Mr. Uribe Goes to Washington

As Colombian president Alvaro Uribe prepares for his visit to Washington this afternoon, his primary objective will be to pressure Barack Obama to secure congressional ratification of the US-Colombian free trade agreement (FTA).   According to a White House press release, Uribe and Obama will sit down to discuss a host of hemispheric issues, including security and development in Colombia and the region more broadly.   But the centerpiece of conversation will be trade, and Uribe will seek assurances from Obama that his administration fully supports the US-Colombian agreement negotiated by George W. Bush, and left hanging by the congress.     

Trouble is, the White House will likely give Uribe little more than a West Wing photo op. The relationship between the two presidents has been marked by turbulence ever since they engaged in a heated exchange over the FTA while Obama was on the campaign trail. Recently, however, Uribe has made efforts to patch things up and draw close to his new counterpart, efforts seemingly welcomed by Washington. Yet despite the increasing closeness between them, any hopes that Uribe will get Obama to budge on the US-Colombia FTA will be dead on arrival.  

For one thing, Uribe’s lousy human rights record presents a significant roadblock obstructing  chances for ratification of the US-Colombia FTA.   Uribe comes to Washington trailing a lengthy string of concerns about his complicity with ongoing violence in Colombia, despite government success in consolidating security gains for average citizens.   The growing body of evidence connecting Uribe to murder, corruption, and indifference to democracy and the rule of law has led to high levels of congressional discomfort with the US-Colombian trade pact.  

Even if Uribe cleaned up his act, however, he would still face Congressional opposition to outstanding FTAs more broadly.   Currently, two other FTAs—with Panama and South Korea—are also on the docket for congressional consideration.   Each of the three agreements, negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, will likely languish as Democrats introduced their Free Trade act this past week.   The proposed legislation demands that all existing US trade deals—most notably the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—be reviewed for revision before any new agreements are reached.   According to one advocate of the bill, “Those three (pending) agreements are built on the NAFTA model, and today’s introduction of the Trade Act is a clear rejection of that model and a call for change.”

And then there is the problem of American public opinion.   Times of economic hardship and recession inevitably stoke the flames of protectionism, and calls for slowing globalization’s forward march while millions of Americans lose their jobs have already been sounded.   To his credit, Obama has signaled his commitment to free trade— the president will reportedly outline his vision for a new international free-trade regime in September.   Still, Colombia is hardly the country he would choose as a poster child to help advance trade’s merits to a skeptical American electorate.  

But perhaps the greatest threat imperiling Uribe’s desire for ratification will be Obama’s push for healthcare reform and more stringent environmental protection laws.   In all probability, debates over outstanding FTAs will be shelved as Congress thrashes out a compromise in these high-stakes arenas. With only four months left on the congressional calendar, and the need to reach a solution on both issues before year’s end weighing on lawmakers, chances for the ratification of any FTA, let alone the highly controversial Colombian case, will be quickly suffocated.     

Proponents of the deal argue that Uribe’s visit offers the chance to nail down an agreement that benefits American tax payers while bolstering the progress of a steadfast ally emerging from years of civil war.   In addition to opening markets for American exports, they contend that increased investment there will help Colombia defeat its dependence on the drug trade, and offer the country an opportunity to positively integrate into a recovering world economy.  

Unfortunately for the Colombian president, he’ll meet with no such luck.   Uribe will undoubtedly extract a hollow statement from Obama supporting continued and ever-greater ties between the Bogota and Washington.   But this is just window dressing. Actual substance will be much more difficult to come by. At best, Uribe may come away with a clearer sense of how the United States intends to approach trade in Latin America as it reconfigures its foreign policy in the region.   Chances are though, aside from a few nice shots shaking hands with Obama, Alvaro Uribe will walk away from the White House empty handed.

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