Seeing Colombia, CODEL Style

Posted April 9, 2008 at 6:50pm

ONBOARD “TRADE AIR” — The ingredients splayed out in the galley of this well-appointed C-40 military jetliner flying from Andrews Air Force Base to Medellín, Colombia, looked like they belonged in the kitchen of a respectable restaurant.

Air Force and Air National Guard crew members chopped red potatoes and sprinkled them with oil and seasonings, and cut up fresh strawberries for a spinach and walnut salad that would accompany perfectly baked salmon filets and key lime pie for dessert.

On this plane, all the seats are first-class. In the middle of the aircraft is a sofa next to a table topped with a bowl of fresh fruit.

This is the world of an official Congressional Delegation trip at 35,000 feet.

Over the weekend, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative sponsored a 48-hour CODEL to Colombia to provide Members a studious and collegial look at one of the most politically charged issues on their legislative plates: whether to approve, or even vote on, a free-trade agreement with Colombia.

The topic has only intensified since the nine Members set out on their journey Friday. On Tuesday, against the wishes of Democratic Congressional leaders, President Bush sent the agreement to Capitol Hill, sparking a legislative-executive branch showdown and a pitched private-sector lobbying battle.

While the CODEL’s fare may have been exceptional by commercial airline standards, the grueling schedule of back-to-back meetings and official visits made clear this was no junket. A junket would require a round of golf, or at least a full night’s sleep.

“In two days we covered as much as the average person who goes to Colombia for two weeks,” declared Rep. Bob Etheridge (N.C.), one of two Democrats on the trip, at the end of the CODEL. “We’ve been so busy.”

Etheridge, like many of the Members and staffers, spent the five-hour flight to Medellín studying a thick, three-ring binder of briefing materials about the trip.

They also watched a Lifetime miniseries, “The Capture of the Green River Killer,” starring actor Thomas Cavanagh as Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a member of the CODEL who, as a former sheriff, helped capture the notorious serial killer. USTR staffers had asked Reichert to bring along the film, which had aired a week earlier. It was a hit, and others huddled around Reichert’s seat for an impromptu post-film discussion.

The plane ride wasn’t the only travel difference.

In Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, a 10-vehicle motorcade raced through the streets as police on motorbikes zoomed ahead to block traffic at every intersection, honking horns and flailing their arms to warn residents to stay back. Police with machines guns trailed in an open-air truck, keeping watch.

In the urban areas of Medellín and Cartagena, the second stop on the CODEL, children and adults stood along the roads to watch the noisy spectacle pass by. In the coastal town of Cartagena, police in small boats followed the motorcade as it wound its way along the shoreline after a town hall meeting led by President Alvaro Uribe.

Despite the heavy security, none of the Members left Colombia with the image that this still is a country like the one portrayed in the 1994 Harrison Ford movie “Clear and Present Danger,” in which Ford’s CIA character, Jack Ryan, becomes embroiled in a war against a Colombian drug cartel.

“It was not what I expected,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who supports the FTA. “I know the agreement, I know the numbers and the reasons, but I hadn’t got a chance to really see Colombia. Colombia has just greater challenges than most of us in Congress can understand — which makes the progress they are making even more admirable.”

The trip, of course, wasn’t without incident.

Take for example the mini-international crises of Reps. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Etheridge.

The two were traveling through Colombia on Saturday, which also happened to be the night of the NCAA men’s basketball semifinals in which the University of Kansas was taking on the University of North Carolina. The problem: where to watch the game?

“Two of the Members really want to know what’s going on with the game,” chirped Suzanne Hall, assistant information officer for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, into her cell phone to a colleague. “Will the hotel have that channel?”

The crisis was averted thanks to a USTR legislative affairs staffer who provided BlackBerry updates during a dinner in Cartagena hosted by Colombia’s trade minister, Luis Guillermo Plata.

The dinner marked the end of a particularly intense day that had begun at 7 a.m., when all luggage had to be “checked” with USTR aides to be ferried back to the aircraft for a flight that afternoon.

The delegation’s perks include boarding flights without having to go through security screening and having an unseen, expedited customs experience only possible when someone else has possession of your passport. And in the Santa Teresa Hotel in Cartagena, CODEL organizers brought in local merchants to set up a tiny, impromptu market to give the Members and staff a chance to buy local goods.

The Colombia deal marks the first time that USTR has organized a CODEL, and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said her office had put its entire team into action, including “trade negotiators” who did basic advance work for the trip.

Some things, though, cannot be planned.

During a Saturday meeting between the Members and two Colombian trade unionists who oppose the free-trade agreement, techno music began wafting through the room from a nearby establishment. As one of the union organizers told the audience, “We cannot close our eyes to the disaster of globalization,” staff members scurried to see what was going on.

The CODEL’s final meeting took place in a Cartagena hotel in a lightly air-conditioned room adjacent to a cloistered veranda. The delegation dined with Colombia’s attorney general and his prosecutors. U.S. Justice Department officials were also at the luncheon, where the tables were festooned with pink and white roses, scattered petals and small white candles.

It made for a particularly elegant setting to discuss the the country’s new “sub units” to combat violence targeted at union leaders and the inroads made in prosecuting members of guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

“This looks like a wedding reception,” remarked one Congressional aide, putting on a headset for translation.

After the meeting, it was off for a 20-minute run through a bright yellow market in the heart of historic Cartagena, then back to the airport for “wheels up,” CODEL lingo for departure.

As Members and staff boarded the plane to head back to Andrews Air Force base outside of D.C., many said they were leaving with a more personal connection to the country and its people.

They had met with ordinary workers whose lives had been upended by the violence that made Colombia notorious, and the Members had visited personally with President Uribe.

While Etheridge, whose assigned seat on the plane put him next to Schwab, said he remains undecided on the trade deal, he found Uribe to be “genuine — you can see it in his eyes.

“It’s a beautiful country with a lot of potential,” Etheridge added. “Obviously, it’s in everyone’s best interest for Colombia to be successful.”