In the past week the Bush administration has unearthed a "national security" justification
for passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement that can’t be allowed to stand.
"As your national security adviser in that region, I will tell you that it is very important
that the free trade agreement be passed from a national security perspective," the commander of
U.S. Southern Command, Adm. James Stavridis, told the House Armed Services Committee last week. "And,
I hear that not just from senior people in Colombia, but from my interlocutors in the region. They’re
watching very closely to see what happens to a nation that stands with the United States for a decade
or more." The admiral echoed an argument that President Bush used in speeches on March 12 and 18.
The administration is employing this argument in a specious, misleading, and cynical way. As currently
formulated, it could become a pretext for a host of irresponsible and counter-productive policies in
Latin America and the Caribbean.
To the extent that it has been thought through, this "national security" argument seems
to be based on four main debating points. Each of these points makes little sense, though, when considered
on its own.
1. The FTA will make Colombia more secure by increasing economic prosperity, which will weaken
A White House "fact sheet" states, "A free trade agreement with Colombia would bring
increased economic opportunity to the people of Colombia through sustained economic growth, new employment
opportunities, and increased investment."
According to Dan Fisk, director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, "The
free trade agreement, in our view, is critical to helping Colombia address the continuing threats it
faces … In fact, if there’s one argument, I think, that is paramount in this is that we know that the
main recruitment ground for terrorists, for guerillas, or drug traffickers is poverty. The best way to
get out of poverty is to create more and more opportunities for Colombians … That’s what the Colombia
free trade agreement will do."
Whether the FTA will create prosperity in Colombia can be endlessly debated between credible experts
on both sides. There does seem to be a rough consensus on two points, though:
Increased access to U.S. markets would probably mean job growth for Colombia’s export-oriented manufacturing
sector, which is mainly based around big cities like Medellín, Bogotá, and Barranquilla.
There is less consensus about whether these would be unionized jobs or even "good jobs at good wages."
In rural areas, export-oriented agribusiness (capital-intensive crops like African palm, timber, or
rubber) would do well. But these crops produce very few jobs per acre.
Smaller-scale farmers, on the other hand, would be dealt a strong short-term blow. As has happened
in Mexico since NAFTA, family farms, cooperatives, and communities producing foodstuffs for local markets
could find it impossible to compete with a flood of cheaper products coming from the United States.
Even if the rural situation somehow restructures itself in a decade or two, over the next few years
the FTA will mean a severe shock for many of Colombia’s small-scale rural producers. Past experience
with FTAs makes it reasonable to expect a sharp economic downturn in the remote, "unglobalized" rural
In Colombia, the trouble is that these are the very areas where coca is grown and guerrillas are strong.
Dealing a blow to small-scale producers in places like Cauca, Nariño, or Putumayo could damage
the livelihoods of thousands of farmers who, as it is, are just getting by. It could add to the ranks
of rural dwellers who see no other option but to plant coca. It could add to the population of young
rural Colombians susceptible to recruitment by guerrillas or "emerging" paramilitary groups.
In the absence of a "Marshall Plan" for Colombia’s countryside—which is not forthcoming—the
FTA could deal an economic shock to zones that, while sparsely populated, are of central importance to
the effort to combat armed groups and the drug trade. Rather than making the Andes safer, the FTA could
trigger a more immediate national-security threat.
2. Failure to pass the FTA in 2008 would be a victory for Venezuela.
President Bush: "As it tries to expand its influence in Latin America, the [Venezuelan] regime
claims to promote social justice … The stakes are high in South America. As the recent standoff in the
Andes shows, the region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists
and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe. I’ve made my choice.
I’m standing with courageous leadership that believes in freedom and peace. And I believe when the American
people hear the facts, they will make their choice and stand with a person who loves liberty and freedom.
And there is no clearer sign of our support than a free trade agreement."
House Minority Whip Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO) echoed the argument: "Hugo Chavez is actively working
to undermine the democratic Colombian government by advancing the argument that Colombians can no longer
rely on the United States as an ally … Congress’ failure to pass the Colombian trade deal may just be
the smoking-gun example Mr. Chavez needs to make his case. Our reputation as a global leader is at stake.
And the world is watching how Congress responds to this challenge."
