April 22, 2008
By James M. Roberts and Ray Walser, Ph.D.
In American election years, a theme sure to grab the nation's
attention is who "lost" a certain country. In 1952, it was "Who
lost China?" In 1980, it was "Who lost Iran?" In 2008, voters may
rightfully begin to ask who lost an entire region. In this case, it
will be "Who lost Latin America?"
Few pieces of legislation have commanded broader support in the
press among U.S. foreign policy leaders of both parties and with
Latin American diplomats and specialists than the U.S.-Colombia
Trade Promotion Agreement. Before a committee of the House of
Representatives on April 10, Organization of American States
Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza was asked whether the U.S.
trade agreement with Colombia was good for the Hemisphere. He
answered with a resounding "Yes." Insulza, the former Foreign
Minister of Chile, a country with more free trade agreements than
any other nation in the world, knows that economic growth and
increasing prosperity are natural consequences of free trade. The
Chilean government's track record of strengthening its market-based
democratic institutions through steadily increasing trade has
launched Chile on the enviable path to emerge as Latin America's
first developed nation.
How many times have legislators on the Hill said, "We ought to
listen to what our neighbors to the South say"? We should follow
their recommendations on important issues. It is disappointing that
the majority on Capitol Hill, who voted on April 10, 2008, to put
the Colombia trade agreement on ice indefinitely, are too busy
listening to their own rhetoric and questionable arguments about
past human rights violations in Colombia and misguided readings of
our own economic woes to hear the great outcry from south of the
border in favor of the agreement.
If Colombia's human rights record of violence against labor
unions is as terrible as leftist opponents of the Colombia
agreement allege, why did Congress recently vote overwhelmingly to
grant one-way access to the U.S. market for products from Colombia
through its recent renewal of the Andean Trade Preference
legislation? It is irrational to punish American workers and
businesses for Colombia's tragic history of violence by refusing to
approve the Colombia agreement, which is the only way that the U.S.
will achieve two-way trade with that country. American workers will
gain new job opportunities through the increased U.S. exports to
Colombia (about $1 billon per year) that will result from the
tariff-lifting provisions of the free trade agreement that open the
door to U.S. exports. Have we forgotten that Colombia's economy has
been growing at one of the fastest rates in Latin America?
When President Álvaro Uribe entered office in 2002,
violence was indeed ripping apart the very fabric of the Colombian
nation. Combined, the narcoterrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) and the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense
Forces of Colombia (AUC) had over 50,000 combatants in the field.
Since 2002, with additional U.S. help under Plan Colombia and in
accordance with President Uribe's Democratic Security strategy, the
number of combatants has declined by at least 75 percent. Today,
only the discredited FARC, with less than 10,000 fighters,
represents a significant menace to the government as it ruthlessly
uses the hostages it holds to leverage international attention and
The overall murder rate in Colombia has dropped by 40 percent,
kidnappings are down by 83 percent, and terrorist attacks have
decreased by 76 percent. Murders of trade unionists have dropped
even more, by 75 percent, with only 11 killings thus far in 2008.
While these murders are deplorable, there is no indication that the
government of Colombia had any involvement in them. In cases that
were heard in court, the majority of the homicides were found to be
for nonpolitical reasons. Trade unionists, an estimated 70 percent,
are heavily concentrated in noncompetitive public-sector unions and
represent less than 5 percent of Colombia's work force. Labor
spokesmen in the private sector tend to favor completing the
agreement. Moreover, the government is actively investigating all
acts of violence and threats against unionists. With dubious logic,
the U.S. Congress wants to punish the Colombian government that has
done so much to improve the situation.
Unfortunately, the congressional leadership ignored this
remarkable record of progress under President Uribe and forced a
vote along party lines on April 10, 2008, that will delay
indefinitely any consideration of the pending U.S.-Colombia Trade
Promotion Agreement. This choice reneged on the commitment in the
Trade Promotion Authority statute that Congress passed in 2002,
when it pledged that trade agreements negotiated by the executive
branch before June 30, 2007, would receive a straight up-or-down
vote within 90 legislative days of submission by the President to
Congress for approval.
STAKES ARE HIGH
A race is on for influence and, ultimately, for power in the
Western Hemisphere. Strangers from the Eastern Hemisphere, from
China to Russia, from Europe to Iran, are interested in trade and
secure supplies of resources, minerals, and energy. These less
constrained outsiders with little oversight arrive daily in places
like Bogota and Panama City with new offers for trade and
investment. While we elect to sit on the sidelines, others move to
cut deals and cut us out.
Substantial stakes are on the table in Colombia. The U.S.
government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars since 1999
in, and has achieved significant progress through, Plan Colombia in
addition to spending four years negotiating the free trade
agreement with Colombia. All of this is now placed in jeopardy by
Congress's decision this week to alter established rules and break
faith with the Colombians. In the 500-plus days since the U.S. and
Colombian governments signed the trade agreement in August 2006,
U.S. businesses and workers have already lost the opportunity to
export more than $1 billion worth of American-made products and
services duty-free to Colombia while Congress has dithered and
played politics with trade.
Congress has sent a loud and frightening signal to all of our
friends in Latin America and beyond: Ignore what we say and watch
what we do. The vote against the agreement has translated into a
significant loss of face for President Uribe and the entire
Colombian nation, as well as a potentially devastating blow to U.S.
prestige and influence in the entire Andean region.
Meanwhile, Congress's action on April 10 is seen as a vote of
"No Confidence" in the Colombian people and will be a public
relations victory for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and
the FARC narcoterrorists he is trying to legitimize in order to
undermine the Uribe government. Chávez vows to drive out the
"U.S. imperialists" and have sway in the "Gran Colombia" that was
(briefly) headed by Simon Bolivar 200 years ago. Colombia is the
bull's eye in Hugo Chavez's quest to become the final political and
economic arbiter in the Andes.
COLOMBIA DESERVES BETTER
Colombians and all of our other friends in Latin America deserve
better: They deserve the support of all Americans. Congress should
reverse its decision to suspend action on the U.S.-Colombia Trade
Promotion Agreement and bring it to a favorable vote, sealing a
permanent bond with our allies and friends in Colombia and
signaling to the entire continent that the United States has not
lost interest in Latin America. This will show that the United
States is not retreating: that it stands ready to make a strong,
stable, and democratic Colombia a pivotal point for continued and
expanding relations with the Western Hemisphere.
Roberts is a research fellow for economic freedom and
growth in the Center for International Trade and Economics and Ray Walser is a senior policy
analyst in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy
Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Latin Business Chronicle
In American election years, a theme sure to grab the nation's attention is who "lost" a certain country. In 1952, it was "Who lost China?" In 1980, it was "Who lost Iran?" In 2008, voters may rightfully begin to ask who lost an entire region. In this case, it will be "Who lost Latin America?"
James M. Roberts
Research Fellow For Economic Freedom and Growth
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Ray Walser, Ph.D.
Senior Policy Analyst
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