, with our help. But congressional Democrats have chosen to side with the enemies of freedom and democracy in Colombia.

"Democrats claim that the White House didn't ... cooperate with Congress on the CFTA," the Weekly Standard noted. "That's simply false (because) the administration ... held more than 400 consultations and meetings, and sponsored trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress." Although some Democrats say they're blocking the trade deal because of "Colombia's troubling history of labor activist assassinations and human rights violations," the truth tells a different story. Assassinations have dropped dramatically since President Uribe took office and Colombia's human rights record is improving, according to a recent U.S. State Department report.

"So why did Pelosi (and Reid) move to let the Colombia deal die?" the newsweekly asks before answering its own question: "It's an election year," and any friend of President Bush (Uribe) is their enemy. "Congress' top priority is to make sure that voters perceive President Bush as a failure," the magazine asserts. While I think President Bush has failed on several major issues, including Iraq, illegal immigration and the economy, I give him credit for attempting to improve relations with Africa and Latin America. So Congress should do the right thing for one of our best friends in this hemisphere by reviving and approving the Colombia Free Trade Agreement before President Bush leaves office next January.


AND SPEAKING OF LATIN AMERICA, the messy divorce between Governor and Mrs. Gibbons reminds me of nothing so much as a high-level soap opera I witnessed in Caracas, Venezuela, 20 years ago. President Carlos Andres Perez, fondly known as "CAP," had a very public girlfriend, Cecilia Matos, who lived in a luxury apartment near Miraflores, the presidential palace, while First Lady Blanca Perez lived at La Casona, the official residence; CAP also maintained a fancy apartment for Cecilia in New York City. After Perez left office in disgrace in 1990, Srta. Matos served time for misappropriating public funds before going into a golden exile in the Dominican Republic. Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you're not alone.

- Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, lived and worked in Latin America for nearly 20 years during his U.S. Foreign Service career.


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