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| 3/18/2011 12:00:00 AM

Still friends?

Trade preferences are gone, the FTA is tangled and the help of the ‘Plan Colombia’ will be reduced in 2012. Why is the United States being so bad with Colombia, its best ally in the region?

Colombia is receiving a lot of bad news from Washington. The Trade Preferences Program, which has applied for the past twenty years, expired last week. Its renewal, which would be the seventh since the program began, was frozen until further notice. The FTA is tangled in the U.S. Congress and the American Trade Representative, Ron Kirk, has insinuated that his government wants to renegotiate the text, that was signed five years ago. But the Trade is already approved by the Colombian legislature and President Juan Manuel Santos ruled out completely the idea of renegotiating it. And with the budget just presented by the White House to the Capitol Hill for 2011, it is expected that the funds for the ‘Plan Colombia’ will be cut in 15 percent.

This scenario does not reflect the fact that Colombia has been the main United States ally in Latin America. During Álvaro Uribe’s governments the country supported very controversial diplomatic and military initiatives of the United States, such as the war in Iraq. Colombia maintained its loyalty to Washington, while other South American countries were ruled by presidents that were looking to get some distance from the United States to earn margins of autonomy. Some of them were Brazil or Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez is fighting ‘imperialism’, accompanied by the countries that are part of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas).

But Colombian strategy was supposed to be a good business. The construction of a ‘special relationship’ with the United States was supposed to create a military, political and commercial ally. That is why many analysts believe that United States is kind of betraying his best friend in the region. What kind of partner is this? Some entrepreneurs think that Colombia should respond with a withdrawal from United States and a market diversification. According to The Economist, Santos’ news about the possibility of building a dry canal with investment from China is a message to Washington: that Colombia is willing to look for other partners.

In fact, the change in the Colombian-United States relations is not caused by a political will of President Barack Obama. The decrease in the amount of money sent by the U.S. for the ‘Plan Colombia’ was planned during its inception in 2000. In fact, it has taken longer than it was announced on that date. The FTA approval is backed by the White House, and its fact that it has been blocked has to do with the strong polarization that exists in Washington between the government and the opposition, which affects a long list of issues that have nothing to do with Colombia. And the extension of tariff preferences coincided with a controversial initiative that was added to the law in order to protect the unemployed in America and is dividing the Congress.

A real fact is that the concept of ‘special relationship’ based on ideological affinities or the personal chemistry between leaders unawares the fact that diplomacy in general, and in the United States in particular, moves by interests and not by friends. It is not the first time that a country that tries to play this role with United States ends up frustrated. It is also clear that the political realities of the Uribe-Bush times are over.

If Santos and Obama match in anything is on their pragmatism. If Colombia can diverse its relationships and this allows Santos to get closer to Latin America and Asia, while United States also expands its presence in other countries of the continent, this would be convenient for both of them. And this is not inconsistent with the conservation of strong bilateral ties. In a sub region with strong anti-American presidents such as Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, Colombia remains the favorite of Washington, even though it does not seem like it.

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