Colombia Sparks a Lobbying Blitz

Posted April 8, 2008 at 6:54pm

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — High in a sprawling mountainside neighborhood with sweeping views of this bustling city, children splashing in a street fountain watched as an 80-person contingent of U.S. and Colombian officials paraded to a nearby library.

The delegation, which included nine Members of Congress who will help decide the fate of a free-trade agreement with Colombia, came to hear the story of Medellín, a city once so violent and plagued with murders that Members would not have set foot here. Now, Medellín has a lower homicide rate than Baltimore, and workers from this section of town, called Santo Domingo Savio, travel quickly up and down the hillside by a new ski-lift style transport system.

This narrative of Medellín is a key tool in the efforts of the Colombian government, Bush administration officials and private-sector companies that desperately want Congress to seal the trade deal. And that makes this spot in the Andean mountain range an unlikely epicenter of a multimillion-dollar lobbying battle that promises to be one of the biggest, costliest fights of the year.

“Engagement works, and the best way to engage with other people is through trade and travel,” said Bill Lane, a lobbyist for Caterpillar who traveled to Medellín in December with the Latin America Trade Coalition, which supports the agreement. “Neighborhoods that once were isolated and were sanctuaries for the paramilitaries and the [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] were opened up and required to clean up their act.”

The turnaround of Medellín has garnered the admiration of even the most virulent opponents of the trade pact, who concede that the city offers a compelling tale. Still, they argue that the rest of Colombia is no Medellín and what Members saw on this April Congressional Delegation — sponsored by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative — was a carefully slanted portrait, a slice of advocacy.

“It’s very funny when you travel to Colombia, who you go with determines a lot of what you see,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who has taken two trips to Colombia, one with Oxfam and one on a CODEL last year.

Sánchez opposes the deal because she fears that an influx of duty-free U.S. crops would put local Colombian farmers out of business, luring them back into illicit drug crops.

But Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), a former judge who was part of last weekend’s CODEL and supports the FTA, said after meeting with the country’s president, Álvaro Uribe, and attorney general that he’s convinced Colombia is on the right path.

“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know for sure that the drug dealers and all this stuff was really getting better,” he said during the trip. “I felt like I had enough experience having dealt with criminal activity that I could analyze whether it was smoke and mirrors or whether they really were making progress.”

Flower Power

Before ascending the ski lift, or Metro Cable, to meet with Medellín’s recently elected Mayor Alonso Salazar and former paramilitary combatants who have since enrolled in a government education program, Members and their aides began a marathon day of meetings at 7:15 a.m. First up, a session with Salazar’s predecessor and mentor, Sergio Fajardo.

Fajardo, who is widely considered a potential candidate for the Colombian presidency in 2010, is the son of an architect and was educated in the United States. He is credited with the vision for the Metro Cable and for building the library, an ultra-modern space, in a poor section of Medellín.

Fajardo, who is not a member of Uribe’s government, urged the Members of Congress to pass the free-trade agreement. “We have to be related to the whole world,” he said.

“I was quite impressed with the former mayor of Medellín,” said Rep. Bob Etheridge (N.C.), one of two Democrats (along with Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson) who participated in the nine-Member CODEL, and whose district includes a Caterpillar plant.

The Members also met with a panel of Colombian labor union members who are pushing for passage of the FTA. The union activists said they planned to board a plane later that day for Washington, D.C., to make their case to Members who couldn’t see Colombia in person.

At the library, an area that previously had been a stronghold of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, the Americans met in small groups with former paramilitary combatants who agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for state-sponsored vocational programs. They get health care and psychological support, explained one participant, Gloria Cecilia Zapato, 30.

Through a translator, Zapato added that she has taken communications and sewing courses. “I held a weapon for 19 years,” she said. “Now I feel feminine.”

The delegation descended the mountain on the Metro Cable and traveled by motorcade to the corporate offices of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia and later to a flower farm, where the delegation met yet again with citizens who had been displaced by violence in the country.

The visits were planned to respond to criticism that the Colombian government isn’t doing enough to wipe out the paramilitary violence.

