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Hundreds of Colombian importers fear D.C. will slam door on them
The Miami Herald / February 29, 1996

By Larry Luxner

MEDELLIN, Colombia -- The sweet smell of anis hangs over Colombia's largest liquor distillery, the state-owned Fabrica de Licores de Antioquia, where 580 workers produce 64 million bottles a year of aguardiente -- the national drink -- for local consumption and export to the United States.

Industry officials say the U.S. market is ripe for aguardiente, a clear ouzo-like spirit that goes down well with a slice of orange or coconut. Yet despite their efforts, Colombian exporters may soon find American doors slamming shut -- not only for aguardiente, but also for cut flowers, ceramics, coffee, bananas, textiles, leather goods and 4,500 other products admitted into the U.S. duty-free under the Andean Trade Preference Act of 1991.

On Friday, the Clinton administration will announce whether it plans to suspend ATPA benefits and general economic assistance for Colombia, a nation of 35 million people which ranks as South America's most populous nation after Brazil and does about $7 billion worth of trade with the United States annually. The long-awaited decision comes only two weeks after Colombia's prosecutor-general, Alfonso Valdivieso, formally charged President Ernesto Samper with accepting up to $6 million from the Cali cocaine cartel to finance his 1994 election campaign.

If found guilty, Samper could be impeached. Yet if Washington "decertifies" Colombia on the grounds it hasn't done enough to fight drugs, the whole country could pay. Under that scenario -- which must be approved by Congress within 30 days -- about $70 million in military and family-planning assistance would be automatically cut off. More importantly, the Clinton administration would be required to delay loans from such institutions as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank's International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which in itself could have a negative impact on foreign investment.

In addition, the U.S. government would also have to consider cutting off privileges under the ATPA, which saves Colombia between $50 million and $60 million in tariffs every year, making its products more competitive on the world market.

Finally, depending on the evidence and -- some say, political factors -- Washington could also invoke sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and suspend electronic banking transfers between the two countries -- a move that would cripple the Colombian banking system

Daniel Villegas Diaz, manager of the aguardiente factory, says "they have to certify us, because we've fought harder against drugs than the United States has. We deserve it."

Adds the mayor of Medellin, Sergio Naranjo Perez: "I hope the U.S. government will have the sense to distinguish an economic problem from a political one. Colombia has made a tremendous effort in the fight against drug-trafficking and the destruction of fields and laboratories. But in an election year, you lose all objectivity."

At present, Colombia is "conditionally certified" by the U.S. government, as are 17 other nations around the world. Yet businessmen throughout Medellin -- whose very name was synonymous with drugs until the Cali cocaine cartel replaced it in importance about three years ago -- worry that Clinton, wanting to appear as tough on drugs as his Republican opponents, will decertify Colombia completely, without looking at the evidence.

"This could have terrible consequences," says Francisco Piedrahita Echeverri, executive president of the Medellin Chamber of Commerce, whose upbeat projection of 4% economic growth for 1996 was issued before the certification debate began dominating headlines in this attractive city of 2.5 million. "How can it be that in the late 20th century, one country is telling another what to do?"

The concern is equally palpable in Bogota, where one of Colombia's fastest-growing industries -- cut flowers -- is concentrated. Maria Isabel Patiņo, 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 United States -- thanks largely 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 told The Herald. "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 U.S. shouldn't use decertification as a political instrument."

But that's exactly what Washington's policy has been. Sources say the original idea behind ATPA -- drafted five years ago by the Bush administration -- was to create a constituency within Colombia's private sector that would have a vested interest in fighting the country's cocaine cartels. But that hasn't happened, say administration officials who point to Samper's alleged involvement with drug lords and the country's lack of an effective money-laundering law.

Juan Emilio Posada, president of Aces Airlines, which flies between Miami and both Medellin and Bogota, concedes that Colombia has a long way to go in the war on drugs. However, he says, decertification at this time would not only be "devastating" for Colombia -- but a tactical mistake for the United States.

"It would be like shooting your own toes," he said, adding that if decertification goes through, "it would generate some anti-Yankee sentiment, and would leave the country less capable of fighting the drug traffickers. They'd be the only ones to gain from it."

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