Reading these quotes, you would think that Venezuela—a country with one-twelfth the population of
the United States, and an economy one-fortieth as large as the U.S. GDP—were the Soviet Union reincarnated.
This view appears to propose a badly misguided new framework for U.S. security policy in the hemisphere:
a "mini-Cold War" in which the FTA is a critical tool.
Chavez is no model of good governance, and he does seek to promote the ascendance of Latin American
leaders who are critical of the United States. He is unlikely to be a friend to Washington anytime soon.
But even if the United States were to engage in a battle with Chavez for Latin America’s hearts and
minds, the FTA would not be the most appropriate tool. A free trade agreement is a blunt instrument.
It creates winners and losers, and can have unintended consequences as the "losers" become
A true effort to "compete" with Venezuela would require the United States to reassert itself
in several other areas in which it has ceded dominance to Caracas, such as economic assistance, high-level
diplomatic engagement, and public diplomacy throughout the hemisphere.
Meanwhile, the Chavez "threat" is growing less credible all the time, despite the current
price of a barrel of oil. The Venezuelan president is increasingly unpopular at home and is beset by
a host of domestic problems, including region-high inflation, food shortages, rising violent crime, and
3. Failure to pass the FTA in 2008 would be a "betrayal" in the eyes of a region that
is watching events closely.
President Bush: "The agreement would signal to the region that America’s commitment to free markets
and free people is unshakable … If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, we would validate
antagonists in Latin America, who would say that America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends. We
would cripple our influence in the region, and make other nations less likely to cooperate with us in
the future. We would betray one of our closest friends in our own backyard.
In the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, ‘If the United States turns its back on its
friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin America dictator could hope
to achieve.’ Congress needs to listen to those wise words as they consider this important bill."
Why, exactly, would it be a "betrayal" to hold out publicly for progress in prosecutions
of those who murder trade unionists? (These killings may be down somewhat, but those who committed them
continue to walk the streets among their fellow Colombians; efforts to reduce impunity have barely taken
That said, congressional Democrats and other FTA opponents do need to work on their messages, because
right now they are easily caricatured as seeking to "punish" Colombia. It is noble to hold
out for a safer labor-organizing climate. It is noble to seek to give a greater voice to Colombian workers,
small farmers, and others who didn’t have a seat at the negotiating table the first time.
The FTA’s opponents do need to make clearer that this is indeed what they are doing. Nothing about
this can be called a "betrayal"—and in fact, this message is a very positive one to send to
the rest of the region.
4. The FTA will help Colombia shoulder more of the burden, allowing a drawdown in U.S. military
Defense Department press release: "The Minister [Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos]
and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed that Colombia needs to shoulder more of the financial
burden itself, with its own resources, but will be unable to do so without a substantial boost to its
"A free trade agreement with the United States would lock in opportunities to create businesses
and expand employment rolls, thus providing a tax base for the government to continue strengthening institutions
that protect ordinary citizens," Gates said.
First, any drawdown of U.S. military aid programs should be accompanied by an increase in U.S. economic
assistance: as a principal cocaine-consuming country, we have a responsibility to help Colombia’s state
deliver basic services and strengthen the rule of law.
Second, the argument that the FTA will increase Colombia’s tax base is an interesting one, but the
past few years’ experience makes it doubtful that economic growth in Colombia will bring any proposals
to reduce U.S. military assistance. Since 2002, Colombia’s economy has grown by about 25%—yet the Bush
administration’s military aid requests to Congress have been unchanged.
This argument leads in some bad directions.
On the whole, what is most worrisome about this "national security" argument is its one-size-fits-all
nature. If it works as an FTA sales pitch, it can be used to usher in a host of other bad policies in
The Venezuelan "menace" could come to be used to justify new military-assistance programs
that would never otherwise meet with congressional approval. Fear of "losing face" in the region
could lead Washington to offer unquestioning support to abusive governments, as has happened in the not-too-distant
In general, the fostering of a new "mini-Cold War" in the region—a new "war" to
replace the old Cold War, the unsuccessful "drug war," and the not-too-relevant-to-the-region "war
on terror"—would be a huge step backward for U.S. relations with, and democratic stability in, Latin
America and the Caribbean.
The "national security" pitch is not a serious argument, and it can lead us to some places
we should not be going. It should be dropped now.