Rift in American-Colombian Relations

The Obama Administration’s failure to act on the Colombian free trade agreement is undermining a key regional partnership.

Colombia is one of America’s staunchest allies in Latin America. Decades of joint counterterrorism operations in the name of the war on drugs have forged a strong relationship that made Colombia the stable and prosperous nation it is today. Yet José R. Cárdenas, a former Bush Administration official, believes that there is reason for concern. Writing for Foreign Policy, he notes that “the US-Colombia strategic partnership is fraying under the Obama Administration.”

Colombia successfully crushed a narco-terrorist insurgency in recent years with military and financial support from the United States. The FARC still exists but its leadership and territorial control have been diminished. Colombian cities are now safe,” according to Cárdenas, “and stability has been restored in a strategically located South American country.”

The Obama Administration is damaging the relationship however by failing to move forward on a free-trade agreement that was negotiated by the previous, Republican government.

Colombia ratified the treaty in 2007 to eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers. President Obama is holding up congressional approval, supposedly over concerns about the safety of labor leaders in Colombia. Yet the overall murder rate in the country has declined dramatically in the past decade while the murder rate among union members has declined even more rapidly. A union member in Colombia today is one sixth as likely to be a victim of homicide as a fellow citizen who does not belong to a union. The Colombian government has increased convictions for homicides against union members by eight fold in the past three years.

Ratification of the agreement is certainly far more in Colombia’s interest than it is in the United States’. America is the country’s leading trading partner. Nearly 40 percent of its exports head for the United States while almost a third of its imports come from it. By contrast, Colombia accounts for just 1 percent of America’s trade volume.

Colombia’s second largest trading partner is neighboring Venezuela and its leader, Hugo Chávez, is having “a field day,” according to Cárdenas, “telling anyone who will listen that this is where you will wind up when you put your trust in the yanquis: alone at the altar.”

Since the Obama Administration won’t move on trade, Colombia is turning elsewhere. President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón seems willing to normalize relations with his eastern neighbor despite its suspected support for the FARC. “That Santos is willing to take the chance on seeking an accommodation with Chávez speaks volumes about his lack of faith in the current American administration to stand behind him.”

With all that’s been accomplished in defeating in the FARC and reining in the drug trade, “watching the current drift in bilateral relations is painful,” writes Cárdenas.

Santos’ political centrism compared to his predecessor may be less detrimental than Cárdenas fears. If the FARC is to removed as a credible actor from Colombian politics, its sympathizers on the left have to be made part of the consensus. The president’s appeals to “national unity” aren’t necessarily worrisome nor is his willingness to boost regional cooperation. There is no reason for this to coincide with a further erosion in American-Colombian relations however.