SEMANA/Free Trade Agreement (FTA) | 9/26/2008 12:00:00 AM
A passion for Colombia
Despite the admirable efforts of more than 100 Colombians from all walks of life in Washington last week, the FTA still remains on the back burner
Since the U.S. and Colombia signed the FTA over 650 days ago, legislators have grown accustomed to receiving Colombian delegations. But never so many and in such a short period of time. And less still by people like Deysy Milena García and Néstor Raúl Barrada: two “Paisas” of similar ages (Deysey is 31; Nestor is 34), who project such a contagious enthusiasm. When asked how things are going, their response is always “Todo bien, todo bien,” (Everything good) as if life has always been kind to them.
Of everyone who boarded the Avianca flight last Monday to “take” Washington, they were possibly the most excited about the trip. The U.S. capital didn’t disappoint. “I want to go back soon,” said Deysy to SEMANA. “It was great,” said Nestor. Together they seem like old childhood friends, one of those friendships you can see from a mile away. Nobody would think that in their previous lives, they were members of enemy organizations.
Jon Ruiz, general manager of Coltabaco/Philip Morris, who headed one of the delegations, still tells with astonishment that untimely meeting between Deysy and Nestor which took place near the House of Representatives buildings. The former FARC guerilla member and demobilized AUC paramilitary hugged and celebrated that cloudy Tuesday because their FTA lobbying efforts were “going well.” It was like a scene out of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”
For Deysy, who joined the FARC in 1998 and was a messenger between important guerrilla leaders such as Alfonso Cano, Iván Márquez and Iván Ríos; her friendship with Nestor and with the other demobilized paramilitaries and guerrillas who traveled with her, is nothing extraordinary. They have all been reborn, she says. Maybe that is why more than one U.S. Congress member wanted to have a photo taken with her.
Perhaps, by sharing those same feelings of reconciliation, Nestor made another congressman’s eyes tear up when he told of how he began his criminal life as a contract killer for Pablo Escobar, how he lost his sight in one eye and lost use of a limb from paramilitary fighting, and how today he is pleased to be in the “reinsertion” rehabilitation program. His family cannot believe that this black sheep, this once delinquent son, now travels to Washington to meet with such powerful people.
It is not easy to make an impact on American politicians, who are accustomed to listening to all kinds of lengthy stories, reiterate their positions on the meeting’s subject, and then send their visitors off with a pat on the back. That is why it is striking that more than one has broken protocol. That happened after Republican Senator Pat Roberts listened to the stories of union member Bladimiro de Jesús Ossa and Frank Cifuentes, a demobilized member of the AUC. Ossa explained how he had been on the black list of the very paramilitary unit of which Cifuentes was a member. Cifuentes also described how the war had left him with an artificial limb. For Roberts, that Cifuentes and Ossa were working together for the same cause impacted him profoundly. At the end of the meeting, he presented the former paramilitary a rare dollar coin of President Eisenhower that the senator kept on his desk.
Nobody, beginning with Minister of Commerce, Luis Guillermo Plata, and Ambassador to Washington, Carolina Barco, who gave a green light to this unprecedented crusade, expected that those meetings would result in the FTA’s approval. More than that, SEMANA has learned that there was a lot of debate about the potential benefits of this initiative. Not only because it would run the risk that Colombia would again become a controversial electoral issue, but also because of the potential unpredictability of lobbying efforts given the great diversity of the delegation members which included former combatants, union members, businessperson,s and labor leaders. That the visits would work like clockwork is a testimony to the efforts of the embassy and the commercial office and not les importantly to the commitment of those 100 Colombians who took on the cause.
Both the U.S. and Colombian governments are convinced that they have the necessary votes to approve the FTA. A Democratic staffer in the House, well-informed of the inner workings of Congress, also shares that view.
If last week’s Colombian tour was about, as the Minister has said, Congress not forgetting about Colombia, it was a success, thanks in part to those former combatants who demonstrated that hatred doesn’t last forever, and that forgiving and forgetting isn’t a pipe dream. But if they sought to persuade Congress and the Bush administration of the urgency to call for congressional sessions after November elections to vote on the FTA, little was achieved. In an article by The Washington Post about the visit, Colombia’s efforts were compared to those of the Washington Nationals professional baseball team which is currently mired last place. They continue playing, but their prospects for success are slim.
The main problem today is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Until now, Pelosi has been reluctant to call for a vote on the FTA with Colombia. She has placed multiple conditions on the Bush administration, having more to do with other domestic matters rather than with the trade agreement itself. The destiny of the FTA today has less to do with its merits but rather with its immersion in the political fight between Democrats and Republicans. In other words, Colombia is at the mercy of third parties interests.