The Washington Times / May 7, 1996
By Larry Luxner
BOGOTA, Colombia -- The massive new U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, a $73 million fortress brimming with the latest in surveillance and anti-terrorist technology, sits on a lavish site landscaped with 4,400 trees, 12,500 decorative plants and an artificial lake.
"The construction of this building," declared U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette to hundreds of invited dignitaries attending the embassy's Feb. 15 inauguration, "not only reaffirms the vital importance U.S.-Colombian relations have had for nearly two centuries, but strengthens our desire for even closer ties with Colombia, in the present and for generations to come."
But Frechette's words seem to ring hollow in light of more recent pronouncements by his bosses in Washington. A Mar. 1 edict by President Clinton decertifying Colombia's drug-fighting efforts prompted the burning of a U.S. flag inside the Colombian Congress -- and renewed cries of colonialism across Latin America.
The "decertification" effectively disqualifies Colombia as a partner in the fight against drug trafficking -- putting it in the same basket with Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, Syria and Nigeria -- and further tarnishes the reputation of President Ernesto Samper, who faces impeachment and a possible prison term for allegedly accepting up to $6 million in tainted campaign money from the notorious Cali cocaine cartel.
In recent days, Samper's political fortunes have taken a turn for the worse, with the May 2 arrest of Colombia's attorney general, Orlando Vasquez, on charges he also took money from drug-dealers, and the resignation last week of Finance Minister Guillermo Perry.
Colombian party politics aside, Washington's latest move hasn't earned it many friends in Bogotá.
"The United States is applying a foolish policy that undermines the international relations between underdeveloped countries and the great colossus to the north," fumed Colombian lawmaker Heyne Mogollón, head of the committee investigating Samper.
Samper's newly appointed minister of commerce, Morris Harf, says decertification has had "absolutely no effect" on the Colombian economy -- despite the fact that it requires the United States to oppose Colombian loan applications to the Inter-American Development Bank. In an exclusive telephone interview, Harf said the fact that Colombia was allowed to continue exporting flowers, textiles and 4,500 other products duty-free to the lucrative U.S. market under the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) lessened decertification's impact considerably.
Under ATPA -- which includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela -- the five Andean nations receive preferential U.S. tariffs in exchange for destroying coca crops and capturing drug smugglers. In this manner, Colombia alone saves $50 million to $60 million in tariffs every year. Overall U.S.-Colombian trade is valued at $7 billion a year, with Colombia's biggest legal exports including cut flowers, ceramics, coffee, bananas, textiles and leather goods.
Colombia's status under ATPA could change, however, when the issue comes up for review in September.
"At least from what we've been able to gather, the U.S. government for the time being is not interested in imposing any economic sanctions on Colombia," said Harf. "But since this is a discretional measure, we don't know to what extent the government is willing to deviate from this decision."
The 49-year-old commerce minister, who has an MBA from Columbia University, said "we have had other signals that lead us to believe the U.S. won't impose any sanctions against Colombia. Last week, it redistributed the sugar quota of the Philippines toward Latin America, and Colombia was included in that. Our 1996 quota went up 13%."
Maria Isabel Patiño, president of the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters, says her country exported $374.7 million worth of carnations, roses, marigolds and other colorful buds during the first nine months of 1995. Of that total, $293.9 million (78.4%) went to the U.S. -- thanks to ATPA, which exempts Colombia from having to pay an 8% duty on cut flowers. If that $40 million trading advantage suddenly disappeared, she warned, so might the jobs of 75,000 people.
"This would affect everybody in the flower sector. If we have to pay an 8% duty and other countries don't, our price to the consumer will be increased," she said. "I think it would be unjustified, because the country, the government and the private sector have shown results against the drug dealers. You can see the kingpins in jail. The United States shouldn't use decertification as a political instrument."
But that's exactly what Washington is doing, and Colombians aren't happy about it. In Medellín -- whose very name was synonymous with drug trafficking until Cali surpassed it in importance about three years ago -- the municipal council "decertified" the U.S. government for its "attitude toward drug consumption" and declared Robert Gelbard, U.S. assistant secretary for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, persona non grata for referring to the city in a "gross and disrespectful manner." A growing number of politicians and business leaders are demanding the removal of Frechette, the U.S. ambassador, for "interference" in Colombian affairs.
"How can it be," asked Francisco Piedrahita Echeverri, executive president of the Medellín Chamber of Commerce, "that in the late 20th century, one country is telling another what to do?"
What adds to Colombians' bitterness is the fact that Mexico -- a major source of drugs -- won full certification, as did Peru and Bolivia -- the world's largest coca producers. Paraguay was given only partial certification.
Yet all these countries, regardless of how they happened to fare this time around in the annual certification ritual, are getting tired of being graded by Washington on their performance in the so-called "war on drugs." They point out that the United States -- whose president has admitted to smoking marijuana -- is the largest drug-consuming nation in the world and shouldn't be lecturing other countries about narcotics.
"The Mexican government does not recognize any legitimacy to the process of certi-fication because it goes against the principles of equality amongst nations under internatio-nal law," wrote Mexico's consul-general in New York, Jorge Pinto, in an angry letter to the New York Times. "The process of certification runs counter to the spirit of cooperation between our two countries and could jeopardize bilateral cooperation in this area."
Editorialized Lima's El Comercio: "After almost 10 years of a failed war against drugs, it is obvious that whoever promotes it is not seriously trying to win it but merely use make-up to please the people. It seems much easier to certify or not certify third, weak and distant countries than, for example, to fight the intact Miami, Los Angeles or New York cartels with a pinch of the energy the Colombian government was demanded to use in fight-ing the Cali or Medellín cartels. It is easier to accuse the Bolivian police of being corrupt than to efficiently act against the laundering of narcodollars in U.S. territory whch some estimate amounts to $100 billion per year."
Few Colombians, in fact, doubt that President Samper's link to narcodollars was a key factor in Clinton's decision to decertify Colombia and not its neighbors. "Although the U.S. intervention is repugnant and unacceptable," wrote Bogotá's El Tiempo, "the president must admit that the only reason for the decertification is he himself."
In late March, however, Samper indicated for the first time that he might step down before his term expires. If he does, that would relieve Colombians of a major headache, go a long way toward restoring the warm ties between Washington and Bogotá -- and it might even clear the way for Colombia's full certification in 1997.