Vote for My Colombia Deal or I’ll Brand You a Chavez Supporter!

It’s now crunch time for Bush and his Colombia free trade agreement: the President has sent the deal to Congress, thereby forcing a vote within 90 legislative days.

“The need for this agreement is too urgent — the stakes for our national security are too high — to allow this year to end without a vote,” Bush said. “The stakes are high in South America,” he added. “By acting at this critical moment, we can show a watching world that America will honor its commitments. We can provide a powerful rebuke to dictators and demagogues in our backyardWe can show millions across the hemisphere that democracy and free enterprise lead to a better life.”

The political strategy is clear: facing an uphill battle for his trade deal in Congress, Bush hopes to intimidate the Democrats by linking them to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Either pass my deal, Bush is saying, or allow Chávez to further expand his geopolitical influence in South America.

It’s a shrewd move on Bush’s part.

Though the trade deal is unpopular on the Hill owing to Colombia’s appalling human rights and labor record, most Democrats will do most anything to avoid the perception that they are sympathetic to the Chávez regime. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called Chávez “a thug,” but probably fears that Bush may be able to peel off some Democrats by resorting to Chávez bashing. In the House, the Republican leadership is attempting to frame the political debate over the Colombia deal as either a vote for Colombian President Uribe or for Chávez.

The Bush administration, Pelosi has said, should not invoke the specter of Chávez but instead focus on curbing labor abuses in Colombia (more than 700 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 2001, and though the number murdered annually has fallen sharply since President Uribe took office in 2002, the 25 killed in 2007 was still more than in any other country in the world. Only a small fraction of the killings have been solved).

“Nobody likes Chávez,” Democratic Representative Charlie Rangel remarked, “but I don’t think a bogeyman is going to get people excited into voting for these trade deals.” “The problem is that Hugo Chávez is not their main thrust – he is their only thrust,” he added.


I’ll Be Your Tour Guide in Colombia

Hardly intimidated by the spineless Democratic leadership, Bush has employed a relentless public relations campaign to get conservative Democrats on board. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, a right wing Cuban and former CEO of the Kellogg Company, has led congressional delegations to Colombia which have included some Democrats. “Colombia has been one of our closest allies in the region,” Gutiérrez has remarked. “What an irony it would be if it is punished for its support of the United States.” Gutiérrez has been a long time booster of free trade in the hemisphere. For example, he played a key role in the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA-DR.

Thanks to Gutiérrez’s tireless efforts, some Democrats seem to be coming round to the Colombia free trade deal. Gregory Meeks and Eliot Engel, both representatives from liberal New York City, recently traveled to Colombia. When interviewed, they agreed that the United States needed to help Colombia and other countries face up to Chávez. “The Chávez issue plays on something important,” Meeks said. “What has to be considered is the difference between two economic systems. One is the capitalist model of friends like Colombia based on market access. The other is the failed socialist model of Venezuela. We have to show that our system works.” Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, is reportedly still nervous about Colombia’s labor situation but joined his colleague in the by now obligatory Chávez bashing: “He’s saying, ‘Follow me, I’m the wave of the future in Latin America.’ We do have to counter that.” Another Congressional Democrat, Jim Matheson of Utah, traveled to Colombia with Gutiérrez. After touring the country he declared that carrying out a free trade deal would shore up Colombia’s status as a key U.S. ally in the region.


Condi Makes Her Case

Yet another leading booster for Colombia trade has been Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rice remarked “Some in the Americas today want to shove the region toward authoritarianism. This system has failed before, and it will fail again. The only question is how much harm it will cause in the meantime, and in large part that depends on us ­ on whether we support the vast majority of people in the Americas today who believe, as we do, that security and social justice are best achieved through liberty and the rule of law, free and fair trade, and responsible democratic governance. Colombia shares these values, and we have invested billions of dollars in our ally’s success. How could we possibly retreat now?”

Rice and her colleagues are alarmed because, notwithstanding their ideological differences, South American nations appear to be moving towards extensive political and economic integration. The only question now is which economic development model will predominate within the region and what the eventual complexion of integration will look like.

Chávez, whose star is rising, has overseen an avowedly socialist and strong statist approach to the economy. Rhetorically, he rails against the market and globalization and would like to see a more “un-savage” version of globalization spread forth from Venezuela into neighboring countries. In order to advance Venezuelan interests, Chávez provides development assistance and oil at discount prices to sympathetic regimes in the hemisphere. He has promoted the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA), a scheme based on solidarity and barter trade outside of the usual corporate strictures. The initiative was originally an effort to counteract the U.S-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Dominica have signed on to the agreement.

Rice seeks to head off Chávez’s ALBA before it can take root amongst left leaning countries throughout the region. In Chile last month, she sought to revive a long-standing, but largely dormant, strategic partnership between Chile and the U.S. state of California. State Department officials argue that both have complimentary economies; spokesman Sean McCormack said that a centerpiece of Rice’s visit was a proposed educational exchange program. For Rice it was important to visit Chile, a country with which the United States has a free trade agreement: the Bush White House hopes the accord will serve as a model for other free trade initiatives in the region, including Colombia.


Avoiding another Ecuador Fiasco

Rice may take some comfort in the fact that the Bush administration was successful in recently ramming through a free trade agreement with Peru. If she can help to ensure a deal with Colombia, this might take some wind out of Chávez’s sail. Bush officials are in a hurry because the tide seems to be turning against them: in Ecuador, maverick Rafael Correa wants his country to join Chávez’s ALBA.

As I explain in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan), the United States made a serious geopolitical mistake in not securing a deal with the tiny Andean nation. Prior to Correa’s assumption of power, the state-run oil company in Ecuador, Petroecuador, took over assets belonging to the U.S. energy company Occidental, allegedly because the firm had violated its contract by transferring some of its assets to another company.

In the U.S., the mainstream press referred to the government’s action as an “expropriation.”

Incensed by Ecuador’s handling of the affair, the U.S. broke off discussions on a free trade agreement that had been going on for four years. As a matter of fact, the two parties had finally agreed on key terms when the talks were abruptly severed.

Correa has signaled that he’s in no mood to enter into new trade talks with the U.S., and has alarmed foreign investors and the moneyed classes by seeking to participate in ALBA. Ironically then, by cutting off free trade negotiations the U.S. may have encouraged Ecuador to strengthen its ties to Venezuela and thereby hasten economic integration along more progressive lines.

Rice and her colleagues are determined not to repeat the Ecuador fiasco again. Securing a free trade deal with Colombia would be more economically significant than any agreement entered into with tiny Ecuador. The real rationale, however, is ideological and political: in its devious game of geopolitical chess, the U.S. badly needs a symbolic victory over Chávez.

The only obstacle in Bush’s path right now is the Democrats, who are deeply divided over the question of Venezuela. While some may be counted on to resist Bush’s relentless Chávez bashing, most are fearful of being labeled as anything but hawkish when it comes to dealing with the United States’ enemies on the world stage.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).





NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.