Friday, June 29, 2007

BOGOTA, Columbia.

It seems about to happen… evidently nothing can stop it: The United States is going to give Hugo Chavez and his regime a huge dose of TLC — tender loving care in the form of the Democrat-controlled Congress failing to approve the negotiated free trade treaty with Colombia.

Oddly, the U.S.-Colombian trade agreement, successfully negotiated late last year, goes by the initials “TLC” in Spanish, which stand for “Tratado de Libre Comercio” or Treaty of Free Trade. If as forecast, the TLC is not approved by the Senate, however, there will be precious little tender loving care left for the United States, in Colombia or the rest of Latin America.

Denying approval of the treaty will be an enormous affront to Colombia and its hugely popular President Alvaro Uribe, the closest ally the United States has in the entire region. What’s more, turning down the FTA-TLC will hand Venezuela’s dictator-president, Hugo Chavez, a massive stash of immensely powerful anti-American ammunition.

Chavez-adoring media in Caracas, Buenos Aires, La Paz, Managua, Guayaquil and Quito among other centers will blare headlines like “Yankees drop their best Latin friend,” and “Uribe support earns U.S. insult.” Sad to say, this time the media will be correct.

“How could it have come to this?” an incredulous Bogota attorney asks. “We have stood by the United States when no other Latin American government would, and now the Senate denies what experts on both sides consider a sound and balanced trade agreement.”

The answer comes from Colombian economist Alberto Schlesinger, professor of international trade at Sergio Arboleda University: “The Democrats never really supported free trade, except for President Clinton, who wanted to change U.S. relations worldwide. He was steadfast in obtaining bipartisan approval to unite Mexico, the United States and Canada as a political issue with a very economic base, NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement].

“The Democrats in the Congress have reverted to their old ways, for two reasons,” Mr. Schlesinger continues: “First, as the 2008 elections approach, they refuse to give Republicans any kind of victory. Second, they are bowing to the powerful and wealthy labor unions who have always opposed liberal trade on the grounds their members may lose some jobs… a fear which has proven to be unfounded time and time again.

“For the Democratic leadership, the No. 1 issue is to win the presidency in 2008 and maintain control of the Congress, and they clearly believe labor union money and votes are critical.”

The treatment accorded President Uribe on his recent visit to the United States stunned Colombian political leaders and commentators. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi blatantly took Colombia’s leader to task for reported corruption and human-rights abuses by several politicians and military officials, completely ignoring that Uribe-inspired legislation led to the investigations, arrests and prosecutions of the malefactors.

Former Vice President Al Gore, who had met with Mr. Uribe on numerous previous occasions, canceled an arranged meeting on grounds suspicious, unresolved human rights issues made a meeting “inappropriate.”

Corruption and human rights are major issues in Colombia as in most developing countries. However, when its leaders are castigated for conducting a campaign against these evils, bewilderment and disgust abound.

But back to Mr. Chavez and the — undoubtedly unintended — tender loving care bestowed on him and his friends by defeat of the U.S.-Colombian free trade agreement. A group of Venezuelan politicians visiting Bogota in May made great strides with leftist Colombian politicians, particularly leaders of the Polo Democratico Party, formed by extreme-left academics and former guerrillas. The Venezuelan delegation leader was quoted as saying it was imperative for all Polo Democratico members of Colombia’s Congress and their supporters to oppose approval of the FTA-TLC.

“They have taken this position for one reason only,” notes Mr. Schlesinger. “They know that a functioning free trade agreement will draw Colombia closer to the United States, and that’s the last thing they want. Today, Hugo Chavez is the dominant political figure throughout Latin America. He and his allies control five — arguably six — governments and they want to build on that base.”

If Colombia is broken away from its relationship with the United States, only the Calderon administration in Mexico remains as an important target. Moreover, smaller countries like Guatemala and Uruguay will be intimidated and the region’s giant, Brazil, will cease its delicate balancing act and slide in the direction of Mr. Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution.

It does little good to suggest there is a chance the Senate will consent to free trade agreements with Peru and Panama. While important, they are not close allies of the United States. The symbolism of not consenting to the Colombian treaty makes them pale in comparison.

A senior Colombian official sums up the bitter irony: “Perhaps it was inevitable; Washington has a near perfect record of eventually dropping its friends. And, as to our fight against corruption, well, at least our crooks aren’t so stupid as to put their ill-gotten rewards in their refrigerator freezers.”

So, as the movie line went just before our hero pulled the trigger on another bad guy, “Hasta la vista, baby.” Unfortunately this time, the congressional pistol is aimed squarely at U.S. vital interests. Not quite the right kind of TLC, is it?

John R. Thomson comments on international political and economic issues.

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