Former Colombia Foreign Minister Argues For An Extension Of Tough U.S. Drug Plan And Free Trade, Supports McCain

Colombia became a hot topic last week as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expelled US ambassador Patrick Duddy, and then welcomed two supersonic Tu-160 bombers to his Libertador airfield. This marks the first time Russian strategic bombers have ventured into the Western hemisphere since the Cold War -- a ballsy move that will culminate in joint naval maneuvers between Russian and Venezuelan warships in Caribbean waters come November.

The drama unfolding in Venezuela highlights America's dependence on its staunchest ally in the region: Colombia, the South American country that for many still conjures up images of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, and roving armies of cold-blooded kidnappers.

But that was then, and this is now: Escobar is dead, Colombia is our largest supplier of fresh cut flowers (up to 28 cargo planes a day carry flowers to the US), and it is now safe enough for Hollywood to be filming two Escobar bio-pics on location in Medellin -- once considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Colombia's progress has been immense, yet challenges remain. Terrorist and para-military groups operating within the country have been severely weakened but not defeated, and cocaine continues to be Colombia's largest cash crop.

Since 2000, Plan Colombia, a brainchild of the Clinton Administration, has been funneling billions of dollars into Colombia to help defeat the FARC, the Marxist guerrilla terrorists who finance their operation through narco-trafficking and kidnapping. In 2000, the FARC abducted Fernando Araujo Perdomo, Colombia's former economic development minister. After being held captive for six years in the jungle, Araujo made a daring escape on New Year's Eve, 2006. Most recently he served as Colombia's foreign minister.

Araujo spoke this week with OffTheBus about Plan Colombia, the US presidential election, and the pending U.S./Columbia Free Trade Agreement -- a controversial accord that puts John McCain and Barack Obama on opposite sides of the argument.

What is the nature of U.S. support for Plan Columbia today? Would you like to see it change?

Fernando Araujo Perdomo: U.S. support for Plan Colombia is positive. But difficulties occur when Congress trims down the budget, looking for Colombia to contribute more. The foundation of Plan Colombia is the principle of shared responsibility: consuming countries and producing countries working as a team to fight illegal drugs. Although if we compare the U.S. contribution with the contribution of the European Union, where cocaine consumption is very high, we see that the European commitment is minimal. They have no conscience, or they aren't interested in how the consumption of drugs in their countries affects Colombia. For us, the problem is dramatic because drug traffickers finance terrorists who threaten to destroy our democracy. Their money distorts our economy, creating inflation and tax dodgers. The incalculable fortunes they generate corrupt all sectors of our society, causing enormous moral damage.

I would like to see North American authorities pledge greater commitment to prevention campaigns that deter consumption and put greater pressure on domestic groups that sell illegal drugs.

Is there any evidence that we're winning the war on drugs in Colombia?

It's very difficult to establish parameters by which to measure victory. For me, it's clear that drug trafficking is on the decline and that its influence in Colombian society has diminished. But it is possible that it has moved to other places where it is easier for drug traffickers to undergo their illicit activities without the danger of possible action by the Colombian government or the government of the United States. Many times I've asked myself, "How many hectares of cocaine would we have in Colombia without Plan Colombia?" The answer scares me.

Aerial fumigation of illegal crops is part of Plan Colombia, but it's controversial due to the environmental damage it causes. What is your perspective?

This year we anticipate the fumigation of 150,000 hectares and the manual eradication of 100,000 hectares. Manual eradication is very dangerous due to the presence of terrorist groups that protect the plantations and bury land mines to kill the eradicators. But as military control improves in plantation zones, manual eradication will be increased. For now, aerial fumigation remains very necessary.

In 2006, U.S. aid to Colombia was $641 million for military/police, $138 million for economic and social programs, and $82 million for military/non-police. How would you like to see these figures change in 2009?

I do not share the priorities passed by Congress for 2008 and 2009. The fight is between the U.S. administration, which wants to reinforce military programs to eradicate cocaine harvests and eliminate money-laundering, and the Democratic majority within Congress, which wants to place more emphasis on social programs. Both fronts are necessary, but I don't think we should reduce the military part, because drug traffickers do not respect any law and only care about their own fortunes.

You have said Colombians will support the winner of the U.S. presidential election because, regardless of who wins, you must work together if Colombia is going to continue to develop a democracy. Who do you think is going to win?

I think Senator McCain will probably win because what North Americans value most is security, stability and experience, and that personifies McCain.

Then how do you perceive a female vice-president?

A female vice-president is a step forward in the right direction because it reflects the American community. However, advancement does not come without great struggle.

How do you perceive an African-American president?

Being African-American shouldn't have any weight in an election. But it is a change compared to what has occurred in the U.S. in the past. If you add to that the inexperience of the candidate, some voters may believe the risk is too great.

Which U.S. election issues are most important for Colombians?

Most important for Colombia is the continuation of support for our democracy -- to continue the fight against drug trafficking and violence, to continue social programs and Plan Colombia, and to obtain approval of the Free Trade Agreement.

Trade is always a thorny subject during an election. America's free-trade policies are falling into even sharper relief this election because falling housing prices and the dropping stock market are creating feelings of job insecurity, according to John Bussey, Washington Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal.

Last year, trade with Colombia reached $18 billion. The U.S./Colombia Free Trade Agreement would further open this growing economy to American goods and services by making over 80 percent of U.S. exports duty-free immediately.

John McCain supports the U.S./Colombia accord. He believes the FTA would create new jobs in both countries, and effectively extend U.S. foreign policy. "The stability of Colombia is more critical than ever as others in the region seek to turn Latin America away from democracy and away from our country," said McCain.

