For Trade Talks, Dial 57: Obama, Colombia's Uribe and the Future of the Free Trade Agreement

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe

Colombian Pres. Alvaro Uribe (Photo: Colombian Presidency)

The phones have been busy at the Obama transition offices, and country code 57 — for Colombia — was on the receiving end of at least a couple of this week’s calls.

The number was dialed on behalf of both President-elect Barack Obama (yesterday) and Vice President-elect Joe Biden (Monday) to talk to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, by far the staunchest American ally in Latin America under President George W. Bush.

Obama also called Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — they talked about Argentinean writers Borges and Cortázar — and her Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet, who invited him to visit Chile.

But Uribe has a much more serious matter to discuss with the U.S. administration, both the current and the incoming ones: the approval of a Free Trade Agreement that Colombians hope can take place in the lame-duck Congressional session.

Colombian media reported that Obama and Uribe talked for ten minutes. “The topics of conversation were not revealed, but it was a constructive dialogue,” a source told the leading newsweekly La Semana.

“The call from the Democrat Obama,” said El Tiempo, Colombia’s biggest newspaper, “is significant because this week, and until next Wednesday the U.S. Congress, under a Democratic majority, is in an extra session and the FTA is expected to be dealt with.”

The Colombian FTA has become a priority for the outgoing Bush administration — to the point that President Bush and Obama talked about it at their first meeting after the Nov. 4 election.

But Obama — like other Democrats — has expressed concern over Colombia’s human rights record, the main reason the pact has been stuck in Congress for two years. (The issue has also brought about the rare spectacle of a New York Times editorial in support of a George W. Bush initiative.)

While Colombians hope the pact can be approved before Bush leaves, chances for that to happen are getting dimmer. If the current brief session of Congress ends without action, the FTA would lose its “fast-track” status and would go back to square one under the new administration.

Despite Uribe’s open support for John McCain during the presidential campaign, the Colombian government sees an ally in Joe Biden, who as a member of the Senate has pushed for the implementation of Plan Colombia – providing U.S. military and non-military aid in exchange for Colombia’s commitment to fight drug trafficking.

“He is a friend of Colombia. There’s been dialogue with him and we’ve worked with his team. With him, there’s an open door,” Colombian Ambassador to the U.S. Carolina Barco told El Tiempo.

Barco said Colombian officials had also met incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel several times, and they are also watching the transition in expectation, since Colombian American Dan Restrepo, one of Obama’s advisors in Latin American affairs, is being considered “for a senior State Department or National Security Council job,” according to Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer.

Through the Bush years, Uribe has remained a loyal American supporter amidst a chorus of South American presidents who became increasingly critical of the U.S.

Now, Colombia expects this friendly relationship to be formally recognized by Congress. Any other option would be considered a major setback.

In a BBC interview yesterday, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said American failure to approve the pact would be a “slap in the face” to an ally. The British network reported,

Mr Santos told the BBC that he did not believe that the deal would be passed during the remaining days of the Bush administration – and that he was not optimistic for its future under President-elect Barack Obama.

He said it was critical that the incoming administration saw US-Colombia relations “not in the context of what special interest groups want but in the light of our long-term relationship.”

“Not approving the free trade agreement would be certainly a slap in the face to the strongest strategic ally that the US has in the continent,” he said.

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