Friday, September 12, 2008

Crisis in Andes: Some Thoughts About Bolivia and Colombia

The Final Offensive for the U.S. Colombia Free Trade Agreement is a Stark Contrast to Other Developments in the Hemisphere

(Bogotá, Colombia, September 12th, 2008)

While the eyes of the world focus on the internal crisis in Bolivia and the unfolding tensions in the Andean region, the pro-Bush government of Colombia is engaged in one of its most intensive lobbying efforts in recent memory, a full court press that will culminate with the visit next week of President Alvaro Uribe to Washington.

It’s amazing how in one country of the hemisphere, an indigenous president, Evo Morales, is openly confronting the U.S., accusing it of meddling in its internal affairs by fomenting unrest in the state of Santa Cruz, while in another, the president is stopping at nothing to get even closer to the Bush-McCain regime.

President Morales declared the U.S. ambassador to La Paz, Philip Goldberg, persona non grata, expelling the emissary for his alleged connection to opposition groups in Bolivia who are behind the ongoing anti-government unrest. At least eight people have been killed in the violence, sparked by conservative, anti-Morales politicians and their supporters in five of the country’s nine departments, who are openly defying the democratic will of the Bolivian people. This crisis is unfolding just a few weeks after a national referendum in Bolivia gave the president more than 62% approval for his mandate, despite ongoing efforts by the elite minority to derail the country’s new Constitution, one that looks to redistribute the country’s resources to Bolivia’s most traditionally-marginalized sectors. Not surprisingly, Washington responded to Morales’ action with the expulsion of the Bolivian Ambassador to the U.S., and threatened to cut off aid to the Andean nation in response.

Now more than ever it is clear that the autonomy and dignity of the people of Bolivia are more important for the current leadership in La Paz, than the support – with considerable strings attached - that comes with the decades-long dependence the country’s former governing elites had with their powerful benefactors in Washington.

Not so with Evo’s counterpart in Colombia, who has not stopped genuflecting at every turn to the demands and wishes of a highly unpopular President Bush. The latest effort can be seen in Uribe’s unprecedented lobbying onslaught in Washington, focused on the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which, according to government officials in Bogotá, still has a chance of getting passed by the U.S. Congress before they pack their bags for the year.

With this in mind, a delegation of over 70 representatives of different sectors of Colombian society, including businessmen, elected officials, students, trade unionists and Afro-Colombian and indigenous representatives, was in Washington this week, meeting with members of Congress – both Republican and Democrat – to promote the merits of the US-Colombia FTA. The delegation was led by Colombia’s Minister of Trade, Industry, and Tourism, Luis Guillermo Plata, who said the purpose of the massive lobbying effort was to generate the maximum pressure possible on the U.S. Congress to finally approve the FTA.

“We cannot wait until the last minute for this,” one official traveling as part of the delegation told the daily newspaper El Tiempo. “There’s a window of opportunity and we need to take advantage of this now.”

That window is quickly closing, at least for this year, where the touchy issue of approving a controversial trade agreement with Colombia is not high on the priority list of Congressional Democrats. There are very few weeks left in the current legislative session, and all eyes and ears are turned towards the elections of November 4th, which of course includes those for the House and the Senate.

Yet this hasn’t stopped the Uribe government from at least trying. Against the conventional wisdom of most political observers, who see the timing of this latest propaganda offensive as inopportune, Uribe plans to meet with his lame-duck counterpart while in Washington next week. Aside from his so-called “Democratic Security,” anti-guerilla strategy, orchestrated and funded primarily by the U.S., President Uribe sees the U.S.-Colombia FTA as one of the principal objectives of his presidency.

One would assume that the disturbing developments in Bolivia, and the regional crisis that has followed, make the U.S.-Colombia FTA an irrelevant afterthought, one which no one will pay much attention to. There’s no sign of a lessening of tensions, especially after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela's top two intelligence chiefs and a recently retired interior minister on Friday, accusing them of having assisted Colombian guerrillas fighting the U.S.-backed government to traffic in cocaine. These latest sanctions were announced a day after Chavez threatened to stop oil sales to the United States, and expelled the U.S. ambassador in solidarity with his ally in Bolivia.