Barack Obama opposes the U.S./Colombia trade deal.

"The violence against unions in Colombia makes a mockery of the very labor protections we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements," said Obama. He is referring to more than 2,000 union members who have been murdered in Colombia since 1991. By withholding approval, Obama is hoping to pressure the Colombian government to work harder to protect union members from violence. Obama also wants to evaluate the details lurking within the 1,000-page document to understand fully how they affect American workers already facing a surging trade deficit with China and the increasing loss of jobs to countries such as India.

Columbian president Alvaro Uribe Velez will visit Washington, D.C. from September 17-21 to push hard for the FTA. Despite his efforts, no one expects ratification before the election in November.

NOTE: The interview with Fernando Araujo was conducted in Spanish and appears here as translated by the author. Spanish version below.

This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the presidential election from an international perspective.


OTB: ¿Cual es la naturaleza del apoyo Estado unidense al plan de Colombia en estos dias? De que manera le gustaria a usted que fuera si hubiera un cambio?

El apoyo de las autoridades norteamericanas al Plan Colombia es positivo. Las dificultades se presentan en el Congreso que ha venido recortando todos los anos los aportes, buscando que cada vez mas el presupuesto colombiano tenga una mayor participacion. Pero la base del Plan Colombia es el principio de "responsabilidad compartida". Los paises consumidores y los paises productores deben trabajar en equipo para combatir la droga. Sin embargo, si comparamos los aportes del Plan Colombia con los de la Union Europea, en donde el consumo de cocaina es muy alto, vemos que el compromiso europeo es minimo y que en terminos generales las autoridades europeas no prestan una atencion adecuada a este problema. No tienen conciencia, o no se interesan por la forma como nos afecta, a los paises productores, el consumo de la droga en sus paises. Para nosotros en cambio el problema es dramatico porque, ademas de los problemas de salud publica que representa su consumo, el narcotrafico financia a los terroristas que destruyen nuestra democracia y sus dineros distorsionan nuestra economia, creando inflacion e informalidad fiscal, y causando un enorme perjuicio moral, producto de las fortunas incalculables que se generan y que corrompen a todas las capas de la sociedad.

Un mayor compromiso de las autoridades norteamericanas se puede dar en su frente interno con campanas de prevencion para evitar el consumo y con una mayor presion sobre los grupos internos que la comercializan.

¿Hay alguna exidencia que estamos ganando la guerra contra las drogas en Colombia?

Es muy dificil establecer parametros para medir la victoria en ese campo. Para mi es claro que el narcotrafico se encuentra en decadencia y que su influencia en la sociedad colombiana ha disminuido ostensiblemente. Pero es posible que se esten trasladando a otros lugares en donde les resulte mas facil desarrollar su actividad ilicita sin el peligro que les representa la accion del gobierno colombiano, con el apoyo del gobierno de los Estados Unidos. Muchas veces me he preguntado ¿cuantas hectareas de coca tendriamos en Colombia, sin el Plan Colombia? La respuesta me asusta.

¿Con respecto a la Controversia de fumigacion area a las cosechas ilegal les de drogas, cual es su perspectiva?

Para 2008, se prevee la fumigacion de 150.000 hectareas y la erradicacion manual de 100.000 hectareas. El problema es que la erradicacion manual es muy peligrosa por la presencia de los grupos terroristas que protegen las plantaciones y colocan minas antipersonas que matan a los erradicadores. En la medida en que se va mejorando el control militar de las zonas de plantaciones se aumenta la erradicacion manual. Pero la fumigacion aerea sigue siendo muy necesaria.

¿La ayuda de Estados Unidos a Colombia en 2006 fue quebrantada (en millones) $641 militares-policia, $138 en economia y programas sociales, $82 para policia no militar. Le gustaria a usted que esto cambiara en 2009?

No dispongo de los valores aprobados por el Congreso para el 2008 y el 2009. Aqui la lucha es entre el gobierno que quiere fortalecer los programas militares para la erradicacion de los cultivos, y el control a la comercializacion y al lavado de dineros y la mayoria democrata del Congreso que quiere darle mas enfasis a los programas sociales. Ambos frentes son necesarios, pero para mi no se puede descuidar la parte militar porque el narcotrafico no respeta ninguna ley y solo busca su enriquecimiento.

¿A quien apoya usted en la Eleccion presidencial en los Estados Unidos?

Creo que ganara Mc Cain, porque lo que mas valoran los Norteamericanos es: seguridad, estabilidad, experiencia. Eso lo personifica McCain.

¿Como percibe usted a una candidata mujer para Vice Presidente?

Una mujer de Vicepresidente es un paso adelante en la direccion correcta. Es el estilo del pueblo americano. Se avanza sin grandes sobresaltos.

¿Como percibe usted a un Afro Americano para la presidencia?

La condicion de Afro Americano no deberia tener ningun peso en una eleccion. Pero es un cambio frente a lo que ha sucedido en el pasado. Y si a ese cambio se le suma la inexperiencia del candidato, finalmente el votante encontrara que el riesgo es muy grande.

¿Que asuntos en la elecciones Estado unidense son mas importante para los Colombianos?

Lo mas importante para Colombia es la continuacion de la politica de apoyo a nuestra democracia. Seguir con los planes de lucha contra la droga y la violencia y el apoyo a los programas de desarrollo social. El Plan Colombia, la aprobacion del TLC, el comercio bilateral, las inversiones.