Vote for My Colombia Deal or I’ll Brand You a Chavez Supporter!

The political strategy is clear: facing an uphill battle for his trade deal in Congress, Bush hopes to intimidate the Democrats by linking them to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Either pass my deal, Bush is saying, or allow Chávez to further expand his geopolitical influence in South America.

It's now crunch time for Bush and his
Colombia free trade agreement: the President has sent the deal
to Congress, thereby forcing a vote within 90 legislative days.

"The need for this agreement
is too urgent — the stakes for our national security are too
high — to allow this year to end without a vote," Bush
said. "The stakes are high in South America," he added.
"By acting at this critical moment, we can show a watching
world that America will honor its commitments. We can provide
a powerful rebuke to dictators and demagogues in our backyardWe
can show millions across the hemisphere that democracy and free
enterprise lead to a better life."

The political strategy is clear:
facing an uphill battle for his trade deal in Congress, Bush
hopes to intimidate the Democrats by linking them to Hugo Chávez
of Venezuela. Either pass my deal, Bush is saying, or allow
Chávez to further expand his geopolitical influence in
South America.

It's a shrewd move on Bush's

Though the trade deal is unpopular
on the Hill owing to Colombia's appalling human rights and labor
record, most Democrats will do most anything to avoid the perception
that they are sympathetic to the Chávez regime. Speaker
of the House Nancy Pelosi has called Chávez "a thug,"
but probably fears that Bush may be able to peel off some Democrats
by resorting to Chávez bashing. In the House, the Republican leadership
is attempting to frame the political debate over the Colombia
deal as either a vote for Colombian President Uribe or for Chávez.

The Bush administration, Pelosi
has said, should not invoke the specter of Chávez but
instead focus on curbing labor abuses in Colombia (more than
700 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 2001,
and though the number murdered annually has fallen sharply since
President Uribe took office in 2002, the 25 killed in 2007 was
still more than in any other country in the world. Only a small
fraction of the killings have been solved).

"Nobody likes Chávez,"
Democratic Representative Charlie Rangel remarked, "but
I don't think a bogeyman is going to get people excited into
voting for these trade deals." "The problem is that
Hugo Chávez is not their main thrust – he is their only
thrust," he added.

I'll Be
Your Tour Guide in Colombia

Hardly intimidated by the spineless
Democratic leadership, Bush has employed a relentless public
relations campaign to get conservative Democrats on board. Commerce
Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, a right wing Cuban and former
CEO of the Kellogg Company, has led congressional delegations
to Colombia which have included some Democrats. "Colombia
has been one of our closest allies in the region," Gutiérrez
has remarked. "What an irony it would be if it is punished
for its support of the United States." Gutiérrez
has been a long time booster of free trade in the hemisphere.
For example, he played a key role in the passage of the Central
American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA-DR.

Thanks to Gutiérrez's
tireless efforts, some Democrats seem to be coming round to the
Colombia free trade deal. Gregory Meeks and Eliot Engel, both
representatives from liberal New York City, recently traveled
to Colombia. When interviewed, they agreed that the United States
needed to help Colombia and other countries face up to Chávez.
"The Chávez issue plays on something important,"
Meeks said. "What has to be considered is the difference
between two economic systems. One is the capitalist model of
friends like Colombia based on market access. The other is the
failed socialist model of Venezuela. We have to show that our
system works." Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign
Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, is reportedly
still nervous about Colombia's labor situation but joined his
colleague in the by now obligatory Chávez bashing: "He's
saying, 'Follow me, I'm the wave of the future in Latin America.'
We do have to counter that." Another Congressional Democrat,
Jim Matheson of Utah, traveled to Colombia with Gutiérrez.
After touring the country he declared that carrying out a free
trade deal would shore up Colombia's status as a key U.S. ally
in the region.

