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Colombia disconnect

President Uribe has tried hard to placate Democrats in Washington. He deserves a trade deal.

May 28, 2008

If the proposed free trade pact with Colombia is not approved by the U.S. Congress, it won't be because President Alvaro Uribe gave up. Rather, he has used every diplomatic tool within reach. His latest volley in the back and forth with Washington is the extradition of 14 right-wing paramilitary leaders to the United States on drug-trafficking charges.

Congressional Democrats have for months been playing a bait-and-switch game with Uribe -- they insist that Colombia show progress on human rights and union issues in order to win their support for the trade pact, and then when Uribe gives them what they want, they ask for something else. Uribe's latest move should test their true motives.

Uribe's credibility with the left in both Colombia and the U.S. is hampered by allegations of past ties to right-wing death squads and drug cartels -- allegations the president maintains are unsubstantiated and incorrect. The extradition of the paramilitary leaders is meant to demonstrate his administration's independence and impartiality. No one questions Uribe's commitment to fighting left-wing guerrillas, nor the successes of his U.S.-backed campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which is now all but leaderless with the recent death of its chief, Pedro Antonio Marin. Yet many are waiting to see an equal vigor when it comes to right-wing paramilitary squads, whose politics harmonize more readily with his.

Cynics will probably not be placated by the extradition, but it is nonetheless an encouraging sign. Equally heartening, in a purely political sense, was the recent arrest of his close confidant and cousin, former Sen. Mario Uribe, on charges of working with the paramilitaries. Saying it pained him to see his cousin arrested, Uribe nonetheless refused to subvert the justice system to aid a relative.

Democrats are ostensibly holding up a vote on the Colombia free trade pact because Bogota hasn't done enough to protect union leaders, who have been targeted by the paramilitaries. If the extradition of a large group of paramilitary leaders doesn't placate them, it's hard to imagine what will. Moreover, the trade pact would boost jobs in both the U.S. and Colombia during an economic downturn and cement Colombia as a firm U.S. ally in a region teeming with anti-American sentiment. It looks increasingly as though the real reason Democratic leaders won't vote on the Colombia deal is that they don't want to alienate their organized-labor backers during an election year.

Uribe is sending a strong message that he will pursue right-wing terrorists with the same zeal he has hunted leftist guerrillas. That's a worthy endeavor; it's a shame it will probably go unrewarded.

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