Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Real Uribe Record

August 6, 2007 - WSJ

Congressional Democrats out to quash the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement argue that the terror-torn South American country doesn't adequately protect human rights and thus doesn't deserve FTA status. In the Democrats' book, the way to make Colombia more just is to deny it the chance to deepen its commercial relations with the U.S.

This is curious thinking, and all the more so coming from a party that also argues that the U.S. ought to lift its trade embargo on the Cuban dictatorship as a way to help the Cuban people. Given Cuba's dismal track record on human rights and the hard work Colombia has done over the past six years to defend human life, it is hard to square that circle.

Americas columnist Mary O'Grady discusses opposition to a free-trade agreement with Colombia.
Classical liberals might argue that open trade with all countries is an individual right. Human-rights advocates might counter that doing business with a dictatorship props up the tyrant. Isolationists may want to cut everyone off. But it is hard to understand just what rational belief system could support expanding commercial exchanges with a dictator while denying deeper trade relations to a democracy, especially one that has shed so much blood for America's war on drugs.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is one of many in the Democratic Party who seem conflicted on this subject. Mr. Leahy says he hasn't decided how he will vote on the U.S.-Colombia FTA. But just last month, in a letter published in this newspaper, he accused me of viewing "the assassinations of hundreds of trade unionists" in Colombia as "irrelevant" because I am in favor of boosting trade as a way to consolidate democratic capitalism and increase economic opportunities for all Colombians. I'm still trying to figure out the connection.

Funny enough, Mr. Leahy, like many of his colleagues -- including New York Rep. Charles Rangel in the House -- has no such qualms about trade with the despotic regime in Havana. The senator has said that the U.S. should seek engagement with Cuba by "lifting the embargo" and increasing "contact between Americans and Cubans -- in other words, we should be tearing down the barriers between our countries not building them ever higher."

The Cuba Mr. Leahy wants to get closer to isn't simply accused of failing to prosecute human-rights violators, as is the case of Colombia. It is a human-rights violator. It is regrettable that the senator apparently believes that the murder of thousands of Cubans, the torture and imprisonment of tens of thousands of others, the exile of millions and the denial of all human rights, including the right to organize unions, is irrelevant.

Quite apart from this glaring contradiction, there is also the matter of whether Colombia is even guilty, as Democrats have suggested, of ignoring or being complicit in the murders of Colombian trade unionists. A serious look at the record suggests that left-wing propaganda is trumping the facts in the Democrats' war room. If the party's leadership sustains this view, the outcome will not only harm Colombia but will badly damage U.S. interests in the region.

You wouldn't know it from all the grandstanding by Democrats, but the Colombian government has been very open about the persistence of violence in the country. President Álvaro Uribe talks often and candidly about the issue, as he did in a speech in New York on July 22, and he doesn't sugarcoat the tragedy.

"They still assassinate 17,000 Colombians a year. We would like to show a greater reduction but they used to kill 35,000. Not one town has been destroyed in Colombia this year. In the year before my administration, terrorist groups destroyed 84 towns in Colombia. Our freedom was threatened by terrorism. There were years when they killed 15 journalists. This year they have not assassinated one. We had years when they kidnapped more than 3,000 Colombians. This year they have kidnapped 107. We'd like not to have a single kidnapping. We're gaining on kidnapping but still we have not been able to defeat it."

Unionists have certainly benefited from the improved security. There were years when more than 250 of them were killed, the president said in New York, but recently far fewer have died. In 2006, he said, the violence intensified and the number went up to 60 from 25 in 2005. This year only four trade unionists have been killed and the Justice Ministry says that preliminary investigations indicate that their deaths were not linked to union activism. The government is also investigating the murders of 12 teachers-union members.

In Colombia, unionists are killed much for the same reasons peasants are murdered. They are caught in the crossfire between paramilitaries and guerrillas. As Mr. Uribe explained in his New York speech, "paramilitaries kill unionists, accusing them of collaboration with the guerrillas and guerrillas kill unionists, accusing them of collaboration with the paramilitaries." Now even the two main guerrilla groups, in certain regions of the country, are battling one another. "The [rebel group] ELN kills a unionist because they say he's a friend of the [rebel group] FARC and the FARC kills another because they say he's a friend of the ELN."

Still, homicides of unionists are down by two-thirds since Mr. Uribe took office and the government is bending over backward to protect union members. A special protection program for vulnerable individuals, which allows anyone who feels threatened to appeal for special help, now covers more than 5,000 individuals. According to the government, 1,500 of them are unionists. Last year it spent $24 million protecting union leaders and their families, it says. The attorney general's office has established a special program to investigate human-rights violations against union members. As to unsolved murders, the AG sat down with union leaders and agreed on a list of 200 cases that now have high priority for investigation and prosecution.

Mr. Uribe's government has demobilized 43,000 illegal armed combatants. Some 33,000 were paramilitary members and 10,000 were guerrillas. But the president notes that the country started with some 60,000 "terrorists," so there is still work to be done.

Even if none of this progress had occurred, it would make little sense to reject the FTA. Colombia needs the free trade agreement, Mr. Uribe said in New York, because it's how "we can generate more employment of a higher quality, send more of our products to the U.S. market and in this way we will have less illicit drugs, less terrorism, more peace, more security, more well-being for the Colombian people." If only the government in Havana cared as much about the Cuban population.

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