<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Colombia’s Uribe Regime Approaches Pariah Status in Washington

The Resignation of Mark Penn as Clinton’s Strategist Reveals a Long Overdue Rejection of a US-Colombia “Free Trade” Agreement


By Al Giordano
Special to the Narco News Bulletin

April 7, 2008

Sunday’s announcement by the presidential campaign of US Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) that its chief strategist Mark Penn “has asked to give up his role” came after Penn was caught meeting with Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco. In his capacity as CEO of Burston-Marsteller, a Washington lobbyist and public relations firm, which the Colombian government had contracted for $300,000-a-year to promote its interests before the US government.


Presidents Uribe of Colombia and Bush of the United States
2007, White House web site
The latest nail in the coffin of the proposed US-Colombia “free trade” agreement was hammered last Friday, when The Wall Street Journal reported the March 31 meeting between Penn and Barco:

Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, Mr. Penn’s campaign-consulting firm, received more than $10 million in payments from the Clinton campaign as of the end of February, according to federal election filings…

A spokesman for Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe said the ambassador met with Mr. Penn to discuss the bilateral agenda…

The spokesman said he didn’t know if Mr. Penn was representing Sen. Clinton or Burson-Marsteller, which signed a $300,000, one-year contract with the Colombian Embassy in March 2007 to work on behalf of the trade deal and anti-drug-trafficking initiatives, according to the Justice Department filings.

Two days after the meeting between the Clinton strategist and his ambassador, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe openly meddled in the US presidential election, when he attacked US Senator Barack Obama – Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination – as reported last week by Narco News:

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe revealed his worry about the US presidential contest this week to the Bogotá daily El Tiempo: “I deplore that Senator Obama, aspiring to be president of the US, ignores Colombia’s efforts.”

…That Uribe singled-out Obama is revealing: the Illinois senator’s rival for the Democratic nomination for president in the United States, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, also says she opposes the US-Colombia “free trade” pact. That clearly doesn’t worry Uribe: the Clinton organization has a long history of backing – politically and economically – the Colombian far right, its narco-politicians and paramilitary death squads, of whom Uribe is supreme leader. In 2000, then-US president Bill Clinton went on Colombian national TV to announce “Plan Colombia,” the multi-billion dollar US military intervention that keeps Uribe and his repressive regime in power to this day.

A day later, the news of the Penn-Barco meeting hit, and all hell broke loose in the US presidential campaign. Trade union leaders from the Teamsters, Change to Win, and others that support Obama called on Senator Clinton to fire Penn.

Penn – via a Clinton campaign press release – then apologized for holding the meeting.

The Colombian government, on Saturday, then fired Penn and his firm, with this statement:

The Colombian Government announces its decision to terminate the contract with Burson-Marsteller. This firm conducts public relations and communications consulting services on behalf of Colombia in the United States for the approval of the Free Trade Agreement and the continuation of Plan Colombia.

Mr. Mark Penn, President and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, reponded to claims by Union representatives who questioned his relationship with the Colombian Government by declaring that it was an “error in judgment” to meet with his client the Colombian Ambassador on March 31. The Colombian government considers this a lack of respect to Colombians, and finds this response unacceptable.

The firm was retained by the Colombian Embassy in Washington in March of 2007 based on its track record in the field of Public Relations.

The Colombian Government will continue its efforts to show to different sectors in the United States, the dramatic improvements in the country’s economy, social and security indicators, and will continue its efforts to obtain a favorable vote on the pending Free Trade Agreement with the United States, for greater wellbeing and prosperity for all.

Penn, facing the increased public and press scrutiny that political consultants, lobbyists and registered foreign agents seek intensely to avoid (Penn represents many controversial clients, from Blackwater’s the private security forces in Iraq to the makers of poisonous Chinese toys imported to the US), offered up his own resignation as Clinton’s campaign chief on Sunday.

By Monday morning (today), the oft-ignored matter of the proposed US-Colombia “free trade” agreement was – finally – part of the lead story on network news programs: NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CBS’s “Early Show,” as well as MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Sensing the public relations meltdown, US President George Bush took to the airwaves with a live televised speech on Monday morning, trying to stem the bleeding, and invoking “national security” as his last-ditch argument to get the unpopular trade agreement with Colombia approved by Congress.

“The need for this agreement is too urgent, the stakes for national security too high, to allow this year to finish without a vote,” he implored, “Approving this free trade agreement is the best way to demonstrate our support for Colombia… If congress fails to approve this agreement it will not only abandon a great ally, it will send a message across the region that America cannot be counted on to support its friends… President Uribe has done everything asked of him… the stakes are high in South America.”

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made the same arguments in a Wall Street Journal opinion column today:

The fate of this agreement raises even larger questions: How does the U.S. treat its friends, especially when they are under pressure and attack? Will we remain engaged as a global leader or will we pull back unilaterally? Will we define our role in the world by confidence in our own principles or by capitulation to unfounded fears?

The desperate tone wielded by Bush and Rice about “high stakes” and “unfounded fears” comes with the territory of trying to put lipstick on this pig.

As labor advocate Jonathan Tasini wrote today:

…the so-called “free trade” deal would likely displace hundreds of thousands of poor rural Colombians from their lands, sending them into far deeper economic despair—and forcing many of them to work for the very groups that violently displaced them from their lands. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs conducted a study of the effects of the 1990s economic “liberalization” and concluded that such a move led to a 35 per cent drop in employment. You can be sure that the proposed so-called “free trade” deal will wreak similar havoc…

If Congress approves the agreement, it will also embolden the corrupt and violent Uribe regime to ratchet up its campaign of terror against unions and other peaceful social movements (which it continues to repress in the name of fighting against the country’s gurerrilla insurgency).

But the rapidity with which Penn – the man who had absolute control over Clinton’s presidential campaign, its message and advertising – fell from grace serves as a reality-check for members of the Democratic majority in the US Congress. As the American public has come to see the harm to workers and the environment wrought by previous “free trade” agreements, public opinion has turned. And the Uribe regime’s recent illegal military invasion in Ecuadorian territory has shone a spotlight on its destabilizing and anti-democracy influence in the hemisphere. The conventional wisdom in Washington about the violent Uribe regime in Colombia has, finally, changed. Members of Congress that ally themselves with it by supporting this treaty may find their political careers fall as precipitously and rapidly as that of Mark J. Penn. What a difference a weekend makes.

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