Colombia’s Increasing Hemispheric Isolation

Diana Villiers Negroponte
Diana Villiers Negroponte Former Brookings Expert, Public Policy Scholar - Woodrow Wilson Center

November 12, 2009

These days, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia has few friends in the hemisphere, and Washington is not explicit in supporting a feisty president, whose followers seek his extension for a third term in office. Colombia (45 million people) has a potential border war with Venezuela (26.4 million people), friction over guerilla encampments in neighboring Ecuador, rejection of the Bank of the South and sullen expressions of friendship from Brazil. What are the reasons for this isolation, and what might the Obama administration do to remedy the situation?

President Uribe stepped up to offer the U.S. Department of Defense access to seven of its airbases in Colombia when the 1999 agreement to base aircraft at Eloy Alfaro airbase outside Manta, Ecuador ended in June 2009. The agreement was a logical extension of strong U.S. and Colombian ties to counter narcotics shipments, but the manner in which the Colombian offer was communicated to both a domestic and South American audience was clumsy at best. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a visit to the region and then cancelled it. Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Jaime Bermudez announced that “we are deepening cooperation agreements that already exist in our common struggle against narcotrafficking and terrorism” before the agreement had been finalized. This created a degree of uncertainty and opportunities for heightened opposition within Colombian political circles. In response to questions about the pending agreement, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the issue. It raised doubts as to whether the Obama administration would remain as firm in its commitment to Colombia counternarcotics and counterinsurgency strategy as its predecessor. For some in the hemisphere, the muddled message suggested a degree of doubt in Washington’s commitment to the Uribe government. However, a strong U.S. commitment was reiterated to Colombian Vice President Santos when he visited Washington this week. In the meantime, hemispheric neighbors failed to move beyond the announcement, giving scope to those who seek to distance themselves from Washington.

The result of the announcement was strident “anti-gringoism”, which played into the hands of Hugo Chavez and his colleagues within ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the America. It also left Brazilian President Lula, the founder of the South American Defense Force that deliberately excluded U.S. participation, irritated that he had not been consulted sufficiently ahead of time. Good neighborliness surely indicated a formal “heads up” before U.S. aircraft acquired landing rights at airbases on Brazil’s northern border. Uribe visited all countries in South America to explain the nature of the access agreement, but he did not receive any public endorsements. Only Mexico appreciated Colombia’s dilemma.

Second, in September, the presidents of seven South American countries formalized the creation of BANSUR (the Bank of the South) with capital of $7 billion. This multilateral bank is a further addition to three other regional multilateral development banks, and its governance structure is based on consensus, in order to reduce real economic asymmetries between the member states, such as Brazil and Bolivia. Colombia had an opportunity to play a constructive political role in the new bank, but, along with Chile and Peru, it chose not to join.

Third, Colombia and Venezuela are engaged in a series of commercial spats across their 2,200 kilometer border that escalated on November 9 with Hugo Chavez’s strident and bellicose statements directed at Uribe’s government. At border posts, commercial tiffs have spiraled into the killing of border guards and others close to the border. On November 1, two Venezuelan soldiers were killed at a border checkpoint with Colombia. (It appears that the soldiers were killed in retribution for Venezuelan authorities’ capture the previous week of ten suspected para-militaries.) In September, ten members of an amateur Colombian soccer team were kidnapped and killed near the border. Furthermore, Venezuela is holding three men – two Colombians and a Venezuelan – accused of spying for Colombia. Colombia’s relations with Venezuela are tense, with the hope that threats on the part of the latter to ‘blast Bogota’ are nothing more than Chavista bombast.

Fourth, President Uribe’s strong commitment to free-market capitalism is in stark contrast to the socialist tendencies of Colombia’s neighbors. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia may pursue Bolivarian socialism with vigor, but Brazil pursues moderate socialist policies while seeking international capital investments. In response to the global economic recession, Uribe’s administration has cut capital controls, arranged for emergency credit lines from the Inter-American Development Bank, and promoted investment incentives, such as Colombia’s modernized free trade zone mechanism, as well as new bilateral investment treaties. Despite these measures, the business sector remains concerned about the depreciated value of the U.S. dollar, which makes the export of cut flowers and other goods to the United States more expensive. Chambers of Commerce remain concerned about U.S. Congressional approval of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.

Finally, Colombia has received approximately $6.8 billion of U.S. aid to combat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), demobilize the paramilitaries, eradicate cocaine plants and coca manufacturing centers, and to provide alternative livelihood. The bulk of this assistance (79 percent) has gone to counternarcotics and security objectives in the years FY 2000 to FY 2008. The remaining 21 percent is dedicated to social and economic programs, as well as promoting the rule of law. This makes Colombia the leading recipient of U.S. aid money in the hemisphere. The perception of Colombian dependency upon Washington is ridiculed by neighboring countries in the face of continued Congressional opposition to a Colombian Free Trade Agreement. Colombia’s neighbors wonder why Washington has not rewarded its good friend in South America.

What should Washington do, if anything, about Colombia’s isolation? First and foremost for President Uribe is the passage of the Free Trade Agreement, which has been held up in Congress since 2008 by Democratic insistence that Uribe demonstrate his defense of human rights and the protection of trade union leaders. Uribe recognizes that it must await passage of the health reform bill, but free trade should not await passage of other key legislative measures, such as the cap & trade bill and regulation of financial markets. We can accomplish passage of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement as well as key domestic legislation before the mid-term elections in 2010.

Second, U.S. opposition to Uribe’s pursuit of a third term may be offensive to those of us who respect term limits and consider that democracy is larger than any one person. But we should not be pious. Mayor Mike Bloomberg sought and obtained from New York’s City Council a one time exception to the term limits, permitting him to run for a third term. Defense of the exception for Bloomberg was balanced against the need for experienced and effective management of New York City during the global economic recession. Colombia’s Constitutional Court is currently debating the same issue. If the court approves, Uribe’s supporters must also persuade 7.2 million Colombians in a national referendum that a third time is preferable. The institutional steps that must be taken before the people of Colombia extend Uribe’s term create a relatively high bar. Elites are against a third term, but the popular vote wants Uribe to remain, out of fear that a new leader might not be strong enough to prevent a return to the violence of the 1990s.

Third, we need to stick with Plan Colombia and U.S. military and financial support to fight the cartels, and train police and the army in human rights, intelligence gathering skills and community policing. Our contribution is small compared to the revenues generated through additional Colombian taxes, but it is important and perhaps necessary to create sustainable public security, and provide sophisticated equipment and support for the development of alternative livelihoods.

Finally, we must find ways to encourage Uribe to be a team player in the hemisphere. If he fights with his back to the wall, we should not be surprised at his pugnacity and “go-it-alone” spirit. With the confidence that he has the backing of Panama, Mexico, the United States and potentially Chile and Peru, Colombia can be drawn back into strong relationships- if not leadership- within the hemisphere. Current Venezuelan goals make this difficult, but our rejection of policies considered critical to Colombia only drives Uribe further into his corner.