When the Colombian government discovered documents on captured computers detailing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez’s ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym “FARC”), his first reaction was typical Chávez: buffoonish defiance. He called the documents “forgeries” and hinted that U.S. agents had planted the laptops to frame him. Venezuela’s defense minister called it “a big lie, prepared in U.S. laboratories.” (If it was a “big lie,” it was good enough to fool Interpol, whose experts determined that the laptops had not been tampered with.)
It therefore came as an enormous surprise this week when Chávez reversed his longstanding policy of recognizing the FARC as a legitimate army and called on the group to lay down its arms and release its hostages “in exchange for nothing.” Chávez called Latin America’s tradition of leftist guerilla warfare “history,” adding, “At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place.”
The apparent loss of its biggest state sponsor is just the latest setback to a group that in recent months has seen its top commanders killed and captured in increasingly daring Colombian military raids. During one of these raids — which resulted in the killing of FARC commander Raul Reyes and the capture of the incriminating laptops — the Colombian military pursued the FARC across the Colombian border into neighboring Ecuador. Chávez staged a major tantrum, massing troops along the Colombia-Venezuela border and calling Colombian president Alvaro Uribe a criminal, a liar, and a puppet of the U.S.
The authentication of the laptops, however — and the attending opprobrium that attaches to providing material support for a ruthless, murdering narco-terrorist group — seems to have led Chávez to change his tune. The result is a victory for Uribe, whose campaign to against violence in Colombia has been nothing short of remarkable. Since he took power five years ago, murders, kidnappings, assassinations, and other acts of terrorism have all decreased by double-digit percentages.
Uribe’s victory stands as a stark reminder of a shameful moment in the history of the new Democratic majority in Congress. Instead of standing with our strongest South American ally when they had the chance, Democrats in Congress obstructed the passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade agreement when President Bush sent it to Capitol Hill two months ago. (Their decision to do so allowed Chávez to declare Uribe isolated and weak, “since [the Americans] even rejected the FTA.”)
The passage of the FTA wouldn’t have a big impact on the U.S. economy, but it would provide a huge boost to Colombia. As many who support the deal have pointed out, almost all of Colombia’s products already enter the U.S. duty-free under the Andean Trade Preferences Act. But Congress must renew the ATPA periodically for it to remain in effect. An FTA, by contrast, would provide the long-term guarantee that Colombia needs to secure big investments in its infrastructure.
Sen. John McCain understands this, as demonstrated by his decision to visit Colombia in July in an effort to draw attention to the languishing deal and shame the Democrats into passing it. It has become popular in Democratic circles to mock McCain for once admitting that economics “is not something I’ve understood as well as I should.” But the fact that free trade fosters growth is Economics 101. Not only has McCain staked out the correct economic position, he’s staked out the superior diplomatic position as well. Uribe is winning his fight against the socialist bullies in his country and on his border. Barack Obama should explain again why exactly it is he opposes normalizing trade relations with such an ally.