The White House press secretary’s office (on June 12th) confirmed what the Colombian Presidency told us on Tuesday: that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe will be paying a visit to Washington on June 29, where he will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama. It will be the first private face-to-face meeting between the two presidents since Obama’s inauguration in January.
Here is what the White House statement says, and what it probably means.
President Obama will meet with President Uribe at the White House on Monday, June 29.
That is the Monday of the only week in June or July when Congress is out of session. Most representatives and senators will be out of Washington for the Independence Day “Work Period.” This will limit President Uribe’s congressional agenda.
Colombia is a close ally and partner of the United States, and the President looks forward to discussing a broad range of bilateral and hemispheric issues, including ways to enhance our cooperation on security and development challenges in Colombia and throughout the Americas.
That could mean just about anything. Move on.
The President also looks forward to discussing with President Uribe our economic engagement, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement,
The Free Trade Agreement, signed in October 2006, has not been ratified by the U.S. Congress. The agreement is controversial because of Colombia’s severe labor rights problems, among other economic, democracy and human rights concerns. There are several other reasons why Congress is not likely to take it up during 2009:
- The legislative agenda for the months when Congress is likely to be in session (July, September, October, November) will be taken up by the Obama administration’s ambitious health care and climate change proposals, as well as the 2010 budget. There is little space to debate the Colombia agreement.
- An “easier-to-pass” trade agreement with Panama is slated to come up for debate first, but even that agreement is awaiting action from Panama on labor and tax law issues.
- It is very difficult politically to pass a free-trade agreement in the midst of a severe economic recession.
- The likelihood that Uribe may seek a second re-election casts doubts on the direction of democracy in Colombia. Along with para-politics, “false positives” and the DAS wiretap scandal, this makes the agreement harder to sell in Washington.
Given all of these obstacles, perhaps at least President Uribe will gain some clarity from the White House about the Obama administration’s intentions over the next few months. In recent weeks, the message has been muddled:
- After the Summit of the Americas in April, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the administration plans to move forward with the Free Trade Agreement “sooner rather than later,” and that it sought to “identify and work through any outstanding issues we might have so we might move forward with that. And that process will begin immediately.”
- On the other hand, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told an audience in late May that “Colombia needs to address the issue of violence against union leaders before the U.S. Congress votes on a free trade agreement.”
and the long-term, institutional consolidation of security gains in Colombia through effective governance,
This appears to be a reference to “Integrated Action,” a series of programs in specific regions that have long been under the control of armed groups. The Integrated Action model intends to combine military operations with an effort to bring the civilian state into ungoverned territories. As mentioned in three recent posts, these programs show some promise, but are largely military so far and face significant coordination problems. They are, however, being viewed as the future of much U.S. aid to Colombia, and the United States has devoted significant amounts of resources to programs in the La Macarena and Montes de María regions.
In the past month, key Colombian government officials responsible for carrying out Integrated Action programs, chiefly the defense minister and the presidential advisor for “Social Action,” have left their posts. Before investing more in the Integrated Action model, the Obama administration may seek to gauge whether the Colombian government will be as committed to these programs in those officials’ absence.
as well as other ways to further strengthen the bilateral relationship.
This language, of course, is too vague to mean much. But it seems apparent that President Uribe’s principal audience for this visit is domestic. The Colombian president hopes to demonstrate that he enjoys a warm relationship with the U.S. president.
But the bilateral relationship and Colombian domestic politics overlap uncomfortably in one critical area: the president’s possible re-election bid. Uncertainty over whether Uribe plans to run again in 2010 will hang palpably over this official visit.
Non-involvement in another country’s electoral processes is a very strong principle, and we should not expect President Obama or any other administration officials to comment publicly on the re-election question. If Uribe decides to run, however, U.S. concern about democratic checks and balances in Colombia will have an undeniably significant impact on the bilateral relationship. It is up to the Obama administration to find a tactful way to communicate that.