July 10, 2008
Opening up trade with Colombia
By Marc Grossman
COLOMBIA'S brilliant liberation of 15 hostages, including three Americans held for years by the narco-terrorist group FARC, is fantastic news, not just for the hostages, their families, and the Colombian government, but for all who support Colombia's fight to protect and perfect its democracy.
The freeing of these hostages, along with the death last March of Manuel Marulanda, the long-time leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, provides a defining strategic opportunity for the US Congress to approve the pending US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The daring hostage rescue and the demise of the FARC leader, who for 40 years used violence, kidnapping, and intimidation to try to overthrow Colombia's democracy, will open new possibilities in Colombia, perhaps including the final collapse of the FARC itself.
This makes it the perfect time for Congress to show that America supports the struggle for Colombia's democracy and recognizes that this fight is not solely a military question but requires creating jobs, enhancing human rights, and protecting labor leaders.
When President Clinton, with strong congressional backing, committed the United States to bolstering Colombia's defense of its democracy, much of that nation was controlled by the FARC along with the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the two other narco-terrorist groups that long plagued the country. President Bush and Congress have continued strong US support for Colombia.
Taking advantage of US assistance, Colombian presidents Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe turned their country around and got most ELN and AUC fighters off the battlefield. This process has not been perfect. More needs to be done to make sure that paramilitary and other leaders of illegal armed groups face the consequences of their actions. But since Colombia adopted the Justice and Peace Law in 2005, more than 31,000 members from 35 paramilitary groups, principally from the AUC, have demobilized. More than 10,500 members of the FARC and the ELN have turned themselves in to Colombian authorities since 2002.
Since Uribe took office that same year, security in Colombia has improved significantly. The government of Colombia has expanded police presence throughout the country and is now able to provide protection against violence to more than 10,600 individuals, including more than 1,900 trade union members. The Colombian government has also continued to battle narco-trafficking.
When the US House leadership chose not to bring the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to a vote in April, some opponents said that Uribe did not take seriously the atrocities committed by the paramilitary groups. Last May 13, Uribe extradited 14 paramilitary leaders to the United States to face drug trafficking and other charges. They had failed to meet their commitments under the terms of the Justice and Peace Law, including compensating their victims. The extradition of these individuals alone ought to persuade the House to now approve the agreement.
Colombia is America's fourth largest trading partner in Latin America and the largest export market for US agricultural products in South America. The US market is already open to duty-free imports from Colombia. The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement will give American businesses, farmers, ranchers, and workers similar access to the Colombian market. When it takes effect, more than 80 percent of US exports of consumer and industrial goods to Colombia will enter the country duty-free, creating opportunities for Americans.
Colombians have more work to do to make their society truly secure, democratic, and just. They have earned respect for what they have accomplished so far and deserve continuing US support. The hostage rescue and the death of a narco-terrorist leader provide the chance for a bipartisan show of engagement with Latin America. Congress should seize it immediately.
Marc Grossman is a vice chairman of The Cohen Group. He was undersecretary of state for political affairs 2001-2005.
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