Colombia's worry: looser US ties

Officials visiting this week press for continued funding of an antidrug strategy and passage of a free-trade agreement.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
In Key West, Fla.: A member of the US Coast Guard at a base stands on a semi-submersible vessel that was caught in the Pacific Ocean last September with seven tons of cocaine. Known as ‘coffins,’ such vessels steam their way north from Colombia to deliver illegal drugs to the US.

Colombian officials are mounting a full-court diplomatic press in the United States this week as they seek to stave off a fall from the high-flying status their country achieved in Washington as a favored ally of the Bush administration.

Colombia was promoted as a Latin success story by President Bush but denigrated by human rights advocates and some members of Congress as a failed state. Now, it's likely to find itself far from center stage in a Washington grappling with the economic crisis and still finding its foreign-policy footing.

But at the same time, the senior Colombian officials here this week may find comfort in the hints of a more pragmatic foreign policy under President Obama – one that may not hold up a neighbor like Colombia as an example but won't dismiss it as a pariah, either.

"Before, you had President Bush touting Colombia as some kind of new Sweden, even as people in the human rights community and some in Congress said it was a South American Somalia – when of course Colombia is neither but is something different," says Michael Shifter, director of the Andean program at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "Once he gets around to thinking about Colombia, I think President Obama will be more realistic about the situation there, and the Colombians will appreciate that."

Continued funding of the antidrug partnership called Plan Colombia is the goal of Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who was meeting with officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, beginning Tuesday. The strategy has cost Washington nearly $6 billion over the past nine years, though with little impact on the flow of Colombian cocaine into the US, critics say.

Another priority Colombia has long sought is passage of a free-trade agreement that the Bush White House negotiated with the Colombian government of President Álvaro Uribe. Colombia's vice president, Francisco Santos, is crisscrossing the US to boost the trade pact's flagging fortunes.

Also this week, Colombia's foreign minister, Jaime Bermudez, meets in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and members of Congress.

More than just the economic downturn makes this a difficult time for Colombia to be making its case to US officials. The country is reeling from charges last week that state security agents also on the payroll of Colombia's drug lords were using illegal wiretaps to spy on politicians, judges, and journalists. A top counterintelligence official in the state security agency has already resigned over the scandal.

The latest accusations are likely to only feed perceptions that Colombia's security and intelligence institutions are deeply intertwined with the mafias that keep Colombia the world's No. 1 cocaine supplier. (Past scandals suggest that security and intelligence institutions also have links to the paramilitary organizations fighting a drug-financed insurgency.)

Beyond the recent scandal are indications – backed by solid and devastating reports – that Colombia is losing the war on coca-leaf cultivation and cocaine production and export, despite the billions of dollars in US military and alternative-development assistance.

In November, a report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that Plan Colombia's goal of cutting the production and distribution of illegal narcotics in half over six years "was not fully achieved" based on its finding that, in fact, coca-leaf production had increased by 15 percent between 2000 and 2006.

The report – commissioned by then-Sen. and now Vice President Joe Biden – did cite improved security in Colombia that has resulted in a significant drop in the number of kidnappings and murders.

The GAO recommended cuts in US funding, to be offset by broader Colombian responsibility for its own programs.

Colombian officials are responding to the negative publicity with a mix of economic optimism and warnings about the consequences of cuts in counternarcotics assistance.

In wire-service interviews before leaving Colombia for Washington, Defense Minister Santos equated any cut in what is now about $500 million in annual aid to "pulling the rug out" from under Colombia just as it is "winning" its decades-old fight with a drug-financed guerrilla. At the same time, he said, any cut would have a direct impact in the US.

"A reduction means more cocaine ends up on the streets of US cities," he said.

Colombian officials are caught between the consequences of claiming too much progress and the need to demonstrate that the country's human rights situation in particular has improved, says Mr. Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. "It's a tricky case to make, because they have to show progress," he says. "But if you claim too much progress, the question becomes, 'Why do you need such significant assistance?' "

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