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Bill Clinton's Ties To Colombia Trade Deal Stronger Than Even Penn's

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On Sunday evening, Sen. Hillary Clinton's chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, resigned from his post after it was revealed he was working (on the side) for the passage of a Colombia Free Trade Agreement that his candidate opposed.

But within the Clinton campaign, Penn is not the highest-ranking adviser with financial ties to groups and individuals supporting the passage of the measure.

Former President Bill Clinton has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars speaking on behalf of a Colombia-based group pushing the trade pact, and representatives of that organization tell The Huffington Post that the former president shared their sentiment.

In June 2005, Clinton was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America. The organization is, ostensibly, a development group tasked with bringing investment to the country and educating world leaders about the Colombia's business opportunities.

The group's chief operating officer, Andres Franco, said in an interview that the group supports the congressional ratification of the free trade agreement and that, when Clinton was on his speaking tour, he expressed similar opinions.

"He was supportive of the trade agreement at the time that he came, but that was several years ago. In the present context, I don't know what his position would be. It is not only about union trade rights. It is about what benefit or damage it can do to the US economy," said Franco. "Events with the Clinton campaign [concerning Mark Penn] are not good at all for the trade agreement... Right now it became a campaign issues and that is sad, because it needs to go through."

The comments were supported by a June 23, 2005 article from the news portal Terra (uncovered by Ben Smith at Politico) in which Clinton offered unambiguous support for the free trade agreement with Colombia.

They appear to be the first public indication that Clinton has, at least in the past, supported the trade deal. But evidence that the former president has been sympathetic to Colombia's position is widely known. In 2007, Clinton met personally with and accepted an award from Colombia's controversial president, Alvaro Uribe, during a time when the country was attempting to improve its image within the United States. Subsequently, Clinton urged Congress to view the country in a more favorable light.

Moreover, Clinton has helped Frank Giustra, one of the biggest donors to the Clinton Global Initiative, score meetings with high-ranking Colombian officials. Giustra has several business interests in the country, and both he and Clinton have collaborated on an effort to fight poverty in developing world by partnering up with mining companies in Colombia and elsewhere.

What significance these ties have on the current presidential campaign is debatable. The former president was also a proponent of free trade agreements like NAFTA while in the White House. However, Sen. Clinton, as her campaign has repeatedly noted, has a long-standing opposition to the Colombia deal. And her acceptance of Penn's resignation (although he will still serve as a campaign adviser) was indicative that she did not approve of his meeting with the Colombia ambassador to the U.S.

"Senator Clinton's position is clear and unequivocal: She is opposed to the deal," said campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson.

But the former president is a different type of adviser; one with even more influence than Penn, and one who cannot be pushed out of the campaign. In a hypothetical Clinton administration, his voice would likely hold large sway in policy debates. As such, it is important to note that his ties to the Colombia trade agreement have on several occasions put him at odds with his wife's stated positions.

And while his take on the trade deal certainly may have changed over the past few years, as recently as ten months ago, the former president was meeting with key players pushing for the trade deal's passage.

In June 2007, Clinton received an award from President Uribe for his efforts to reverse the country's image in the United States. But there may have been more of a public relations purpose to the event. At the time, ABC News reported that "the Colombia government [was] trying to counter its negative image among Washington Democrats and secure congressional passage of a free trade agreement."

And, indeed, at the ceremony Clinton urged Congress to reconsider its perceptions of the country.

"We need to remember that we are friends," said the former president. "We need to remember that we want to share a common future. We need to remember that for the first time in over three decades there is a law enforcement presence representing the elected government of Colombia."

Certainly, the award ceremony was not without political touchiness. Other Democratic officials had previously declined to be seen alongside Uribe. In May, former Vice President Al Gore backed out of an environmental conference to avoid appearing alongside Uribe, concerned about his countries poor humanitarian practices.

And critics of Colombia's human rights and labor policies took great exception with the former president's willingness to ally himself with Uribe.

"It's clear that President Clinton has a chummy relationship with the Colombian president," said Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen, "someone whose administration is under a cloud and under investigation for associations with murderous paramilitaries, and whose administration has seen hundreds of labor unionists assassinated but not prosecuted these crimes, and whose administration has been involved in the forced displacement of thousands of Afro-Colombians. Having President Clinton be chummy with such a person, and having him be the closest adviser of Senator Clinton, is extremely disconcerting."

This was not the only time Clinton and Uribe met. According to the Wall Street Journal, the former president hosted a "philanthropic event" with the Colombian leaders in September 2005. The purpose, the paper reported, was to introduce Uribe to Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining tycoon who was interested both in mineral rights and Colombian oil, a position that lent itself to a more open-trade environment.

Months earlier, Bloomberg News reported, Giustra had lent Clinton his private jet for Clinton's four day peaking tour in Latin America - the same tour in which Clinton received $800,000 from Gold Service International. And at some point in time, Giustra - who, the New York Times reported, won a Kazakh uranium deal with Clinton's help (again putting the former president at odds with his wife's positions) - donated more than $31 million to Clinton's charitable fund.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Uribe and Giustra "sat in the hallway speaking for about ten minutes. A Clinton aide later told Giustra the meeting had gone well." And indeed, last year a Canadian company that Giustra's investment firm advised successfully acquired oil fields in Colombia.

Update: Sen. Clinton's spokesperson, Jay Carson, notes that Bill Clinton has supported the Colombia trade deal since 2000, but that his wife has been consistent in her opposition.

"Senator Clinton is the candidate for president and she is a clear and firm opponent of the Colombian free trade agreement," he said. "Like other married couples who disagree on issues from time to time, she disagrees with her husband on this issue. President Clinton has been public about his support for Columbia's request for U.S. trade preferences since 2000."