The Blog

The Case for Colombia

The numbers tell a story of progress.

12:00 AM, Apr 11, 2008 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON, the House of Representatives voted to postpone consideration of the U.S.-Colombia free trade pact, which President Bush sent to Congress earlier this week. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama oppose the Colombia deal on the grounds that Bogotá has not done enough to curb violence against trade unionists. This is the same argument we hear from other top Democrats and from senior American labor leaders. Yet it reveals either a total lack of perspective or an indifference to the facts, or both.

To appreciate where Colombia is today, it's helpful to recall where it was six years ago, when Alvaro Uribe was first elected president. At that time, dozens of municipalities lacked a real state security presence. Leftist guerrillas were terrorizing Colombians with bombings, kidnappings, and gun battles, while right-wing paramilitaries were committing atrocities of their own. The "peace process" launched by President Andrés Pastrana had failed. In April 2002, Uribe was nearly killed by a roadside bomb while campaigning for the presidency. A month later, Colombians voted him into office.

Bogotá needed a more aggressive military strategy, which Uribe provided. He has received valuable support from "Plan Colombia," the U.S. aid initiative that was expanded in 2002 to include counterterrorism assistance. Over the past six years, there has been a massive decline in violence and illegal activity, a restoration of state authority in all of Colombia's municipalities, and an economic revival. The Uribe administration has demobilized more than 33,000 paramilitaries. Meanwhile, thousands of guerrillas have deserted.

The U.S. State Department has compiled a bevy of statistics that highlight Colombia's transformation. In 2007, according to the Colombian Ministry of Defense, there were 40 percent fewer homicides, 76 percent fewer terrorist attacks, and 83 percent fewer kidnappings than there were in 2002. The number of kidnappings dropped from nearly 2,900 in 2002 to under 500 in 2007.

In 2002, according to the Colombian Ministry of Social Protection, there were 196 documented murders of trade unionists; in 2007 there were only 26. Colombia's National Union School (known by the acronym "ENS") puts the 2002 figure at 186 and the 2007 figure at 39. If we rely on the official state data, then trade unionist killings have fallen by nearly 87 percent since 2002. If we accept the ENS numbers, they have declined by 79 percent.

According to the Colombian Ministry of the Interior and Justice, the number of individuals enrolled in its protection program increased from under 4,900 in 2002 to over 9,400 in 2007. Roughly 21 percent of those receiving protection last year were trade unionists. The program had a $39.5 million budget, and about one-third of it ($13.1 million) was spent protecting trade unionists.

Even if we use the ENS estimate of union murders, writes former New York Times reporter Edward Schumacher-Matos, "it was far safer to be in a union than to be an ordinary citizen in Colombia last year. The unions report that they have 1 million members. Thirty-nine killings in 2007 is a murder rate of 4 unionists per 100,000. There were 15,400 homicides in Colombia last year, not counting combat deaths, according to the national police. That is a murder rate of 34 citizens per 100,000." Schumacher-Matos also notes that Colombia has seen "a growing number of convictions for union murders," and that "about a third of the identified murderers of union members are leftist guerrillas."

In 2002, according to the Colombian Prosecutor General's Office, 131 Colombian mayors were forced to exercise office outside of their municipalities, due to the threat of violence. In 2007, every single Colombian mayor was able to work in the municipality he represented.

What about the economy? According to the Colombian National Planning Department, annual GDP growth increased from 1.9 percent in 2002 to 6.8 percent in 2006 (Colombia's fastest rate of expansion since the late 1970s). Poverty and unemployment both declined considerably over the same period, while foreign tourism surged. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Colombia's per capita GDP (in current U.S. dollars) jumped from less than $1,900 in 2002 to nearly $2,900 in 2006.

Colombia's recent economic success cannot be explained entirely by the post-2002 global recovery and the spike in commodity prices (though the latter has provided a boon to many South American economies). In its latest report on "the ease of doing business" around the world, the World Bank named Colombia one of the top ten business reformers of the April 2006-June 2007 period and the number one reformer in the Latin America/Caribbean region. As the International Monetary Fund points out, Colombia's growth in 2005 and 2006 "exceeded the Latin American average."

To be sure, Colombia still faces persistent troubles. The guerrillas continue to hold hundreds of hostages. During the course of Uribe's demobilization campaign, we have learned that paramilitary infiltration of the Colombian political system was more extensive than previously thought. The country remains beset by drug money and corruption. It is still a violent society.

Colombian officials do not deny this. The trade minister, Luis Guillermo Plata, acknowledges that "violence is a huge problem in Colombia," but he stresses that immense progress has been made. Indeed, Colombia is one of the most encouraging stories in recent Latin American history, and Uribe has been a steadfast U.S. ally. In a region where the populist, anti-American ravings of Hugo Chávez often grab the headlines, the Colombian president has championed free-market democracy and taken great risks to defeat its enemies.

The numbers cited above offer a robust validation of his security and economic policies. As Congressman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, told me late last year, Colombia's transformation "is nothing short of a miracle." Unfortunately, it may take another miracle to win congressional approval of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.

Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American.