Here in Washington discussion about Colombia generally revolves around the free-trade agreement (FTA). Will Obama really push Democrats in Congress to approve it?
And now that the Colombian Senate this week approved a referendum on whether to change the constitution to eliminate a ban on a third presidential term, the topic du jour has shifted: Will President Álvaro Uribe run? And what does that mean for the FTA?
Wait. Haven’t we recently heard this story before from another Andean country?
Oh right. We have, but now we’re talking about Colombia—one of the United States’ best allies in South America—and about its popular president, now in the middle of his second, charmed term. And, he only got that second term through a constitutional amendment in 2006.
Uribe coyly demurs, and has yet to publicly say whether he’ll run again. Though he did recently say that his running at this time would be inappropriate. But who knows? After all, this yoga-loving leader has until November 2009 to declare whether he’ll make a run for the May 2010 election.
Since U.S. President Barack Obama came into office, the Colombians in Washington have been unusually quiet, keeping their push for the FTA on the down-low. When I ask some friends with the embassy what’s going on, I’m told that they’re moving forward, working with counterparts in the White House.
And, it’s really not a secret that the Obama administration has been quietly working behind the scenes to advance the FTA. Even U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk recently spoke quite optimistically about wanting to get the trade deal done.
Unfortunately, especially for supporters of the U.S.-Colombia FTA, the latest developments do not help boost the country’s standing. Instead, this only foments underlying concerns.
Is this approach to reforming constitutions good for Colombia’s democracy, not to mention the Andean region? What could this mean for U.S. relations with Colombia and other Andean nations, Plan Colombia and the FTA’s prospects?
Some here have become slightly squeamish as Uribe has been indirectly linked with numerous corruption allegations and scandals, like wiretapping and the surveillance of political opponents, journalists and activists.
These questions are coming up in Congress, which is making inquiries to the relevant officials at the White House and State Department.
Virginia Bouvier of the United States Institute for Peace and editor of the forthcoming Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War, summarized the challenges:
“Even for Uribe's many friends on the Hill, this will be a hard sell, particularly when U.S. politicians are critiquing authoritarian tendencies in other parts of Latin America. With a wiretapping scandal in full force, ongoing human rights concerns, new "falsos positivos," and a still-unfolding parapolitical scandal that has brought indictments against more than 100 parliamentarians and ex-parliamentarians and hundreds of local officials (virtually all in Uribe's ruling coalition parties)—some are beginning to question the nature of Colombian democracy. If Uribe runs, this will confirm their right to be concerned.”
Recent speculation is that the United States is implicitly sending Bogotá the message that if Uribe goes for a third term, it would upset the behind-the-scenes pro-FTA efforts here in Washington. Logically, it will make the fight to get U.S. congressional approval all the more difficult. But, how would this delicate message be delivered?
The third-term issue is one of many factors that Congress will consider when looking at the FTA, because there are already concerns about human rights. And on Plan Colombia, which is under review, some members are going to look at Colombia’s political direction and the potential reforms to the constitution—and they’ll make their judgments for funding based on that, a Senate aide said.
Adam Isacson, director of the Center for International Policy’s Latin America Security Program and author of the must-read blog “Plan Colombia and Beyond,” raised pointed concerns about the integrity of Colombia’s democratic institutions.
“It’s particularly damaging because Colombia’s 1991 constitution was written assuming that the President would be there for one term. And, all the judges, prosecutors and so on are appointed by the President. So, by the end of Uribe’s eight years, just about the entire board of the Central Bank, and the judicial and prosecutorial institutions will have been appointed by one president,” Isacson pointed out.
“That really undermines the checks and balances system. If he maintains his strong majority in the legislature, then he’ll also have control over the legislation. So, you’d basically have Uribe supporters in all corners of the government—including in the courts, where judges will be deciding cases, such as the allegations about Uribe’s para-politics, and the wiretapping,” Isacson continued.
At the same time, there’s also a laissez-faire view in Congress, that these are questions Colombians will just have to figure out on their own and decide what kind of democracy they want.
In the United States, we finally decided to limit the presidency to two terms in the 1950s. “They have to figure it out, just as we did,” one Republican Senate staffer noted. Meaning, we ought to just butt out of their democratic process? It’s none of our business?
Their decisions do have consequences, the staffer acknowledged. When Colombians go to vote, they might think about their international relationships, like with the United Sates, and their trade relations.
But the longer Uribe takes to declare his future intentions, observers in DC (and in Bogotá) have more time to ruminate over the seemingly endless stream of allegations of malfeasance, paramilitary links to Uribe and his cohorts. And more time for the long list of allegations to get even longer.
What kind of model does all of this set for the rest of the region? Is Uribe really someone we want as an ally against Chávez in neighboring Venezuela?
Still, those questions make some quite uneasy, at best. I have to yet to find anyone who can say that removing the third-term limit would be a good thing for democracy.
Despite the brewing scandals, Uribe’s popularity remains so high that he’s now called the Teflon president. Nevertheless, the Teflon man will likely leave us hanging in suspense until the fall.
By doing so, he’s suspending potential presidential candidates from effectively campaigning and putting Colombian voters in limbo. With plenty to talk about.
Yet, the limbo dance cannot be good for Colombian democracy, or for planting the seeds for a strong campaign season. For one, it certainly isn’t fair for voters.