Colombia Goes Full Tilt to Return to Grace
Uribe Administration, Seeking U.S. Trade Pact, Lobbies Hard to Overcome Scandal Allegations
The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2007

WASHINGTON -- To win approval of a new trade pact, Colombia is putting together a richly financed lobbying campaign piloted by ex-Clinton White House officials, complete with advertisements, a rapid-response media team and regular visits by Colombian bigwigs to Congress.
The necessity and breadth of such a campaign demonstrates just how far Colombia has fallen politically in Washington. For years, the Andean nation was considered a model ally that battled guerrillas and narcotraffickers and embraced free-market policies, unlike Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who mocked President Bush and boasted of creating "21st-century socialism."
But since Democrats took control of Congress this year, the focus has shifted to a deepening scandal in Colombia, where government officials have been accused of working with right-wing paramilitary leaders who have murdered hundreds of union members and other political foes.
[A U]The sharpest slap was delivered by former Vice President Al Gore, who pulled out of an environmental meeting in April rather than share a stage with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe because of what a Gore spokeswoman calls the "troubling allegations" in Colombia.
"Colombia has to get a new message, that it's going to end the culture of impunity where labor leaders are killed and no one punished," says Rep. Sam Farr, a California Democrat who was once a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia and now sits on the House appropriations committee.
This week, Colombia hopes to make progress. President Uribe is jetting back to Washington to lobby for the votes of conservative Democrats and members of the Hispanic and black caucuses Thursday. The following day he plans to give an award to former President Clinton at a New York dinner -- a signal to Democrats that Colombia isn't politically radioactive. Mr. Clinton "is honored to be receiving an award from the Colombian people," a Clinton spokesman said.
Colombia's immediate problems stem from turmoil back home. More than a dozen lawmakers have been arrested for colluding with the paramilitaries -- the scandal is called "paragate" -- and close allies of President Uribe, including his foreign minister, have been forced to resign. In Washington, many lawmakers are wary of approving aid or trade deals until the investigation progresses further.
Colombia also has longer-term issues to resolve. For all the progress the country has made during the past decade in reducing violence, labor-union members are greatly at risk. Human Right Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group, says 58 union members were murdered in Colombia last year. Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco says the number is down sharply from 2002 but acknowledges that Colombia's trade-union murder rate is "the highest in the world."
For U.S. labor leaders and their Democratic party allies, that makes Colombia a target. The Bush administration has negotiated free-trade pacts with Panama, Peru, South Korea and Colombia. The first two are likely to get token opposition on Capitol Hill. South Korea is a tougher sell because of opposition by automobile unions. "But Colombia is a class apart," says Thea Lee, the AFL-CIO's trade specialist.
Colombia is hindered by the U.S.'s changing foreign-policy priorities as the war on drugs has given way to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent about $5 billion since 2000 on a program called Plan Colombia to build up Colombian military forces and destroy coca production. While the program was approved at the end of the Clinton administration, Democratic support has been waning because of disappointment that the spending hasn't significantly reduced the amount of cocaine reaching the U.S.
A Scorecard of Kills
For years, Colombia's veteran ambassador, Luis Alberto Moreno, could call on contacts in both political parties to shore up support for Colombia and figure out what arguments were winners in Washington. He may have been the only ambassador in Washington to try to sell a trade accord by handing out palm cards with data on homicides, kidnappings and "terrorists killed and demobilized."
While the current ambassador, Ms. Barco, says she regularly confers with Mr. Moreno, now president of the Inter-American Development Bank, the Colombians have turned to Democratic lobbyists with strong ties to President Clinton to put together strategy.
[Chart]The team includes the public-relations firm of Burson-Marsteller, headed by former Clinton pollster Mark Penn, who is also a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. The firm has set up a campaign-style operation to respond immediately to any critical news about Colombia.
Glover Park Group, which includes former Clinton White House spokesman Joe Lockhart and lobbyist Susan Brophy, works on Capitol Hill with the lobbying firm of Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart Inc., including Republican Peter Madigan and another Clinton-administration lobbyist, William Danvers.
A business coalition, headed by Caterpillar Inc, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Citigroup Inc., is making lobbying calls and is planning an advertising campaign to push the trade deal.
Colombia spends about $100,000 a month for outside lobbyists. One big focus is to figure out ways to influence Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), who heads the Ways and Means Committee, which handles trade legislation. The Colombians lobby the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes Mr. Rangel, and make sure black Colombian lawmakers and Colombian union leaders join delegations that meet with U.S. lawmakers.
"I'd be using every hook and angle," says Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat who backs Colombia's efforts.
Sometimes the lobbying backfires. At a Congressional dinner last month, President Uribe lashed out at a Humans Rights Watch official, José Miguel Vivanco, who challenged Mr. Uribe's rosy picture of improving security for union members. "You're biased to the guerrillas and everyone in Colombia thinks that," Mr. Uribe lectured, according to a number of people at the session. Mr. Vivanco said the exchange showed how Mr. Uribe practices "intimidation." Ms. Barco, the ambassador, dismisses the incident as a "heated" discussion.
Colombia is trying to convince Democrats to work together on what one Colombian adviser calls a "grand bargain." That would include approval of the trade pact and a reworking of the $700 million in annual aid for Colombia so that more money is used to protect union members, prosecute political killers, build up the Colombian judiciary and fund development projects, with tighter U.S. oversight. Colombia strategists have asked Ways and Means Democrats to come up with a list of priorities they want to see Colombia address.
"We'll go the extra mile, or two miles or 10 miles," Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said during a Washington lobbying swing.
The Chávez Dance
Democrats haven't even committed to a vote on the pact, which had been expected by early fall. Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the trade subcommittee, says he wants to see "results" first, including improvements in labor laws and increased prosecutions. His staff hasn't produced a specific list.
Colombian lobbyists, as well as the Bush White House, figure they must build momentum by seeing the Peru and Panama pacts move first and delaying a Colombia vote until as late as next year. Ultimately, they argue, lawmakers will vote for Colombia if for no other reason than to avoid handing a propaganda victory to Mr. Chávez, who could crow about how the U.S. treats allies.
It is a risky strategy, says former Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, a veteran of trade battles. Mr. Chávez "is a card they can play," says Mr. Kolbe. "But it doesn't appear to be enough."
--Greg Hitt contributed to this article.
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