The Washington Diplomat / October 2007
By Larry Luxner
Whatever you may think about Colombia — think again.
Violence is down, foreign investment is up, drug smugglers are being locked up like never before, and camera-toting tourists are finally coming back. More importantly, a pending free-trade agreement with Washington — if it's ever ratified by Congress — promises to solidify economic recovery and strengthen democracy in South America's second-most populous nation.
"Colombia has changed a lot in the last few years, and we need perception to catch up with reality. But we realize that these issues must be confronted together," says Carolina Barco, Colombia's vibrant, persuasive ambassador to the United States.
"The drug problem is a two-way street. Colombia has been very courageous in fighting the supply part, and now the U.S. and Europe must fight the demand part," she told the Diplomat during a recent interview at her residence off Dupont Circle. "We must keep this issue up front, because it is the single biggest threat to democracy."
Barco, 56, is the daughter of a former president, Virgilio Barco Vargas, and was herself Colombia's foreign minister for four years. She quit that job in July 2006 when President Alvaro Uribe appointed her ambassador to Washington, replacing Andrés Pastrana, who had lasted only 10 months on the job.
"Pastrana made a personal decision to leave," said Barco, refusing to elaborate on her predecessor — a former president — who quit in disgust after Uribe named yet another former president, the disgraced Ernesto Samper, to be Colombia's ambassador to France. Ironically, Samper, who was Pastrana's political nemesis, never accepted the offer.
"Samper spended his whole administration defending himself against charges he took drug money," Barco said. "After investigating, our Congress came to the conclusion this was not true."
Even so, the damage to Colombia's reputation had already been done. The wave of bad publicity reached its height in 1996 and 1997, when the Clinton administration twice "decertified" Colombia's efforts to crush the drug trade and finally revoked Samper's visa for life, pointing to his alleged acceptance of $6 million in campaign money from the Cali cocaine cartel.
That decertified status lumped Colombia with such pariah nations as Afghanistan, Burma, Iran and Syria — sparking outrage throughout Latin America, and demands that the U.S. do something about its own drug problem before punishing other countries.
However, since Uribe's election in 2002, Colombia's image in the United States has been steadily improving. Once known as the world's murder capital, Colombia has seen homicides fall from 33,000 to 17,000 in the last five years — a period when the country's population rose from 41 million to over 44 million.
At the same time, kidnappings have fallen by nearly 70%, from 3,300 in 2002 to 230 last year.
"This dramatic change is reflected in the way Colombians feel about their country," said Barco. "Uribe has been president for five years, and our latest polls show his popularity at 79%. This is thanks to his emphasis on bringing security to the country and strengthening democratic institutions. He's also a very hands-on leader and he's very accessible. Uribe is outside of Bogotá almost every single day, going to different parts of the country whenever there's a need to address problems."
Barco said she speaks "several times a week, sometimes every day" with Uribe, who was re-elected last year and will serve as president until 2010.
"Having been foreign minister means I've already had the possibility to work with lots of people in the U.S. government," she told the Diplomat."I had already met President Bush, Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice and many members of Congress, so when I arrived here, I already had an introduction which allowed me to move faster, which is what our president wanted."
At the moment, Uribe is considered one of Washington's strongest, most reliable allies in Latin America — especially at a time when Colombia's neighbor, Venezuela, seems to be moving radically to the left under President Hugo Chávez. The Bush administration is worried that Chávez and his flow of petrodollars could undermine democracy in half a dozen other countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru and Uruguay.
"Our president has made very clear to Chávez that we have two very different models. Colombia believes in free trade. Chávez has a different kind of model based on government ownership of business and very lucrative oil exports," Barco said, noting that Chávez decided to pull Venezuela out of the five-nation Andean Community after Peru and Colombia began pursuing free-trade agreements with the United States.
Yet when asked directly if Chávez is a threat to the region, Barco deflected the question. "What we are trying to do is work in a constructive way to maintain dialogue and projects that are helpful for our region," she said.
For example, the ambassador noted, "we have been working with the United States as friends and allies very closely in the fight against drugs, and Plan Colombia — which was designed by President Pastrana with the support of the Clinton administration and approved by Congress in 2000 — has made a very important difference."
Since its inception, Bogotá has received $4.3 billion in U.S. aid under the Plan Colombia banner — in the form of Blackhawk helicopters, cropdusting planes, weapons and radar equipment.
"We needed to strengthen our control over our own territory," said Barco. "Drugs finance illegal groups, and thanks to Plan Colombia we got helicopters, training and intelligence to eradicate drugs. In the last five years, we've been able to stop more than 500 metric tons of drugs from coming to the U.S., and we've cut violence by half."
Barco pointed to the Sept. 10 capture of Diego Montoya, leader of the Norte del Valle drug cartel — Colombia's largest remaining drug cartel after the dismantling of the Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1980s and early 1990s. Montoya, who was on the FBI's top 10 most-wanted list, was allegedly responsible for 30% of the more than 550 tons of Colombian cocaine smuggled into the United States each year.
"Montoya was a very big fish," Barco said with obvious pride. "We must continue to fight the drug lords. and we have a very active extradition policy with the [Bush administration]. We have extradited more than 700 people back to the United States."
While overall U.S. demand for drugs has dropped by 15%, she said, "we're finding that cocaine consumption is growing in Europe. This invites corruption and violence in Colombia. For us, it's a matter of survival. Our country and our people are committed to sending this message of zero-tolerance of drugs."
