Opinion

? Smith: Next steps in Latin America: A role for the US and Colorado

Author: Morgan Smith - October 24, 2016 - Updated: October 23, 2016

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Morgan Smith
Morgan Smith

In a stunning setback for Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, Colombian voters narrowly defeated a referendum to approve a treaty between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Oct. 2. The margin of votes was 53,893 out of 12,808, 858 counted so it was a razor-thin loss. The leader of the opposition was Alvaro Uribe, twice president of Colombia (2002 – 2010 ) and the man who, during his presidency broke the back of the FARC and the violence that has consumed the country for more than 50 years, cost 220,000 lives and displaced as many as 5 million people.

Most world leaders assumed that voters would approve this agreement, even if narrowly, and that it was the best agreement that could be achieved on route to peace. Obviously, a slim majority of Colombians disagreed, believing that the penalties for FARC members guilty of much cruelty were too light.

What next? Uribe and Santos met Oct. 5, their first meeting in six years, which is astonishing because they were once very close. Santos served as Minister of defense under Uribe from 2006 to 2009. Uribe is committed to enhancing the penalties for FARC members and, whatever happens, it is clear that he is “driving the bus.”

I had a chance to meet Uribe in 2007 and — even though some believe that he is a little too hard-edged now — I believe that he is a genuine hero for his relentless, unstoppable leadership in those days. Imagine if Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto showed the same determination in rooting out crime and corruption in Mexico.

I recall one clear example of Uribe’s leadership during that same trip, where we met the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development mission. She said, “I went with President Uribe to one of the rural areas where he meets with the people on weekends and hears their issues. At noon, I left and came home. When I turned the TV on that night, he was still there listening to the people.” The director then added, “He has my personal phone number and will call me at any hour and tell me what projects we, the United States, need to put money into, especially areas where his troops had just taken back territory from the guerrillas.”

During much of this time period, the United States — particularly members of my party — treated Uribe like dirt, refusing to meet with him when he would come to Washington to lobby for the free trade agreement. Thanks to the leadership of President Obama, it did pass, something that might not be possible in today’s increasing anti-trade and isolationist climate. But the fact is that if we want stability in Colombia, one of our strongest allies in Latin America, we have to work with Uribe.

In this Sept. 23, 2016 photo, rebels attend the closing event at the 10th conference held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in Yari Plains, Colombia. FARC leaders gave their unanimous support to a peace agreement reached last month with the government. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
In this Sept. 23, 2016 photo, rebels attend the closing event at the 10th conference held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in Yari Plains, Colombia. FARC leaders gave their unanimous support to a peace agreement reached last month with the government. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

This points to the larger Latin American issues that a new president will have to face. Brazil is collapsing; violence is consuming Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala; oil rich Venezuela is so poor that it now has to import oil and its citizens are starving from lack of food and suffering from a complete collapse of the health care system, and the Daniel Ortega dictatorship continues in Nicaragua.

But for us, the biggest issue is Mexico. First, there is immigration and the Trump “wall” which he tells us that Mexico will build. Although the issue has largely “moved on” in that more Mexicans are now leaving the U.S. than coming, and although new studies show that Mexicans arriving here are not taking jobs from Americans, it is still a white-hot issue.

NAFTA, now more than 30 years old, is also still an issue. We in Colorado supported it from the very beginning and it has meant an enormous increase in exports. Here in New Mexico, where I now live, 40 percent of New Mexico exports go to Mexico. In addition, the border crossings at Santa Teresa and Columbus are to be expanded, opening up tremendous new business opportunities for the struggling economy of this state.

Nonetheless, there are components of NAFTA that need to be improved — or better yet, implemented. For example, the initial agreement intended there to be a joint environmental effort along the border. William K. Riley, George H.W. Bush’s senior’s Environmental Protection Agency director, was fully behind that effort. But it has lagged ever since. I travel to the border at least monthly — mostly Juárez and Palomas — and the environmental conditions are horrendous. This is not only a humanitarian issue, but one of great business potential for Colorado environmental companies. For example, with support from the Ford Foundation, we once had an environmental agreement with Mexico City regarding the problem of air pollution in high altitude cities — a similarity shared with Denver — and this opened doors for a number of Colorado companies.

While the current issue is Colombia — and there may not be much that we can do to bring about an agreement that will assure peace —in the longer run, the United States’ next president must turn his or her attention to the larger issues encompassing all of Latin America.

Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith served with Steve Hogan in the Colorado House of Representatives in the 1975 and 1976 sessions. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.