DAS Scandal Looms over Colombian Visit

Hat in hand, senior Colombian representatives arrived in Washington on February 24 to begin a lobbying blitz, yet were reluctant to acknowledge that their country is currently embroiled in a pervasive corruption scandal which discredits even the usually teflon-coated Uribe administration. Taking part in a 3-day trip to Washington, Jaime Bermúdez, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Juan Manuel Santos, Minister of National Defense, met with representatives of the Obama administration and the Senate, where they urged key White House players to pass the long-stalled Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and Colombia. Another priority on their agenda was to secure the steady flow of Plan Colombia’s counter-narcotics aid, which is up for reevaluation in 2010.

Mission in Washington
The Colombian delegation met with top-level Obama Cabinet members, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, CIA director Leon Panetta and National Security Adviser James Jones, as well as important legislative members, such as Sen. John Kerry of the Foreign Relations Committee and Sen. Patrick Leahy of the Appropriations Committee. Shortly after the high-level meetings, Santos claimed that the original aid pledged under Plan Colombia will continue uninterrupted through the current fiscal year. During his visit, the House approved maintaining the annual $545 million funding for 2009. Despite the current economic climate and the ambiguity of future assistance, Santos explained that “US drug aid to Colombia, [is] a drop in [the] ocean,” underscoring the aid’s relatively small figure compared to the huge amount of funds spent on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although Plan Colombia was a pressing issue for Santos and Bermúdez, it was the perpetually delayed FTA that represented the main thrust of the visit. On the heels of her recent Asia trip, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Colombian representatives to discuss the FTA’s future. Colombian daily El Tiempo quoted Bermúdez as saying that “we must recognize the current circumstances and the political climate in the US, as well as the important subjects such as the financial crisis, but we must be persistent and achieve the passing of the FTA.” Bermúdez also claimed that Clinton is in favor of the FTA, which would provide Colombia with a strong ally in the fight to gain the agreement’s ratification, at a time when President Obama has vowed to comb over every dollar that the government spends.

Caught Red-Handed
This visit comes at a time when Colombia’s human rights record is coming increasingly under fire. The news magazine Semana, which has been running bold and brilliant articles on the subject, reported on February 22 that the Colombian intelligence agency DAS had been wiretapping opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, prosecutors and journalists, and passing on the information gathered to criminal groups; as Semana put it, intelligence is allegedly being sold “to the highest bidder.” President Uribe, who has all along insisted that he is not a crook, has since attempted to calm the storm raging around the scandal by alleging that members of his administration were also victims, blaming drug smugglers, and pledging to take moves to reform, or “purge” DAS, including removing its authorization to conduct wiretaps. In Washington, Santos went further, declaring that DAS should be wound up altogether and given “a Christian burial.”

However, this latest disclosure is part of a long series of corrupt practices and human rights abuses which have characterized the Uribe presidency. A similar scandal brought about the resignation of senior police officials in May 2007, while Colombia’s Supreme Court has issued charges against 33 members of Congress – many of them Uribe allies – for alleged collusion with far-right death squads, and an ex-director of DAS, Jorge Noguera, who is in prison awaiting trial on charges of supplying the names of potential targets to such groups.

It is clear that the Uribe administration has been forced onto the defensive, a course of action it has taken in desperation, in no small part due to the timing of Semana’s revelations to coincide with the Colombians’ visit to Washington. These violations which are chronically committed with impunity in the Andean nation have been solely responsible for holding up the FTA in Congress since 2007. The rot which has been exposed once again by revelations of DAS’ transgressions is one for which the blame must lie at Uribe’s door, and recent events highlight the necessity for members of the U.S. Congress to continue to resist the advancement of U.S. trade relations with Colombia for as long as corruption in Bogotá remains the order of the day and as long as Uribe holds on to office.

Diplomatic Inconsistencies
The FTA has been bogged down in Congress because of correct concerns surrounding Colombia’s dismal human rights record, most recently the violent assaults perpetrated against labor leaders. This approach to free trade is in stark contrast to U.S. bilateral relations with China. In her recent tour of Asia, Clinton made it very clear that human rights and trade would be two separate issues: “Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues [of human rights], and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues [of human rights] can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.” This is an ominous tone for the new Secretary of State to take and is reminiscent of her husband’s pragmatic approaches to NAFTA during his presidency.

Although abhorrent to some, this type of diplomatic realism may be necessary in U.S. relations with Beijing, since China is the largest purchaser of U.S. treasury bonds, and at a time where credit is precipitously evaporating, it has the much-needed liquidity to help keep the U.S. economy afloat. Furthermore, China is a repressive authoritarian regime; by virtue of this country’s political structure, there will inevitably be an ideological gap between Beijing and Washington concerning the primacy of democracy, the implementation of the rule of law, and the value of preserving basic human rights and freedoms. Despite Clinton’s approach, human rights issues should not disappear from the table altogether.

Colombia, by contrast, is a supposed democratic state. However, the country’s abysmal human rights record and major democratic lapses implicate the fragility of its political system. The most recent extrajudicial wiretappings by DAS in conjunction with the killings of more labor leaders than in any other Latin American country are strong indicators that in order for democracy to keep a foot-hold in the country, it must be actively cultivated and carefully nurtured. Unlike China, Colombia is reliant on the U.S. for foreign aid, and therefore may be more open to external influence. The pending FTA thus presents an opportunity to improve the current situation. It is utterly inaccurate to describe the country as a “democracy”, when a more appropriate phrase is necessary to convey the magnitude of its venality, the grossness of its corruption and the brutality of its security forces.

An FTA with Colombia will not be merited, however, if the U.S. continues to put their blind faith in the integrating and transformational powers of the free market without recognizing its most fundamental limitation. While trade increases the mutual economic dependence of countries that engage in it, it does not make them tried and true democrats. Such people can be more accurately described as trading partners, who may omit paying tariffs but are willing to turn a blind eye to gross human rights violations. As a result, the United States, in unison with Bogotá, must actively seek to construct a more acceptable framework for human rights that respects and upholds the rule of law. A free trade agreement alone will not achieve these ends. In fact, it will invalidate the legitimacy of its purpose.