Business Bats for Colombia

Article excerpt

BOGOTA - "The government of Colombia has failed to follow through on promised counter-narcotics action or to confront fully the drug interests that contributed millions of dollars to President [Ernesto] Samper's campaign," said Assistant Secretary of State Robert S. Gelbard in justifying the Clinton administration's February 28 decision to decertify Colombia's drug-fighting efforts. "There is as much cocaine coming into the United States or being produced in Colombia as ever before, more heroin being produced in Colombia than ever before. That's the bottom line."

No, it is not, says Michael Skol. Skol is president of the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership, a Washington-based organization supported by 11 major U.S. manufacturing, energy and service corporations, including Bechtel, Caterpillar, Colgate-Palmolive, Enron, Occidental Petroleum, United Parcel Service and Compaq Computer.

Skol, a former ambassador to Venezuela, says the United States has long been Colombia's most important trading partner. Yet when a country is decertified by the U.S. government, it can lose everything from preferential treatment for its exports under trade pacts such as the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) to landing rights for its U.S.-bound aircraft. Unless a national-interest waiver is issued, decertification automatically disqualifies a country from obtaining financing through the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and deprives projects from political risk coverage through the Overseas Private Insurance Corporation (OPIC).

"Our role - and we're very specific about this - is lobbying and educating about the effects of sanctions," says Skol, who is also executive vice-president of Diplomatic Resolutions Inc. "In our view, we succeeded, because while Samper was decertified, the private sector was certified" - the United States has not imposed various optional trade sanctions on Colombia.

At least one member of the U.S.Colombia Business Partnership, however, may have its own reasons for directly supporting the Samper government. Occidental is currently embroiled in a dispute with Colombia's indigenous U'wa people, many of whom have threatened to commit mass suicide if Oxy goes ahead with plans to drill for oil on traditional lands. In 1992, Oxy signed a contract with state oil entity Ecopetrol to explore in a 200,000-hectare, violence-prone area in eastern Colombia that is also home to 4,000 U'wa people. In early March, the Council of State authorized Oxy to continue its exploration work, denying a demand by the U'wa that Oxy's license to drill be annulled.

Unsatisfied with offers of consultation, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia said in a statement, "We gain nothing with the guarantee of the right to be consulted if the government has no obligation to respect the results of said consultation." Oxy, which has already sunk a reported $12 million into the project, declined comment.

Many members of Congress argue that U.S. investment in Colombia helps prop up an unpopular president elected with drug money, and that Samper should be punished for allowing Colombia to become a chief source of cocaine - and increasingly, heroin - for U.S. drug users. Besides being the world's top cocaine producer, Colombia is the second-largest source of coca, eclipsing Bolivia this year for the first time and trailing only Peru (both of which were certified, along with Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela). …