But in actuality, these events come at a good time for Uribe. As his lobbyists flood the halls of Congress under the radar screen, touting the benefits of the FTA to U.S. lawmakers, Uribe can once again point to his regime as the one loyal, and stable friend in an increasingly hostile hemisphere, one that must be rewarded with a trade deal that benefits everybody. No doubt, such a message will have resonance with some lawmakers, given the current context.

And unless one pays close attention to the brilliant media packaging of this delegation, it’s easy to accept the pro-FTA arguments they’re presenting at face value.

However, notwithstanding the “diverse” make-up of the Colombian lobbying delegation, which included two former FARC guerillas who “reinserted” themselves into Colombian civil society under Uribe’s demobilizations plan, there continues to be widespread opposition from a broad cross section of the Colombian public to the free trade accord with the United States. This opposition comes from small business groups to agricultural workers, the indigenous movement to the country’s largest unions.

Colombia’s major trade unions, who are not represented in the feel good lobbying team currently in Washington, point to the fact that the number of unionists murdered in Colombia in the first quarter of 2008 is roughly two times that of the first quarter of 2007, with 17 killed. During the first six years of Uribe’s presidency, 434 unionists have been murdered. Every year, more trade union activists are murdered in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. This is one of the issues that has struck a chord of solidarity in the U.S. labor movement, which has been consistently against the FTA for years, successfully putting their political capital on the line in the process.

There is also the indigenous and peasant movement of Colombia, which has been at the forefront of the battle against the FTA for the last several years. Yet their true representatives are not meeting this week with U.S. lawmakers.

Indeed, one prominent aide to the indigenous movement, researcher, writer, lecturer and activist Hector Mondragón, was supposed to go to the U.S. to begin a national tour to discuss the negative impact the FTA would have on the Colombian agricultural sector. As one of the most eloquent and well-versed people in the country on issues of development and land reform, he is a critical voice that U.S. lawmakers need to hear from, in order to counter the messages of the well-financed lobbying blitz.

However, he was unable to travel after El Tiempo published a misleading report in late August that linked him to FARC. In the report, they described how email messages found on the laptop of FARC's number two man Raul Reyes, showed evidence that money from Canadian groups may have been funneled to NGOs in Colombia with ties to FARC. One of the people mentioned arbitrarily in the report was Hector Mondragon. Human rights activists immediately expressed concern that this was the latest attempt to silence critical opposition to some of the government's policies in the countryside, particularly the FTA. Mondragón immediately denied the accusations, but also decided to change his plans, knowing that such a report would make it almost impossible for him to enter the U.S. His voice, at least for now, was silenced, although he did put out statement that refuted the charges, once again standing up for those many voices that will not be heard during the next week of Uribe’s lobbying campaign:

“Today, I still carry wounds from the torture that I suffered in 1977 and
also from 20 years of being threatened with death, pursued by the
paramilitaries. Sometimes I lose hope, especially when I know that some
of my friends have been killed. I ask myself why continue in this
struggle with indigenous people and peasants, why not give up. But then
I am struck again with the passion for the people I love and the
certainty that they deserve to live with dignity, and solidarity. They
failed to kill my body but today they are threatening to kill my words,
and I feel it like a re-opening of my old wounds. But the word is a seed
and it grows, whatever happens, in the peasant on the land, in an
indigenous person in her territory, in Afro-Colombians returning to
their communities, in those who live in the popular neighborhoods of
the cities, who will eat better after the land reform that we will win,
in every working family that will get a just wage for work, there the
word will live. They won't be able to kill it.”

In many respects, the struggle in Bolivia is based on some of these same principles. However, it is being challenged directly by an intransigent and entrenched political elite tied to an economic establishment that is uncomfortable with the kinds of changes Evo Morales is trying to implement in the country. This same elite has the attention of people up in Washington, indirectly providing them with the kind of political backing to carry out the undemocratic practices that they are currently employing.

The differences cannot be more stark: in Bolivia, the leadership is taking the side of the majority of its people, whereas in Colombia, the leadership deliberately distorts and ignores those wishes, in the hopes of winning favor in el gran norte!

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