The Magazine

Trading with Colombia

President Uribe achieves a miracle--why won't the Democrats help him?

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Medellín, Colombia

Gregory Meeks is walking casually through what used to be the most dangerous area of the world's most violent city. "This is unbelievable," says the five-term Democratic congressman from New York. "It blows my mind."

This city was made infamous in the 1980s by drug lord Pablo Escobar and his murderous cohorts. But the Medellín of 2007 has come a long way from its brutal past. The transformation is perhaps most visible in this hillside slum, known as Santo Domingo Savio. Where gun battles used to rage among guerrillas, paramilitaries, and narcotics gangs, children are running through the streets, laughing and eating ice cream. As dusk falls, the neighborhood is bustling with activity, a sign of the vastly improved security climate.

What is especially striking, says Meeks, is how quickly it changed. When he first visited Medellín in mid-2003, "members of Congress were forbidden to come here." Now they can ride straight into the neighborhood via cable car and see the new Library Park España. Medellín had over 6,300 murders in 1991. That year, according to Newsweek, "the annual murder rate was 381 per 100,000 people--more than 500 homicides a month. In 2002, it was still 184 per 100,000. Last year, it fell below 30, making Washington, D.C., look bad in comparison."

The progress in Medellín reflects a broader Colombian renaissance. By virtually every metric--security, political, economic, and social--the long-beleaguered South American country has made remarkable strides. Much of the credit goes to President Alvaro Uribe, 55, the Harvard-educated lawyer who took office in 2002 and was reelected in a landslide last year. He has pushed the right-wing paramilitaries to disband, while continuing the fight against the left-wing guerrilla groups and the drug cartels. Between 2002 and 2006, homicides dropped by 40 percent, kidnappings plummeted by 76 percent, and terrorist attacks fell by 63 percent. Uribe's policies have reduced corruption and made Colombia a hot new magnet for foreign investment.

"The improvement in Colombia," says Meeks, who has visited the country several times since 2003, "is nothing short of a miracle." The weekend before Thanksgiving, he was part of an official U.S. government delegation led by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. The group included a handful of congressmen, mostly Democrats, and one senator, Oregon Republican Gordon Smith. By bringing U.S. lawmakers down to Colombia, the Bush administration hopes to boost support for a bilateral free trade pact awaiting congressional approval. In late June, Democratic House leaders announced they were postponing a vote on the agreement until Bogotá showed "concrete evidence of sustained results" in reducing violence, especially violence against organized labor. Senator Hillary Clinton has cited Colombia's "history of violence against trade unionists" as part of her opposition to the trade deal.

That "history of violence" is all too real, but also needs to be seen in perspective. In 2002, there were nearly 200 documented murders of trade unionists in Colombia. So far this year, there have been around 30. Uribe has created a labor subunit in the prosecutor general's office and also established a special security program to protect trade unionists. According to the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, "In 2006 and 2007, not one trade unionist enrolled in this program was harmed." Meanwhile, the number of convictions in cases of violence against trade unionists is slowly but steadily increasing.

Democratic opponents of the free trade agreement also point to extrajudicial killings by the state security forces, which remain plagued by corruption. "There have been some recent reports on extrajudicial killings," says a Bush administration official. "Their stats seem to run counter to the longer-term trends that have shown an overall decrease in violence in Colombia, so the issue needs to be looked at closely. We take very seriously extrajudicial killings, and the Colombians have said they share this view and are working to continue their efforts to stop the violence."

The other cloud hanging over Uribe is the "parapolitics" scandal. His push to demobilize the paramilitaries--to date, more than 30,000 have laid down their arms--revealed their deep political infiltration. Uribe has supported and cooperated with the investigations, but the scandal has weakened his administration and bruised its image abroad. Many Colombians fear that the demobilized combatants will return to illegal activity.

During their mid-November junket, American lawmakers met with some of the former paramilitary fighters at Medellín's Library Park España. These sessions were off the record, but the ex-paramilitaries in my group seemed optimistic about the societal reintegration process. One said that the paramilitary forces have virtually "disappeared" in Medellín.

The U.S. delegation also attended an informal town hall-style meeting on the outskirts of Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean coast. There, amid the sweltering heat and humidity, they saw Uribe interact with throngs of impoverished slum dwellers, most of them Afro-Colombians who either were displaced from their original homes by violence or were demobilized. The locals were not shy about airing their grievances on such issues as housing and sanitation, but they seemed to admire and respect Uribe. As a U.S. embassy official explains, ordinary Colombians appreciate the risks he takes in visiting their communities. (Uribe has survived numerous assassination attempts, including a roadside bomb attack during the 2002 campaign.) His national approval rating now hovers around 70 percent.

Thanks to the security gains and some economic reforms, Colombia's economy grew by 6.8 percent in 2006, its fastest rate of expansion since the late 1970s. The U.S.-Colombia free trade pact would give American exporters the same market access that Colombian exporters have enjoyed under unilateral trade preference programs. How would it help Colombia? Secretary Gutierrez says that, among other things, it would swell U.S. investment, promote more favorable business conditions, and allow the Colombians to buy cheaper agricultural machinery. But opponents in Colombia fear that domestic companies would be unable to compete with U.S.-based multinationals. On the recent junket, U.S. lawmakers met with Colombian trade unionists both for and against the agreement.

The Commerce Department is planning more such trips in the near future. Whether they will sway a sufficient number of Democrats to get the agreement approved is unclear. Administration officials privately fear it may never reach a floor vote. Meeks, though, reckons that supporting the trade deal is "a no-brainer," even if it means handing a political victory to a lame-duck president. "This isn't about George Bush," Meeks says. "This is bigger than politics."

Duncan Currie is the managing editor of the American.