To date the united and unrelenting critique of the Colombian and American labor movements of the systematic violations of union rights in Colombia has deterred the Bush administration from introducing legislation to ratify and implement the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Act (née Free Trade Agreement). Now it is trying to use national security arguments to woo recalcitrant Democrats. By echoing Bush’s uncritical support for Colombia’s military attack on a FARC camp in Ecuador, Clinton and Obama appear naive and vulnerable to this duplicitous approach.
At midnight on March 1st the air force of Colombia dropped cluster bombs to kill some two dozen guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who were sleeping in tents at a jungle site one mile inside Ecuadorian territory. Colombian troops crossed the border to claim the pajama-clad bodies, which included that of Raúl Reyes, the chief international spokesperson for the FARC. Colombian authorities claimed that Reyes’ laptop contained evidence that the FARC had received $300 million from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, which FARC was going to use to obtain uranium to make a “dirty bomb.”President George Bush called his good friend Colombia President Alvaro Uribe to congratulate him on his successful strike against terrorism. Hilary Clinton echoed Bush’s support for Uribé, calling the invasion of Ecuador justified by Colombia’s “right to defend itself.” Barack Obama agreed that “the Colombian government has every right to defend itself.”The government of Ecuador reacted by sending troops to the border to defend its sovereignty, while Hugo Chavez supported Ecuador by sending troops to Venezuela’s border with Colombia. Every Latin American member of the Organization of American States (OAS) condemned Colombia’s action as a serious violation of international law. The OAS authorized its Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza and Brazilian Foreign Minister Carlos Amorim to mediate the crisis. Following Uribe’s apology for its intrusion into Ecuadorian territory, the diplomatic crisis was defused among the three countries.What is going on here?
Uribé’s motivation is fairly evident, if both cynical and calculating. It was his political decision to wreck a promising peace process orchestrated by Venezuela and Ecuador to encourage a political settlement of the decades-long civil war in Colombia.
Within the last month the FARC had, through the mediation efforts of Hugo Chavez unilaterally released four Colombian politicians it had earlier kidnapped. The FARC negotiator, who was currently negotiating with France with the help of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa the release of its most prominent prisoner, the ailing French-Colombian former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, was none other than Raúl Reyes. In fact, Reyes was to meet later on March 1st with three personal envoys of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss details of her release and that of eleven other prominent FARC hostages. Early in the morning of March 1st, the French envoys were called by Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo to inform them in would be too dangerous for them to meet with Reyes at the agreed contact point (in fact he was already dead!).
It is likely that the Uribé government, which has been provided extensive surveillance equipment and probably “real-time intelligence” by the USA, had long known of Reyes’ whereabouts, and certainly knew where he would be and what his mission was to be on March 1st. What can not be known is whether the USA was informed in advance of the attentat against Reyes, and the deliberate torpedoing of the potential negotiations with the FARC for a prisoner exchange.
What is evident is that Bush reacted quickly and decisively to back Uribé’s murderous action against the rest of Latin America. In fact the Bush administration is now using the incident to argue for the immediate passage of the free trade agreement he and Uribé want so badly. According to Bush, “the security situation in Colombia, which has been involved in a border stand-off with neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela, has underscored the urgency for passage of the pact.”
Colombia is of course by far the largest recipient of U.S. military aid and support in Latin America. Under the guise of a counter-productive “drug eradication” and anti-terrorism” effort, the US has poured more arms into Colombia than into the rest of Latin America combined. It has leased the Manta Air Base in Ecuador to base conduct surveillance flights in the region (perhaps including the ones that tracked Reyes). Correa has promised to end the lease when it expires next year.
If it is not surprising that Bush totally backs his good right-wing buddy Alvaro Uribe down the line, one might wonder what Clinton and Obama are doing echoing Bush’s position. The charitable explanation is massive ignorance of Latin American affairs coupled with knee-jerk “triangulation.” Or maybe their advisors were influenced by that silly canard about Chavez’ giving FARC $300 million to build a dirty bomb. (By the way, Greg Palast, an investigative journalist who actually read the “incriminating” email message left on Reyes’ laptop, notes that the reference to “300” probably related to the discussions of a possible humanitarian prisoner exchange).
What I fear about the odds on defeating the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement if it comes to a vote is that, even though the Democratic electorate is sensitive to “free trade” issues in an election year, and even though labor’s message that murdering union organizers and granting immunity to their killers in Colombia should be a bar to a “free trade agreement”, Democrats remain potentially vulnerable on several fronts. First, corporate lobbyists are preparing to let out all stops in urging passage of the Colombia FTA this year. Second, most of Obama’s and Clinton’s economic advisors, and the corporate business interests that support Democrats, are fundamentally “free traders.” Third, lacking any principled critique or understanding of the American empire or its accompanying militarization, many Democrats might be stampeded by shallow and contrived appeals to “national security” and “fighting terrorism.”
But this is a battle that we can win. Bring it on!