Diplomatic Pouch / January 29, 2010
By Larry Luxner
South America's five Andean nations — Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela — are among the most politically volatile in the Western Hemisphere.
On Jan. 22, the U.S. ambassadors to four of those countries (excluding Bolivia) discussed current events at a conference co-sponsored by Inter-American Dialogue and the Brookings Institution. The event was moderated by Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, and brought together veteran diplomats William Brownfield (Colombia), Heather Hodges (Ecuador), Michael McKinley (Peru) and Patrick Duddy (Venezuela).
In addition, Carmen Lomellin, Washington's permanent representative to the Organization of American States, sat in on the panel discussion, which was attended by more than 200
Duddy — declared persona non grata by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in August 2008 and then cautiously welcomed back to his post in Caracas after the Obama administration had taken office — joked that he's become the answer to a very obscure Trivial Pursuit question.
"I am apparently the first U.S. ambassador to ever return to a post from which he or she had been expelled," he said, noting that he and Philip Goldberg, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, were kicked out simultaneously, following allegations of U.S. meddling in internal Bolivian politics, but that the U.S. and Bolivia have not restored full relations yet.
Duddy called the White House's decision to repair damaged relations with Venezuela unprecedented in American history.
"The Obama administration decided that we would re-establish relations at the ambassadorial level, following which Ambassador [Bernardo] Alvarez returned here, and I returned to Caracas." Since then, however, Duddy says relations between the two countries "continues to be very, very difficult," to put it mildly.
"President Chávez has a tendency to characterize the United States as not only the empire but also now as the enemy," he said. Even so, the U.S. remains one of Venezuela's largest trading partners, with bilateral trade in 2008 exceeding $60 billion, "which constitutes pretty serious money."
The numbers for 2009 will almost certainly be around $20 billion lower, says Duddy, "but that's a consequence of the fall in oil prices." He noted that "there's recently been a devaluation which will doubtlessly push inflation up, while making imports from the U.S. and elsewhere more expensive. Purchasing power for average citizens will be eroded still further. So it's a difficult environment and very politically charged."
Pointing out that people tend to vote with their feet, Duddy says that despite the anti-American rhetoric so prevalent in the state-controlled media these days, more Venezuelans than ever before are looking to immigrate to the United States — a likely consequence of the worsening economy and shrinking civil liberties under Chávez.
"The volume of business in our consulate is quite extraordinary," he said. "We interview between 650 and 750 non-resident visa applicants every day of the week, and we have an 11-month waiting list."
Ecuador's Rafael Correa is a protegé of Chávez, but his criticism of the United States is not as venemous. Ambassador Hodges said "there have been ups and downs" regarding Washington's relations with the government of Correa, who was easily re-elected last April despite Ecuador's economic difficulties.
"A year ago, last February, President Correa kicked out two employees of the U.S. Embassy," she said, calling the incident a misunderstanding. "But we were able to negotiate an agreement and get back to where we were. We never stopped counter-narcotics assistance through the DEA."
Another low point was the Correa government's decision to close a military base at Manta, along the Pacific coast, that the United States had used for 10 years to monitor illegal cocaine trafficking in northwestern South America. The lease, signed in 1999 during the Mahuad presidency, had allowed the U.S. Southern Command to station up to 475 military personnel at Manta, rent-free. Until July 2009, aircraft at the base had flown around 100 missions a month looking for drug-running boats departing Colombia.
In April 2009, Brownfield announced that counter-narcotics operations would be relocated from Manta to somewhere in Colombia; the Pentagon is currently negotiating to use Colombia's Palanquero air base in Puerto Salgar as Manta's replacement.
"When it comes to counter-narcotics, cooperation between the United States and Ecuador is superb," said Hodges. "Last year was a banner year — something like 43.2 million tons of cocaine seized, in water and on land. It was quite a record."
She said Correa's approval rating has dropped from 70 percent to around 50 percent in the wake of "rolling blackouts which are very costly on a day-to-day basis." She noted that since Correa's election, Ecuador has moved much closer to "non-traditional allies" like Iran, Russia, China and Syria.
"Ecuador has also opened up to Colombia, and there is a firm commitment to having much better relations with Colombia. There's more to be done, and the U.S. supports that rapproachment."
Hodges singled out for praise the recent renewal of the U.S. Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), which helps Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru fight drug trafficking by expanding economic alternatives to cocaine production.
"Both sides were pleased when ATPA was renewed. I think this is a very important way in which the United States helps reduce poverty in Ecuador, providing jobs — especially for women in the flower industry," she said. "Last year, we gave Ecuador approximately $60 million in assistance. Of that, only a fourth goes into counternarcotics. The rest of it is in areas in which we fully agree."
Brownfield, who has been the U.S. ambassador in Bogotá since August 2007, gave Colombian President Alvaro Uribe high marks for restoring confidence in his country, which during the early 1990s was synonymous with drug cartels and murderous violence.
"We continually look and assess the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship over the last 10 years in terms of things that are still not working right. We talk about how much coca is still being cultivated, how much cocaine is still being produced, how many human-rights abuses we see. All these are fair, correct and proper issues to address. They tell us where we should be focusing our effors now. But they do not tell, in my humble opinion, the totality of the story," he said.
"My fundamental argument is that on every measurable criteria — whether it is politics, economy, commerce, foreign investment, human rights, drugs, law enforcement or security — Colombia is a better place today than it was 10 years ago," said Brownfield. "This is thanks largely to the efforts of the Colombian people and their elected government, and the support we have provided under Plan Colombia."
Asked about FARC — the Spanish acronym for Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces — Brownfield didn't mince words.
"FARC is on a number of lists of foreign terrorist organizations for a reason. It is a terrorist organization, it kidnaps, it murders, it produces illicit drugs and engages in widespread criminal activities," he said. "FARC is an organization that should trouble everyone in the Americas."
In response to a question about the Defense Cooperation Agreement signed last October between the U.S. and Colombian governments, Brownfield justified the agreement itself but conceded that "the rollout could have been vastly improved."
"The reaction by at least one government was absolutely assured and unavoidable," he said, in a not-so-subtle reference to Venezuela's Chávez. "As sure as the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, the neighboring country whose capital is Caracas criticized the DCA."
He said the bilateral pact has been widely misunderstood — and therefore attempted to set the record straight.
"Number one, the DCA does not create any new rights, privileges or immunities. Two, it does not create any U.S. bases at all. Three, it does not envision any new activities," he said. "Four, it does not, in any way, represent a threat to the sovereignty of any other country in the world, and five, I do not contemplate any increased U.S. military presence in Colombia."
The last of the four U.S. ambassadors to speak was McKinley, who warmly praised Peru for its response to the continuing global financial crisis.
"Peru continues to make significant strides," he said, especially when compared with the country's Andean neighbors. "It stands out in terms of generating a positive rate of growth, but also for its smart strategy of public investment, responsible macro-economic management and a continued focus on extending social spending. The statistics speak for themselves — a doubling of per-capita income in the last 10 years, and poverty dropping from 54 percent of the population to perhaps 35 percent this year."
McKinley noted that "Peru is emerging from a turbulent period in its history, and moving toward democratically elected governments." In fact, the next election is scheduled for April 2011, and 85 percent of the voting-age public supports centrist candidates."
He said bilateral relations are quite positive and "have centered on three issues: institution-building and consolidation of democracy; free trade, and working with Peru on drug-trafficking and counter-terrorism. Peru has finally graduated to lower-middle-income status, but with a per-capita GDP of only $4,000 a year, there's still a tremendous amount of work to do."