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Why Colombia?

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
July 2, 2008
Washington Independent

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Put yourself in Sen. John McCain’s shoes. You want to flash your war-on-terror and free-trade bona fides, expose your rival’s vulnerabilities and change the conversation from Iraq. Just three hours from Miami is the place to be: Colombia.

Outside of the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Colombia is the biggest recipient of U.S. security assistance — about $600 million a year. It has the largest U.S. embassy outside of Baghdad. President George W. Bush and Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, as well as the security establishments of both countries, share a visceral simpatico for the war on terror and the war drugs—as well as penchant for curtailing the civil liberties of their citizens to those ends.

With support from both Democrats and Republicans over the last 10 years, Colombia has beaten back the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a left-wing insurgency; demobilized right-wing paramilitaries, and brought a measure of public security to once-abandoned rural areas and crime-ridden urban centers. By tethering himself to the Bush-Uribe security legacy in Colombia, McCain can fit squarely into the GOP’s hard-core security-first narrative.

(Matt Mahurin) It suits Uribe too. Now serving the last two years of his second, and constitutionally final, term, the Colombian president has just announced a referendum he hopes will give him a shot at a third term. This sets up an obvious parallel for those who compare a McCain presidency to a third term for Bush. McCain has fully bought into the narrative that juxtaposes the “bad” left-wing populism of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela with the “good” right-wing populism of Uribe’s Colombia.

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