Bush Makes 'Free Trade' National Security Issue

The standoff in the Andes ended like a sappy Latin American telenovela with stiff hugs and handshakes at a March 6 summit. But that’s not stopping the Bush administration from using the conflict to ram Colombia’s pending “Free Trade Agreement” (FTA) through Congress.

April 11, 2008

The standoff in the Andes ended like a sappy Latin American telenovela with stiff hugs and handshakes at a March 6 summit. But that’s not stopping the Bush administration from using the conflict to ram Colombia’s pending “Free Trade Agreement” (FTA) through Congress.

Almost a week after the summit held in the Dominican Republic, President Bush cited the crisis, saying, “The Colombia agreement is pivotal to America's national security and economic interests right now, and it is too important to be held up by politics.” Democrats have opposed the plan over concerns about labor rights and violent attacks on unionists in Colombia.

In fact, in just the six days between the summit handshakes and Bush’s appeal for Congress to set aside “politics,” four more Colombian unionists were murdered—two teachers, a banker, and a hospital worker. This adds to more than 2,500 unionists murdered since 1986—more than those killed during the same period in the rest of the world combined. A report by Human Rights Watch published last year blames “the majority” of these killings on illegal paramilitary groups.

Ongoing legal investigations have uncovered that these same ultra-violent paramilitaries have built extensive ties with local politicians. Most of those implicated in the “para-politics” scandal are allies of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the Bush Administration’s closest ally in the region. So far, at least 77 members of congress, provincial governors, mayors and other government figures are either in jail or under investigation, including the president-appointed head of intelligence and Uribe’s cousin.

“The stakes are high in South America,” said Bush in the March 12 speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “As the recent standoff in the Andes shows, the region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe.”

The standoff began on March 1 when Uribe bombed a guerrilla camp across the border in Ecuador, followed by a commando mission to finish off the job and recover the bodies. The attack killed a top guerrilla leader along with 20 other insurgents. Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and his ally Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez responded to the cross-border raid by sending troops and tanks to guard their jungle frontiers with Colombia.

A week of heated rhetoric and chest thumping ensued, but the presidents mostly resolved the dispute in the Dominican Republic. The scene from the summit, broadcast live throughout all of Latin America to a captivated audience, resembled the reluctant end of a schoolyard brawl. Left aside were Colombia’s accusations—based on controversial evidence—that Correa and Chávez were providing support to the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which are on the U.S. list of “foreign terrorist organizations.”

Both Chávez and Correa vehemently denied the accusations as false, adding that any contacts with the rebels were made in the context of multilateral negotiating efforts for the release of several hostages held for years by the FARC—including three U.S. military contractors. One bit of evidence presented by Colombia was a photograph in which Correa’s defense minister is supposedly pictured with the slain rebel commander. It turns out the man with the insurgent in the photo is not the minister, but a leader of the Argentine Communist Party.

Nonetheless, Bush administration officials have joined leading Republicans in exploring the possibility of putting Venezuela on a blacklist of state-sponsors of “terrorism” for allegedly supporting the rebels. Venezuela would join Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria, and possibly face economic sanctions. Several analysts consider this is a remote possibility since Venezuela is currently the country’s fourth-largest supplier of oil.

The Bush administration has ratcheted up its rhetoric against Venezuela after the Andean standoff. In his speech calling for approval of the trade pact, President Bush called Chávez’s involvement in Colombian affairs “a disturbing pattern of provocative behavior by the regime in Caracas.” (He used “regime” twice more in the speech to describe the Venezuelan government.)

Despite trying to sell the Colombia trade agreement to a wary Congress, part of Bush’s speech wasn’t about Colombia at all. He returned repeatedly to Chávez, though never mentioning him by name. “As it tries to expand its influence in Latin America, the regime claims to promote social justice,” said Bush. “In truth, its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power. It has squandered its oil wealth in an effort to promote its hostile, anti-American vision.” Bush pitched the trade agreement as a way of awarding a steadfast ally (Uribe), while curbing Chávez’s influence and that of other “antagonists in Latin America.”

Bush promised to introduce the agreement to Congress after the Easter break. Since the deal falls under “fast-track” Trade Promotion Authority—congressionally granted to the president in 2002—this means Congress will not be allowed to modify the agreement and must reject or approve it within 90 working days.

The administration has made a gamble: It seems to think the now-resolved Andean crisis and Chávez-baiting on both sides of the aisle are enough to overcome a Democrat-controlled Congress, labor concerns in Colombia, an economic downturn, an election year, and the growing unpopularity of trade agreements among voters. It's a tough sell.

Undaunted, U.S. Trade Representative spokesman Sean Spicer told The Hill newspaper, “Our goal is to work with the Congress on a way that makes a path forward for Colombia. We’ll work with them one by one if we have to.”

Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, he edited, with Vijay Prashad, Dispatches From Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (South End Press, 2006).

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