April 1, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

The Trade Two Step

Have you learned the steps to the latest dance sweeping the halls of Congress and race for the White House? If you answered no, it's probably because you aren't a politician trying to have it both ways on free trade while improving our ties with our friends in Latin America.

With the clock winding down on the legislative calendar, we'll soon find out if politicians are more interested in rhetoric than action.

Given our country's continued interest in securing Iraq and the Middle East, it's no surprise that the media has paid less attention to Latin American affairs during the last few years. That has given our friends to the south the idea that the U.S. Government doesn't care about them, which is far from the truth. Recent developments in Venezuela and Colombia remind us of the proximity of our neighbors to the South and the bloody military conflicts in a number of Central American and Latin American countries not so long ago.

Since then, courageous efforts by a number of Latin American leaders have led to increased economic growth and reduced corruption. And every so often, opportunities present themselves for leaders to build upon current success.

The U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement currently pending before Congress is one such opportunity. It would encourage increased commerce and investment between the United States and one our staunchest allies in South America: Colombia. Under President Alvaro Uribe and with the help of the U.S.-backed "Plan Colombia," the citizens of that country have witnessed a tremendous success story. Poverty rates have decreased by almost twenty percent and unemployment at its lowest levels in decades.

Even more significantly, unlike just a few years ago when kidnapping and savage crimes were commonplace, Colombians are no longer living in fear. And while by no means perfect, most outsiders can't help but express admiration for Colombia's remarkable turnaround.

Under the broad terms outlined in the pending trade agreement, the Colombia FTA would immediately eliminate tariffs on more than 80 percent of American exports of industrial and consumer goods. Today, 90 percent of U.S. imports from Colombia enter our country duty-free while U.S. exports to Colombia face sizable tariff rates. Tariff is just a fancy word for taxes on imports.

Fighting to keep tariffs low is important because with increased international trade U.S. companies will be more likely to open up businesses and hire workers. And after seeing the implementation of previous trade agreements and their positive effects on the economy, it makes little sense for anyone to oppose this one.

Critics contend that free trade costs us American jobs and disregards labor and environmental standards. But the truth is that politicians beholden to Big Labor and green groups are clouding common-sense judgment about the right thing to do.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent Texas and Ohio Presidential primaries. Candidates in Ohio bent over backwards to criticize free trade, making it the scapegoat for economic woes brought on by high state taxes and heavy state government regulation and mandates that are very costly to business. Meanwhile, these same politicians deftly avoided the subject in Texas -- where the merit of free trade is more evident.

Beyond the economic benefits of approving the pending Colombian trade agreement is the symbolism of extending our hand in good faith with our friends in Colombia. Underlying the numbers and lengthy legal jargon in the treaty is the idea that we, the United States and its people, value and respect Colombia as an ally and as an important trading partner.

In the recent Presidential debate on Univision, both of the leading Democratic candidates for their party's nomination expressed their commitment to reaching out to Latin America. With the clock winding down to move on this pending trade agreement, we will soon find out if politicians are more interested in talk, or action.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at the Heritage Foundation and has more than half a decade working in Congress and Washington, D.C.

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Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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First appeared in El Sol