Support the Colombian Free Trade Agreement

Have a look at the NYTimes article below about Colombians protesting abductions by FARC, a guerrilla group there.  There is a lot of misinformation on Colombia in the United States these days that has prevented a much-needed Free Trade Agreement between the US and that country from being passed.  A similar FTA with Peru was passed late last year in spite of widespread opposition in Congress, especially from Democrats.  The Colombian FTA has been held up due to complaints about the human rights record of Colombian President Uribe’s government in its fight against two vicious guerrilla movements there.  I believe that President Uribe has done a fine job improving security and reducing the threat from these guerrilla groups (as well as improving economic policies), and that accusations of complicity of people in his government with human rights abuses of paramilitaries are overblown.  In fact, most of the paramilitaries have been disbanded.  The latter issue has become an excuse to scuttle the much-needed US-Colombian FTA, which if not passed, will harm job growth for poor people in that country and US-Colombian economic and diplomatic relations.
New York Times article from today:

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched here and in other cities around Colombia on Monday to protest the abductions and killings carried out by the country’s largest rebel group.

The marches, which also took place on a smaller scale in foreign cities from New York to Tokyo, were a vivid display of growing outrage in relation to the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. Demonstrators also criticized President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela for his plea to remove the FARC from lists of terrorist groups.

“The FARC made themselves into criminals a long time ago,” said Martín Orozco, 32, a surgeon who marched to the Plaza Bolívar downtown here to voice chants like “No more FARC!” and “We want peace and liberation!” “We are simply tired of this,” he said.

Until several months ago, such a mass gathering against the FARC would have been improbable in this country. Large cities like Bogotá and Medellín had been largely pacified in recent years, with war still raging in parts of the countryside, and the FARC and other guerrillas groups had become less of a pressing concern as the economy boomed.

But then 11 lawmakers held by the FARC were shot to death in a jungle camp last June. And Mr. Chávez’s efforts to win the release of dozens of other hostages held by FARC changed things. President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia withdrew his support for Mr. Chávez’s mediating role last November, triggering a political dispute that has intensified in recent weeks.

The FARC released just two high-profile hostages last month and was found to be lying about the whereabouts of a 3-year-old boy born into captivity, discovered living in foster care here and not in jungle camps. Shortly after the release of the two hostages, Mr. Chávez called on the FARC to be seen as a “real army” and not terrorists.

That assessment did not sit well with many Colombians already upset with delays in releasing hostages. A group venting their rage at the FARC on Facebook, an Internet social-networking site, had formed in early January before Mr. Chávez’s comments. It organized Monday’s marches, gaining the support of Mr. Uribe’s government.

“The Colombian people were lethargic, with an almost cynical indifference to the problems of violence,” said Óscar Montes, 33, a civil engineer in Barranquilla who helped organize the marches on Facebook. “At this time the FARC can say whatever they want,” he said in a telephone interview. “But they will not have legitimacy.”

The FARC said over the weekend that it would hand over three more hostages to Mr. Chávez, citing the deteriorating health of the captives, former lawmakers who have been held for more than five years. No date was set for the release of the captives, Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio Pérez and Órlando Beltrán.

The FARC lashed out at the marches and at Mr. Uribe in a statement Monday, claiming “inhuman intransigence” on his part had blocked efforts to achieve a prisoner exchange.

The Marxist-inspired FARC continues to hold more than 40 political hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, and three American military contractors captured when their plane crash-lnaded in the jungle in 2003. The guerrillas are also accused of holding 700 captives for ransom.

Support for the marches was not unanimous in Colombia. Relatives of some of the FARC’s captives opposed them, contending that they lowered chances for a release.

The FARC, one of the main actors in Colombia’s long internal war, finances itself through kidnapping and cocaine trafficking. A smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army also carries out abductions for profit, largely along the long border with Venezuela.

Private militias, which battled both guerrilla groups for much of the 1990’s and well into this decade, have largely disbanded. But many of the combatants in the militias, which carried out their own kidnappings and massacres, have resurfaced in Mafia-like groups that profit from drug trafficking and extortion.

Mr. Chávez’s role in mediating Colombia’s conflict has come under increasing scrutiny here. At the march on Monday, people chanted, “Chávez guerrilla, the people are offended!” among other chants critical of Venezuela’s president.

A report in Semana, a leading news magazine, claimed this week that Hugo Carvajal, Mr. Chávez’s chief of military intelligence, provided logistical assistance and forged Venezuelan identity documents for FARC commanders. Mr. Chávez lashed out at the report Monday night, calling it an “attack against the revolution.”

Anti-FARC marches took place in Venezuela and other countries affected by the war throughout the Americas. In Lima, Peru, more than 800 people gathered in front of Congress. One demonstrator there was Jorge Santamaría, 56, who was kidnapped by the FARC in 1999 when he fled attacks by Shining Path guerrillas in Peru.

“I don’t think they killed me because I made it clear I am not afraid of death,” said Mr. Santamaría, abducted at Bogotá’s airport and held for eight months. “I convinced them I was no one important,” said Mr. Santamaría, who was working for a palm oil company in the Peruvian Amazon at the time.

One of the most poignant expressions against the FARC could be seen outside the United Nations headquarters in New York where hundreds of demonstrators gathered. Salvador Zapata, 37, a restaurant worker in Edgewater, N.J., held his thoughts high above his head, written in a bright blue poster.

“FARC stop this dirty and fractious war against the people,” read one line of his comments.

“They say that they represent the people,” said Mr. Zapata, who is from Caldas, Colombia. “This is a lie.”

Jenny Carolina González reported from Bogotá, and Simon Romero from Caracas, Venezuela. Andrea Zarate contributed reporting from Lima, Peru, and Angelica Medaglia from New York.

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