President Obama has said he wants the United States to reclaim its "moral authority" abroad. His meeting on Monday with President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia is a chance to take steps in that direction. By ending the double standard on human rights and democracy that marked US policy toward Colombia under President Bush, Obama could go a long way toward restoring US credibility in Latin America.
Bush offered Uribe virtually unconditional support, calling him a "personal friend" and "strategic ally." Bush gave Uribe massive amounts of aid, mostly military, and engaged in a determined (if unsuccessful) quest for ratification for the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. A week before leaving office, Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Uribe.
But the Bush administration had to engage in acrobatics to avoid acknowledging the Uribe administration's seriously flawed record on human rights and democracy. That record is looking uglier by the day.
Uribe pushed the brutal left-wing FARC guerrillas out of major cities and highways, leading to a decline in kidnappings and killings. But his Army simultaneously engaged in what the UN calls "systematic" killings of civilians, dressing them up as guerrillas to boost their body count. Colombian prosecutors are investigating cases involving more than 1,700 alleged victims.
Powerful paramilitary mafias, which typically worked closely with sectors of the military and are responsible for thousands of killings, are growing again, despite a supposed demobilization process. These groups are among the country's biggest drug traffickers, and threaten and kill civilians, trade unionists, and community leaders. In part due to these abuses, more than 380,000 persons fled their homes last year, joining the country's more than 3 million other internally displaced persons--the largest such population in the world outside of Sudan.
Colombia's Supreme Court has initiated investigations of more than 70 members of congress, nearly all from Uribe's coalition, for collaborating with paramilitaries. Yet Uribe has repeatedly attacked the justices leading the investigations.
In recent months there has been a growing scandal over reports that the National Intelligence Service, which answers directly to Uribe, has engaged in extensive illegal wiretapping and surveillance of these justices, as well as of human rights organizations, journalists, unions, and opposition politicians such as former President Cesar Gaviria.
The Bush administration often justified its approach to Colombia by calling it a bulwark of democracy and stability in the region, and a counterweight to Hugo Chavez in neighboring Venezuela. But turning a blind eye to Colombia's problems only helped to solidify the perception in Latin America that the United States applied a double standard when it came to democracy and human rights.
President Obama has shown some signs that he intends to shift U.S. policy toward Colombia. During his campaign he said that before the trade agreement can be ratified, Colombia must deal with the mostly unpunished killings of trade unionists, lest the violence make a "mockery" of the agreement's labor protections. And while Obama's first budget request to Congress offers significant aid to Colombia, it reduces the proportion for the military.
Obama should take advantage of his meeting with Uribe to make clear that illegal surveillance, the Army's executions of civilians, and attacks on the Supreme Court raise serious questions about Uribe's commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Obama should insist that if Uribe wants continued US assistance and free trade, he must first put his house in order.