That leaves two major issues on table for the Uribe administration: ending political violence at home and getting a free-trade agreement (FTA) approved by a reluctant U.S. Congress.
Colombia currently has three groups fighting the central government: the powerful leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has already said it's not interested in the peace process; another leftist group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), currently engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government in Cuba, and the right-wing paramilitary "death squads" which — like their Marxist enemies — have murdered tens of thousands of innocent Colombians over the past 40 years.
"At this moment, we have a peace process going on with men and women who were illegally armed. The government gave them the option of leaving their arms if their leaders would face trial," she said. "This is the first time in the world, that in a peace process, the leaders will be facing trial when they hand themselves in."
Under the new Peace and Justice Law, five of these leaders have extradition requests pending, "but since they have gone into a peace process, their extraditions will be suspended as long as they comply with the terms of the law. But if they do not comply, do away with their drug structures, or hand over hostages or illegally begotten lands and goods, then they can be extradited. The president is very serious about this."
Barco said it no longer make sense to put ideological labels on anti-government rebels.
"Their agenda has definitely changed," she said. "In the '60s, they were part of the Marxist revolution throughout Latin America, but today, drug trafficking has become a financial mainstay, and ideology is only secondary."
Despite Colombia's never-ending struggle against the rebels, the country's economy under President Uribe is enjoying healthy growth.
In the second quarter of 2007, Colombia's GDP grew at an annualized rate of 8%, compared to 1.7% in 2002, when Uribe took office. Overall, annual growth has averaged 5.5% in the last five years while unemployment has tumbled from 17% to 11% — prompting Business Week to publish a cover story about Colombia in May entitled "What's the Most Extreme Emerging Market on Earth?"
Direct foreign investment exceeded $5 billion last year, as foreign multinationals returned to do business here. Colombia is also safer for tourists, too. More than a million of them visited Colombia last year, and while the State Department has not yet lifted its travel advisory against Colombia, it's exempted the port of Cartagena and the Caribbean island of San Andrés from the general warning, prompting major cruise-ship companies to begin calling at both places again.
In late November, the World Tourism Organization will host its general assembly in Cartagena, giving the country yet another badly needed vote of confidence.
For the last 16 years, Washington has granted Colombia and other countries in the region preferential access to the U.S. market through the Andean Trade Preference Act. This is credited with maintaining over 500,000 jobs in Colombia and creating new industries that were unimaginable before. Congress recently extended these preferences, and in 2006, the Bush administration signed the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which would make permanent Colombia's duty-free access to the U.S. market.
Even so, Barco says her nation's economy would grow even faster if there were no trade barriers between Colombia and the United States.
"We need the FTA and we need it now," she declared. "After all the progress we've made fighting violence, Colombia is now at a moment where more open markets and more investment would have a great impact on creating the kind of formal employment that the labor movement would like to see."
While some 60% of Colombians are said to favor the FTA, its proponents haven't been able to convince all U.S. lawmakers of its merits. Barco predicts some action on this front over the next few months.
"It will go through, but we just have to work hard and get the information out," she said. "Congress has not said it won't approve the FTA. In June, the Democratic leadership said it would like to see concrete evidence of improvement in Colombia, particularly in the areas of impunity and violence against labor-union members."
Considering that more than 95% of crimes in Colombia are never prosecuted, it's no surprise people feel that criminals in Colombia literally get away with murder.
That's why, said Barco, "very important measures have been taken to address the issue of impunity. Before, a judge was the one who had to investigate, analyze and come up with a final decision. It was all done in writing, and it's a very long process. Because we had so many cases of violence, this gave a sense of impunity. The way to address it was to go to a system that was much faster."
Barco said the U.S. Justice Department has been helping the attorney-general's office in Colombia to adopt an "oral justice" system over the last three years; so far, she said, cases are moving 30% to 40% faster.
At the same time, she said, Colombia has set up a special unit — in cooperation with the International Labor Organization — to investigate 200 cases of violence against labor union members.
"Since the beginning of this year, 40 of these cases are already moving along," she said. "I think Colombia has made clear progress in this area. We are going to be sharing this with Congress, and for this reason we hope and believe that the FTA with Colombia should be passed."
Not so fast, cautions Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Birns says that because of opposition from key lawmakers including Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vermont) and Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts), "what was going to be an easy push rewarding a U.S. ally has turned into a bit of a horror story for the Bush administration."
"I think Colombia is a morass of corruption. Everything is for sale in Colombia, particularly justice," he said. "Democracy exists more as a matter of form than substance."
According to Birns, the Colombian ambassador probably has reason to be optimistic that the FTA will be passed.
"I don't know whether the anti-free trade bloc in Congress is sufficiently galvanized to make much of an issue of this," he said. "But there's a really strong feeling that Colombia's democracy is more apparent than real. People on the Hill who are sophisticated about U.S.-Colombian relations have become very suspect, particularly around the issues of corruption scandals involving paramilitaries. Colombia's bona fides as a thriving democracy are being held up to examination now."
Yet Barco insists her country has a "long history of friendship with the United States" and of defending democracy and free trade.
"We have been fighting courageously, and the FTA would help us to consolidate our achievements," she said. "I'm talking to Congress all day long. I realize that it's difficult to understand my country, and that the changes which have taken place over the last couple of years are not known. So it's my responsibility to reach out to as many congressmen as possible, and to make it very clear that this is the moment to help a friend."