The rescue of three Americans from the jungles of South America is a terrific Fourth of July present to the nation. (And John McCain gets high marks for timing in being present for the happy event.) American contractors Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves had been captured by the Colombian communist guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) when their antinarcotics surveillance plane crashed in rebel territory five years ago. At the time, considering the weakness of the Colombian government, the growing strength of the neighborhood bully Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the terror that FARC inflicted upon the Colombian people, the future looked grim for them and for the hundreds of hostages held in various remote areas. Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who was likewise snatched and held by FARC, was freed with the Americans on July 2.
The rescue operation involved deception. Colombian army officers disguised themselves as FARC guerrillas in order to fly the hostages by helicopter to a supposed meeting with the FARC commander. When she saw them sporting Che Guevara T-shirts, Betancourt told reporters, "I thought, 'This is FARC.'" Hmm, is this the same Che Guevara that adorns so many dorm rooms and faculty lounges at America's leading institutions of higher learning? It is. The same Che whose photo, superimposed over a Cuban flag, decorated the Houston Obama for President office? Obama may not have known of this, but it gives you the flavor of some of his enthusiasts.
FARC has terrorized Colombia for more than 40 years. What began as a communist insurgency gradually morphed into a communist/terrorist/narco gang whose favorite tactics included burning villages, torture, and kidnapping. In one case, the entire congregation of a remote church was abducted on a Sunday after worship. In other cases, they came for specific individuals whose parents could pay ransom. Ten-year-old Laura Ulloa was riding to school when armed guerrillas stopped and boarded the bus, demanding to know which one was Laura, and carried her off.
For many years, the Colombian government was flaccid or worse. Armed gangs called "Paras" or paramilitaries sprang up to counter the guerrillas; violence and corruption suffused the country. "I was never patriotic," a young Colombian ex-patriot told me. "I told people I was from South America." Hugo Chavez offered funding and safe haven for FARC (a guerrilla leader's computer was recently captured proving Chavez's involvement). Neighboring Ecuador and Brazil and nearby Nicaragua elected Chavez/Castro acolytes, leaving Colombia more and more isolated in the region.
In 2002, Colombia elected Alvaro Uribe, and the nation has been climbing steadily up out of the mire ever since. A fortified police force and military have taken on the FARC with, as today's headlines attest, tremendous success. Kidnappings, USA Today reports, are down by 78 percent and murders by 37 percent while 32,000 paramilitaries have been disbanded. With greater security has come economic growth. But the gains are still fragile.
The Bush administration staunchly supports Uribe, and has proposed a bilateral free trade agreement. Unions and their poodles among the leadership of the Democratic Party have balked, throwing up one excuse after another to block the deal. Colombia needed to satisfy worker rights issues. They complied. They needed to assure that strict environmental standards were included. They agreed. Now the Democratic leadership in Congress is insisting that Colombia demonstrate greater progress in quelling violence against trade unionists. (For a summation of the Democrats' position, you need only check out the Teamsters Union radio ad against the treaty.) The Democrats have delayed consideration of the bill again.
You might suppose, based on the Teamsters' vehemence, that the treaty would benefit Colombian interests. But no, 90 percent of Colombian goods already enter this country duty free, whereas U.S. exporters pay significant tariffs to get our goods into Colombia. Like other free trade agreements, this one would benefit both sides -- but it would be a particularly timely show of support for a country that deserves it. Uribe is an articulate believer in the free market at a time when stale Marxism is enjoying a revival in Latin America. More than that, he has demonstrated courage and finesse in battling the terrorists and drug lords who had made life nearly unbearable. If the Democrats succeed in scuttling the free trade agreement, they will be putting a finger in the eye of our best ally in the region -- and handing Hugo Chavez a victory.