Senate Republicans ratcheted up pressure for passage of Colombia and Panama trade pacts this week with a letter warning they would potentially filibuster a commerce secretary appointment. In a March 14 letter delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the 44 GOP legislators wrote: “Until the president submits both agreements to Congress for approval and commits to signing implementing legislation into law, we will use all the tools at our disposal to force action, including withholding support for any nominee for commerce secretary and any trade-related nominees.” With U.S. President Barack Obama naming Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as the new ambassador to China, the White House will announce an appointee to head the Commerce Department to replace him. That nominee could face a challenge gaining approval if the Obama administration chooses not to seek approval of the Colombia and Panama deals at the same time as a South Korea deal.
Could trade deals with Colombia and Panama see action from the U.S. Congress along with the South Korea pact? Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner gave one of the strongest indications yet that the Obama administration wants all three free-trade agreements (FTAs) passed this year during yesterday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing. “They're overwhelmingly in our favor economically and if we don't do it, what it means is that business just goes to other countries,” said Geithner. “So we need to find a way to pass them.” For more than three years, the deals have been gathering dust while awaiting congressional approval. But President Barack Obama’s job creation push coupled with pressure from key Republican legislators to pass the FTAs could help usher the deals through U.S. Congress within the coming months.
Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM) spoke with AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis about Washington’s Latin American ties, saying, “It’s our own region and if I might say so, we’ve kind of neglected it in a bipartisan way.” The former U.S. ambassador to the UN discussed the need for a hemispheric accord on transnational crime as well as the shifting U.S.-Cuban relationship, which he called “the best that I’ve seen in a long time.” But he cautioned that movement on trade deals and immigration reform may have to wait until next year. “What you will see if there isn’t bipartisan, comprehensive [immigration] reform is more patchwork laws like Arizona’s, which are not just unconstitutional—they’re very discriminatory, they’re divisive,” he said. He added: “They hurt our foreign policy relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean.”
AS/COA Online: To start off, I’d like to talk about Mexico. The Obama administration has referred to a “shared responsibility” in the fight against organized crime in Mexico. As a border-state governor who also has a personal connection to Mexico, if you had to name one area for the U.S. to prioritize in its policy toward Mexico’s security situation, what would it be?
Gov. Richardson: It would be in the area of more shared intelligence with Mexico, and secondly, more cooperation in the area of restricting automatic weapons going into Mexico—a cooperative effort that I believe can be improved. On the issue of shared intelligence, it’s going to mean our joint security operations not just having more opportunities to do training and law enforcement activities. I support the Merida Initiative’s plan makes of additional helicopters. But we have to more effectively share intelligence, especially on the Mexican side.
Juan Manuel Santos appears to be a shoe-in for the June 20 presidential runoff in Colombia. Polls place the former defense minister as many as 37 points ahead of his rival, ex-Mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus. As a former cabinet member for popular president, Álvaro Uribe, Santos could represent safe continuity for voters on Sunday. Moreover, the June 14 release of four hostages held for over a decade by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) coincided with the close of campaigning and could win more support for Santos. But electoral victory does not depend on polls alone, as the first round of elections proved.
As predicted, Colombia will need to hold a second round of elections to decide who will take over when President Álvaro Uribe steps down in August. But the results from the first round on May 30 were surprising nonetheless: Although polls placed the two top candidates in a dead heat a week before elections, the U Party’s Juan Manuel Santos won more than double the number of votes of his main rival from the Green Party, Antanas Mockus. Santos, who earned 46.6 percent of the vote, came within a few points of winning the requisite simple majority to avoid a runoff. Mockus pulled in 21.5 percent. The results indicate that voters may feel more comfortable with the continuity of Uribe’s security policies represented by Santos, the ex-defense minister, than the change symbolized by Mockus, Bogota’s former mayor. When campaigns closed a week ago, Mockus polled five points ahead of Santos in the case of a second round. He now faces an uphill battle as the two candidates prepare for the June 20 runoff.
As campaigning closes for Colombia’s May 30 presidential elections, polls placed the two frontrunners neck and neck in what has become a dramatic race between Bogota’s ex-Mayor Antanas Mockus and former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. Green Party candidate Mockus surged on what’s become known as the ola verde—or green wave—to become a top contender. He faces Santos, seen as an heir to the popular president, Álvaro Uribe. After a long wait for an official decision on whether Uribe would be able to pursue a third term, Colombia’s Constitutional Court rejected a reelection referendum in February and the presidential race got off to a gallop. Although several candidates remain in the running, the competition became a two-horse race between Mockus and Santos in recent weeks. Still, Colombians may face another wait come May 30. Polls show neither Mockus nor Santos winning more than 50 percent of the vote, the needed portion to avoid a runoff election. A second round of elections would occur June 20.
The Obama administration sought to bolster security ties with Latin American and Caribbean allies this week when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Peru, Colombia, and Barbados. Before kicking off his tour in Lima, Gates and Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim met at the Pentagon on April 12 and signed the two countries’ first bilateral defense pact since 1977. Gates’ hemispheric tour focused on military ties and antinarcotics efforts. But the defense secretary also took the opportunity while in Bogota to voice support for the long-stalled U.S.-Colombia trade pact.
Judging by the results of Colombia’s March 14 legislative elections, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos is off to a strong start in the race for the country’s presidency. His party won the lion’s share of votes and captured the largest portion of seats in the Senate and Chamber of Representatives. But the Conservative Party, which held its presidential primary the same day, came in second and some analysts posit that the March 19 confirmation of Noemí Sanín as the Conservative candidate could divide President Álvaro Uribe’s coalition and create a challenge for Santos in the first round of elections on May 30. Both candidates face a number of competitors.
Colombia’s constitutional court ended a two-year-old waiting game on February 26 when it voted against a reelection referendum that could have paved the way for President Álvaro Uribe to seek a third term. In a vote of 7 to 2, the court rejected the referendum as unconstitutional, saying that it was not only laden with irregularities but “substantial violations to democratic principles.” By sounding the referendum’s death knell, the court set off a presidential race previously frozen in limbo and candidates are recalibrating their campaigns for a May 30 election that won’t list Uribe on the ballot. Beforehand, Colombia holds legislative elections on March 14.