Hold the applause for Mr. Uribe – just yet

Special to Globe and Mail Update, Wednesday, Jun. 10, 2009

Canada shouldn’t just assume a free-trade deal with Colombia will mean a stronger democracy; it should invest in making sure it does

By Maxwell A. Cameron, Ana Maria Bejarano, Felipe Botero, Eric Hershberg, Gary Hoskin

President Alvaro Uribe’s visit to Montreal today to address the International Economic Forum of the Americas provides a useful occasion to reflect upon the precarious state of Colombian democracy.

Canada has negotiated a free trade agreement with Colombia. The agreement, which is pending parliamentary approval, affirms the commitment of both countries to “respect the values and principles of democracy.”

Canadian officials have argued that the agreement will help to create a “more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy” in Colombia.
The claim that Colombia is making progress as a democracy should be based on clear standards and solid evidence. Both are readily available. Canada and Colombia are both signatories of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Work by both Colombian and Canadian-based scholars under the aegis of the Andean Democracy Research Network provides relevant factual evidence. We make three points.


First, the Democratic Charter upholds the principle of “periodic, free, and fair elections.” Although elections are held periodically in Colombia, and turnout is good, campaigns are neither entirely clean nor fair. Voters are often intimidated, especially in rural areas. Close ties between more than 80 members of congress and paramilitary groups have been, or are currently being, investigated. Many of these tainted legislators belong to the President’s camp.

Without them, he does not have a majority on congress. In light of these problems, we concur with the United Nations Development Program’s Electoral Democracy Index, which places Colombia last among a list of 18 Latin American democracies.


Second, the charter also upholds the “separation of powers and the independence of branches of government.” Here, curiously, Colombia performs somewhat better, but hold the applause for President Uribe.

In parts of Latin America elections are free and fair but elected leaders rule like autocrats. In Colombia, elections are neither entirely fully free nor fair, yet the constitutional order is remarkably robust in light of the level of political violence that has afflicted the country over the past 40 years. For example, Colombia has one of the most vigorous and independent judiciaries in Latin America.

Yet, Mr. Uribe has battled the high courts quite consistently, attempting to reform and curtail their powers. He has appointed people who are close to him and share his views to head those agencies in charge of checking the powers of the president. A constitutional amendment allowed Mr. Uribe to be re-elected in 2006; if a future referendum clears the way for yet another term, he will be in a position to extend his reach into the judiciary, making investigations of human-rights abuses more difficult, and to roll back the powers of the courts to uphold the rights of citizens. He will also be in a better position to persecute his opponents.


Third, Colombia’s biggest challenge is to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Journalists and trade unionists have been targets for assassination, and as many as three million people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the struggle between guerrillas, drug traffickers, the military and paramilitary groups.

Worse still, there are numerous ongoing investigations into macabre extrajudicial killings of civilians by the soldiers who present the bodies of their victims to inflate the “body count” and win promotions or bonuses.

Taken together, the picture that emerges is of an electoral democracy of low quality that has suffered as a consequence of widespread violence, the persistent violation of citizenship rights, and a President bent on expanding executive power.


Should Canada reward Colombia’s rulers with an agreement that they will portray as an endorsement of their legitimacy? A parliamentary committee has called for a full independent assessment of the human-rights situation in Colombia before the free-trade agreement is in place.

We concur that approval of the agreement should be postponed until Colombia can demonstrate that there will be no further deterioration of the state of human rights and democracy.

We also believe that Canadian aid priorities should reflect a commitment to democracy and human rights. In a move not unrelated to the negotiation of the trade deal with Colombia, the Canadian government has announced more foreign aid for Latin America and, specifically, Colombia.

If Canadian tax dollars are going to be spent on a middle-income country, they should aid Colombian civil society organizations in their efforts to foster conditions for the free and safe exercise of citizenship rights.

The fact that Colombia has preserved its electoral democracy should be celebrated, but not taken for granted. Rather than assume a free-trade agreement will create a more secure, equitable and prosperous democracy, Canada should make an investment in ensuring that this happens.

Maxwell A. Cameron teaches comparative politics (Latin America) and international political economy at the University of British Columbia.
Ana Maria Bejarano is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Precarious Democracies.
Felipe Botero is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Universidad de los Andes in Bogota and editor of Colombia Internacional.
Eric Hershberg is a professor of political science and director of Latin American Studies at Simon Fraser University.
Gary W. Hoskin is professor emeritus at Los Andes University, where he was director of international relations. His current research focuses on the 2006 elections in Colombia.

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