April 16, 2008 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development

Sabotaging Colombia

With friends like these, who needs enemies? This thought might well have presented itself to President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia in the last few days, as he watched the recently negotiated free trade agreement with the United States fall victim to American election politics. In a hemisphere where strongman politics and authoritarian rule are tenaciously making a comeback, the leadership of the Democratic Party has just inflicted a severe blow on the reputation of the United States as a reliable international partner and on U.S. trade policy as a whole.

How does the U.S. presidential election figure into the equation of free trade with Colombia? It appears that congressional Democrats are fearful of offending: 1) their two presidential candidates, both of whom are now actively campaigning on anti-free trade platforms and 2) their constituencies among the U.S. trade unions. Once the election is over, some have suggested, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might overcome her problems with the Colombian accord and allow Congress to vote in the lame-duck session following the election.

This would be an extraordinarily cynical, high-stakes gamble. The danger would be that were it to fail, the consequences could well be that the next U.S. administration would not have time to take up the Colombia trade deal in its first year in office (were the next White House inclined to pursue free trade agreements at all), and Colombia would probably go into its next presidential election in 2010 without an agreement with the United States.

What specifically happened is that the Colombian free trade agreement was negotiated under the terms of Trade Promotion Authority, which provided for an up-or-down vote on trade agreements without the potential for amendments. The TPA has now expired, but one of its provisions was that the House and the Senate must vote on an agreement within 90 days of it signing. On April 10, Mrs. Pelosi, however, introduced a procedural change to House rules that circumvented the 90-day provision, thus leaving open the trade agreement to the slings and arrows of special interests and their friends in Congress who do not favor free trade.

Their ostensible reasons hark back to Colombia's troubled past, but do not stand up to scrutiny today. Opponents of the free trade agreement cite Colombia's violence by right-wing militias and murders of trade union activists. The AFL-CIO cites 2,500 murders of trade unionists since 1986, but fails to recognize that the vast majority happened before 2001 the year before when Mr. Uribe came to power. By 2003, the number of murders had come down to 100 and has been in decline since then. Last year the number was 26.

The security issues that could be affected by the failure of a trade agreement are wide-ranging. Proliferation through Iran is a persistent concern throughout the region, as is arms smuggling and trafficking in people. Narcotrafficking remains a constant battle in Colombia. And poverty makes large populations vulnerable to disasters.

With a failed trade agreement as a festering problem and a public diplomacy disaster, political relations suffer between the United States and Colombia, making cooperation on security more difficult. A successful agreement on the other hand would mean a stronger Colombian economy, fortified by growing revenues from trade, which will better be able to cope with the country's many security challenges, even when money for Plan Colombia has dried up. In other words, trade undergirds defense.

And of course there is always the troublemaker Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, who constantly seeks ways of inserting himself in other countries' business, last fall trying (unsuccessfully) to appear as a "mediator" between the Colombian government and the FARC terrorists. He has been joined by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Rafael Correa in Ecuador and the Kirchners in Argentina in fomenting populism through the region.

President Bush has actually quietly assembled a solid record of trade relations with Latin America with a free trade accord with Chile and Peru, as well as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The Bush administration has also, through Plan Colombia, supported Mr. Uribe's fight against the FARC and the narcoterrorism that has been a blight on Colombia. A Colombian free trade agreement would be a crowning achievement.

Abroad, however, the rap on the Bush administration has unfairly been that it has been unilateralist and high-handed in its dealings with our friends abroad. But look who is fitting that description today.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Foreign Aid and Development

First appeared in the Washington Times