Members of Congress who oppose the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion
Agreement (TPA) are hurting the very people they claim to be
protecting--workers and their families in the United States and
Colombia. Not surprisingly, Big Labor is the driving force behind
the opposition to freer trade. To counter the Bush Administration's
push for a floor vote on the TPA by April, AFL-CIO Executive Linda
Chávez-Thompson led a "fact-finding" mission to Colombia in
mid-February, which included Communications Workers of America
President Larry Cohen and United Steelworkers counsel Dan Kovalik,
to "gather information to inform the debate over the proposed trade
Contrary to the propaganda of special interests, the
U.S.-Colombia TPA would help the economies of both countries.
Failure to ratify would damage the United States' reputation in the
region, would hinder progress in the war on drugs, and could push
Colombia toward the embrace of Venezuelan President Hugo
Chávez. Congress should put national security ahead of
partisan politics and ratify the U.S.-Colombia TPA.
Although the AFL-CIO leaders met with some anti-TPA union
leaders and government officials in Colombia, including President
Álvaro Uribe, they went out of their way to avoid any
encounters with the heads of the many trade unions that represent
80,000+ Colombian workers in export industries (e.g., cut flowers,
mining, petroleum products, coffee, textiles, sugar, and bananas).
These representatives fervently favor the TPA and the new
investments and jobs that it would bring. Apparently, the Big Labor
visitors did not want to risk hearing anything from pro-TPA
Colombian labor leaders that might contradict their pre-ordained
conclusions. It seems that U.S. unions don't want facts to get in
the way of their publicity stunts.
Colombia has a tragic history of violence dating back to 1948,
when a ruthless Cuban sociopath named Fidel Castro joined other
Latin leftists in fomenting urban riots and rural violence that
became known as the Bogatazo and La Violencia, respectively. Their
intention was to overthrow the democratic government that had ruled
Colombia for 150 years. At the time, a multilateral meeting was
being in held in Botoga that led to the creation of the
Organization of American States. A protest event, bankrolled by
Argentinean strongman Juan Perón, was attended by many of
the rioters, including the young Comrade Castro. The riots claimed
thousands of lives, including Colombian soldiers and
revolutionaries, as well as innocent bystanders.
Colombia's civil war in the 1950s, coupled with Castro's call to
revolution in the 1960s, created new insurgent groups like the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In the 1980s,
the Colombian government failed to stop the rise of Pablo Escobar's
Medellin Cartel and other murderous narco-traffickers, leading some
on the Right to form "paramilitaries" that waged war against drug
traffickers, the FARC, and the chaos generated by the political
In the 1990s, FARC pursued the overthrow of the government of
Colombia but also turned to the lucrative businesses of drug
trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. The combination of FARC,
drug traffickers, and paramilitaries nearly destroyed the Colombian
state. Cooperation between U.S. and Colombian
administrations--first by Presidents Andres Pastrana and Bill
Clinton and then by Presidents Álvaro Uribe and George W.
Bush--led to the rollout of "Plan Colombia" in 1999. This bold,
multi-year commitment to rebuild the Colombian state has helped the
government to recover control of territory and extend security to
the towns and the countryside. More than 30,000 paramilitaries have
disarmed, the FARC is on the run, and violence is down
Despite the progress of Plan Colombia, the culture of violence
continues, and the U.S. is Colombia's largest export market for
cocaine. Ratification of the TPA would help Colombia to strengthen
the government institutions that fight the scourge of illicit
Big Labor's script for stopping the U.S.-Colombia FTA calls for
heavy emphasis on the history of violence against Colombian labor
leaders and alleged impunity granted to their assailants by the
government. However, the number of murders of trade unionists has
dropped by 75 percent since President Uribe took office, with only
three killings so far in 2008. As a result of successful efforts to
reduce crime and boost economic growth, President Uribe's approval
rating is near 70 percent. As reported in Reuters, "The Colombian
government has tripled spending on protection for unionists, human
rights activists, and other at-risk individuals and established a
special unit to prosecute crimes against trade unionists."
In fact, a large percentage of attacks against leaders of
public-sector unions had nothing at all to do with the victim's
union affiliation. Many of the crimes ensued from "normal" motives
(i.e., robbery) but are categorized as "anti-union violence" by
leftists to further their anti-globalization, protectionist agenda.
The best way to change Colombia's culture of violence is to develop
a large, well-educated middle class. The TPA would move Colombia in
that direction by integrating its economy into the globalized
market, thus increasing its prosperity and economic
If Congress listens to the AFL-CIO and votes down the
U.S.-Colombia TPA, it will deliver a potential knock-out blow to
President Uribe, the United States' best friend in the region. A
failed TPA will lead Colombians and people from other countries in
Latin America to conclude that the U.S. is not a reliable partner.
Effectively, it would be a vote of "no confidence" in the Colombian
people, which would be a public relations bonanza for Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez and the FARC narco-terrorists he is
trying to legitimize in order to undermine the Uribe government.
Chávez aims to rule the "Gran Colombia" that was (briefly)
headed by Simon Bolivar 200 years ago, and Colombia is the jewel in
would-be Emperor Hugo's crown.
A defeated TPA would put at risk the considerable progress made by
Plan Colombia, into which Congress has poured hundreds of millions
of dollars since 1999. Chávez would be emboldened to
increase his already extensive collusion with the Colombian drug
cartels, which are now on the run. The cartels are increasingly
redirecting their products through Venezuela to Europe (through
West Africa) and to the U.S. (through Haiti and the Dominican
Republic--destabilizing them along the way).
If the TPA fails, perhaps the biggest losers would be the
constituents of Members of Congress. Colombia currently has
duty-free access to the U.S. market through the Andean Trade
Preference Act. Defeat of the TPA would deny U.S. businesses the
same access to the Colombian market.
The U.S.-Colombia TPA is much more than a simple trade
agreement: It is the sealing of a strong alliance between two
long-time friends. More than 60 years ago, Colombia sent troops to
assist in the allied effort in the Korean War; it was the only
South American country to do so. The defeat of the TPA would be a
tremendous loss of face for President Uribe and the entire
Colombian nation, as well as a devastating blow to U.S. prestige
and influence in the entire Andean region.
The AFL-CIO says that Colombia will just have to be patient
"until 2009" for a "new" TPA to be negotiated and signed. Big Labor
clearly hopes that a Democratic administration will be taking power
in Washington next year. Practically speaking, there is no way that
a new TPA could be ready for implementation before 2010. Meanwhile,
every day Colombia will continue to face oil-wealth-funded,
multi-pronged assaults and challenges from Hugo Chávez and
his Chavista followers both inside Colombia and in neighboring
countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia. The AFL-CIO wants President
Uribe to cool his heels until the end of his term in 2010, but
neither Colombia nor the United States can wait for these problems
to be addressed.
The timing of the opposition suggests that Big Labor is putting
partisan politics ahead of national security. The Left's real
agenda could be sheer protectionism or the raw partisan desire to
deny a "legacy" victory to President Bush and the center-right
government of Colombia.
Congress should ratify the U.S.-Colombia TPA as soon as
possible. Congress should also restore the cuts made to Plan
Colombia's military budget in fiscal year 2008. With the agreement
ratified, the Bush Administration and U.S. businesses could begin a
new chapter in U.S. economic engagement with Colombia and the
Roberts is a research fellow for economic freedom and
growth in the Center for International Trade and Economics.
First appeared in Latin Business Chronicle
Delays in approving the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement is workers and their families in the United States and Colombia.
James M. Roberts
Research Fellow For Economic Freedom and Growth
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