Condi Makes
Her Case

Yet another leading booster
for Colombia trade has been Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rice remarked "Some
in the Americas today want to shove the region toward authoritarianism.
This system has failed before, and it will fail again. The only
question is how much harm it will cause in the meantime, and
in large part that depends on us ­ on whether we support
the vast majority of people in the Americas today who believe,
as we do, that security and social justice are best achieved
through liberty and the rule of law, free and fair trade, and
responsible democratic governance. Colombia shares these values,
and we have invested billions of dollars in our ally's success.
How could we possibly retreat now?"

Rice and her colleagues are
alarmed because, notwithstanding their ideological differences,
South American nations appear to be moving towards extensive
political and economic integration. The only question now is
which economic development model will predominate within the
region and what the eventual complexion of integration will look

Chávez, whose star is
rising, has overseen an avowedly socialist and strong statist
approach to the economy. Rhetorically, he rails against the market
and globalization and would like to see a more "un-savage"
version of globalization spread forth from Venezuela into neighboring
countries. In order to advance Venezuelan interests, Chávez
provides development assistance and oil at discount prices to
sympathetic regimes in the hemisphere. He has promoted the Bolivarian
Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA),
a scheme based on solidarity and barter trade outside of the
usual corporate strictures. The initiative was originally an
effort to counteract the U.S-sponsored Free Trade Area of the
Americas. Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Dominica have signed
on to the agreement.

Rice seeks to head off Chávez's
ALBA before it can take root amongst left leaning countries throughout
the region. In Chile last month, she sought to revive a long-standing,
but largely dormant, strategic partnership between Chile and
the U.S. state of California. State Department officials argue
that both have complimentary economies; spokesman Sean McCormack
said that a centerpiece of Rice's visit was a proposed educational
exchange program. For Rice it was important to visit Chile, a
country with which the United States has a free trade agreement:
the Bush White House hopes the accord will serve as a model for
other free trade initiatives in the region, including Colombia.

another Ecuador Fiasco

Rice may take some comfort
in the fact that the Bush administration was successful in recently
ramming through a free trade agreement with Peru. If she can
help to ensure a deal with Colombia, this might take some wind
out of Chávez's sail. Bush officials are in a hurry because
the tide seems to be turning against them: in Ecuador, maverick
Rafael Correa wants his country to join Chávez's ALBA.

As I explain in my new book,
Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave-Macmillan), the United States made a serious geopolitical
mistake in not securing a deal with the tiny Andean nation.
Prior to Correa's assumption of power, the state-run oil company
in Ecuador, Petroecuador, took over assets belonging to the U.S.
energy company Occidental, allegedly because the firm had violated
its contract by transferring some of its assets to another company.

In the U.S., the mainstream
press referred to the government's action as an "expropriation."

Incensed by Ecuador's handling
of the affair, the U.S. broke off discussions on a free trade
agreement that had been going on for four years. As a matter
of fact, the two parties had finally agreed on key terms when
the talks were abruptly severed.

Correa has signaled that he's
in no mood to enter into new trade talks with the U.S., and has
alarmed foreign investors and the moneyed classes by seeking
to participate in ALBA. Ironically then, by cutting off free
trade negotiations the U.S. may have encouraged Ecuador to strengthen
its ties to Venezuela and thereby hasten economic integration
along more progressive lines.

Rice and her colleagues are
determined not to repeat the Ecuador fiasco again. Securing
a free trade deal with Colombia would be more economically significant
than any agreement entered into with tiny Ecuador. The real
rationale, however, is ideological and political: in its devious
game of geopolitical chess, the U.S. badly needs a symbolic victory
over Chávez.

The only obstacle in Bush's
path right now is the Democrats, who are deeply divided over
the question of Venezuela. While some may be counted on to resist
Bush's relentless Chávez bashing, most are fearful of
being labeled as anything but hawkish when it comes to dealing
with the United States' enemies on the world stage.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author ofHugo
Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S.

(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), andRevolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave Macmillan,
April 2008).

Source: CounterPunch