Gates in Colombia: Promising signs or empty promises?

Gates in Colombia: Promising signs or empty promises?

The good news about Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s trip last week to Colombia was his hearty endorsementof the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which has long been stalled by the Democratic leadership in Congress. The big question now is just what the Obama Administration intends to do to break the deadlock.

Unfortunately, the answer is not forthcoming in USTR’s 2010 Trade Policy Agenda and 2009 Annual Report, released last month, which places no priority on congressional approval of the pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. As one analyst put it, the report instead provides "more evidence that U.S.-Latin America trade will remain a low-priority item in the administration’s trade 2010 agenda."

Secretary Gates was clearly not freelancing, even adding that he recently raised the issue with National Security Advisor Jim Jones. He said, "And I would hope that we would be in a position to make a renewed effort to get ratification of the free trade agreement. It’s a good deal for Colombia. It’s also a very good deal for the United States."

How then to square Secretary Gates’s comments about the importance of the Colombia deal and the lack of substantive action? 

A less charitable view is that the administration is trying to have it both ways: attempting to placate the strongest U.S. ally in the region and its many supporters while avoiding direct conflict with neoprotectionists in Congress. Or, more benignly, the administration may be advising Congress that this issue is not settled and to be prepared to re-address the issue at some point in the future. 

But whether it’s the former or the latter, the effect is the same. With each day that passes without a clear path delineated, U.S. credibility suffers internationally. That’s because many are watching, as the latest testing of Henry Kissinger’s famous adage that it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal is being played out.

But if many are watching, many more are not waiting. Bilateral and multilateral free-trading relationships are sweeping the globe, and no mere mortals have the power to upset that trend. As an example, Colombia and Canada are currently finalizing a free trade agreement to take effect in July 2010.

More ominously, in Colombia’s case, its unfriendly neighbors — Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, who resent Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s successful alliance with the U.S. — have begun interfering in Colombia’s presidential election to take place this May 30th to choose Uribe’s successor. 

At this point, more than ever, the Colombian people deserve a straight answer. What is their future? Aligned with the U.S. vision of open trade regimes and open political systems or left to the predations of anti-American regimes in its neighborhood? If one wants to predict the future of our hemisphere, it begins nowhere but here.