At the flower farm, Santiago Cock, a U.S.- educated MBA whose family started in the business 20 years ago and owns a company called Uniflor, said the flower industry contributes $1.1 billion to the Colombian economy. After the flowers land in the United States, they generate $11 billion for the U.S. economy, he said.

He added that even though his flowers arrive in the U.S. market duty-free because of the temporary Andean Trade Preference Act, the permanent free-trade agreement would allow Colombians to dedicate their resources to something other than lobbying Congress each time the preference act is up for an extension.

“We’ve had preferences for 17 years,” he said in impeccable English. “We have a very strong process of lobbying and going back to Congress. We would like to dedicate those resources, all our resources, that we would spend on lawyers and lobbying to the industry and the people who work with us.”

The Highest Priority

Indeed, the Colombian government and private industry in both countries have devoted considerable money and time to lobbying for the FTA. The Colombians farm out a total of $80,000 a month to lobbying firms Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Bowland & Stewart, and the Glover Park Group. In addition, the country had been paying Burson-Marsteller $25,000 a month until it abruptly canceled the contract after Burson’s president, Mark Penn, a top adviser to Democratic presidential contender and FTA opponent Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y), said it had been an “error” to meet with Carolina Barco, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States.

Barco said she conducts weekly meetings at the embassy with the country’s outside lobbying team. She also has four in-house employees working on the agreement.

Barco, who took part in the weekend CODEL, said she spends most of her time lobbying on Capitol Hill, which provides Colombia one of the U.S. government’s largest foreign aid packages under the crime-fighting and drug-busting Plan Colombia.

“I think it’s very important for me to reach out to as many Members as possible to give them firsthand information on Colombia,” she said. “Colombia has made so much progress in the last five, six years. It’s very difficult to capture that unless you go down there.”

Some business groups have put that message at the top of their agendas, too.

“There is no bigger priority for us right now than passing the Colombian free-trade agreement,” said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, in an interview in Washington last week. “In all my career of 25 years working for this organization, I’ve never seen all our members united like this on something,” added Shapiro, whose group counts 2,600 corporate members.

Shapiro said his group will spend more than $1 million this year to lobby, mobilize its members and take out advertisements in support of the agreement.

“Business people from around the country are absolutely perplexed why Congress wouldn’t do this,” Shapiro said. “One of my members, he has factories in Wisconsin and Illinois, and he exports to Colombia and he is paying a 15 percent tariff, and he wants to know why when Colombia is exporting to the United States, it pays nothing.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is running a grass-roots war room, called TradeRoots, in a windowless second-floor office covered in maps inside its headquarters across from the White House.

The head of that effort, Leslie Schweitzer, who once ran a business in Medellín, said the goal is to “get into local communities to talk about the benefits of trade. We want to translate all the white papers and Washington-speak into something that makes sense to local communities.”

These groups not only have the blessing of but are prodded along by U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who led the Congressional delegation to Medellín Friday through Sunday.

Schwab, during an interview aboard a military plane on the return trip, said companies such as Caterpillar, John Deere and Sony have a responsibility to their shareholders and workers to make sure they understand the importance of trade agreements and the significance of Colombia.

“If trade works for you, then you need to make sure your communities and Representatives know about it,” she said.

Those businesses face a mountain of lobbying on the other side.

Union groups such as the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters have made stopping the pact with Colombia, a country they say is still filled with violence targeted at labor leaders, an emotional, personal mission.

On a union-sponsored trip to Colombia’s capital of Bogotá in February, the AFL-CIO’s Thea Lee said she witnessed heartbreaking stories.

“People would stand up and tell their story, one after the other, about the challenges of trying to organize a union or bargain for benefits or the kinds of legal obstacles they face,” she said. “They weren’t just stories about violence. The Uribe government is thwarting union organizing in every way.”

Yvette Pena Lopes, a lobbyist for the Teamsters, said it’s personal for a simple reason: “If I was in Colombia, my life and my family’s life could be threatened,” she said. “We are more concerned with this than any other trade agreement because you have human rights concerns. … It’s so outrageous.”