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Hard-working Colombia deserves trade pact

Hard-working Colombia deserves trade pact

With the inauguration of Juan Manuel Santos as the new president of Colombia on August 7, we are reminded how far that Andean country has come from near failed state status just a decade ago. In 1999, about 70 percent of the countryside was in the hands of drug traffickers and marauding guerrillas when then-president Andrés Pastrana concluded the only thing that would save the nation was a European-style Marshall Plan, soon dubbed Plan Colombia. 

Today following a U.S. and multinational aid effort and considerable native resources invested in change, rural bandits are on the run, violent crime is down, the country’s human rights climate has improved, the economy is thriving, and Colombia is sharing its counternarcotics and counterterrorism expertise with other nations such as Mexico and Afghanistan. Now it’s time to treat Colombia differently. 

Sadly, many in our own Congress don’t think so. They still regard this erstwhile democratic ally as little more than a hemispheric trouble spot that requires aid. On hold is the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, signed by Presidents George Bush and Alvaro Uribe in 2006. The accord would have established a permanent commercial relationship to enable Colombia’s economy to support more of its own security expenditures, and would have allowed freer entry of U.S. goods into growing Colombian markets. 

Instead, Congress has extended 1990s-era one-way trade preferences that provide duty free entry to the United States of certain goods in return for helping us fight international drug trafficking. Nice consolation prize, except such temporary concessions need constant renewal (the current preference legislation lapses in December) and offer little of the predictability on which markets rely for long-term growth. Plus, there is no reciprocity to permit duty-free entry of U.S. goods facing tariffs as high as 20 percent going into Colombia. 

As before, U.S. labor union organizations that help fund Democratic Congressional campaigns are saying "no more," after the Bush administration’s record run of new trade pacts -Australia, Bahrain, Chile, DR-CAFTA, Morocco, Oman, Peru, and Singapore. They claim that trade barriers are needed to safeguard U.S. jobs and prop up wages. And even if that is debatable, they say that Colombian authorities have failed to protect labor rights as well as union members from falling victim to violent crime.  

Maybe so in the past. However from 2002 to 2007, trade union member assassinations had declined by some 80 percent to a figure far less than the homicide rate for the general population. In the interim, the government paid to establish a permanent U.N. International Labor Organization office in Colombia. It passed more effective labor laws, stepped up enforcement with a special prosecutors unit, and set up a trade unionist protection program covering nearly 2,000 senior leaders.

Benefiting society at large, homicides have dropped by half during the last decade, thanks to improvements in public security, guerrilla and paramilitary demobilizations, and protection programs for vulnerable groups.  Similarly, kidnappings had been reduced by 88 percent and terrorist attacks by 84 percent. Mayors and police have returned to all 1099 municipalities in the country. High profile hostages once held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC guerrillas are now free.

Not that such progress is enough. Although the economy had been growing as much as 7.5 percent before the recession hit, and unemployment had dropped from 15 to 11 percent, the poverty rate has only declined 6 points to 45 percent over the last decade, still one of the highest in Latin America. Moreover, a few thousand remaining guerrilla bands and drug lords still operate in swaths of Colombia’s jungles where state authority is absent. Accordingly, President Santos has identified creating 2.5 million new jobs and defeating narcoterrorism as his priorities. 

Even so, Colombia is a beacon of hope in a region still plagued by instability. Look at neighboring Venezuela. Whereas, good governance has brought Colombia back from brink of disaster, 12 years of dictatorial leadership has left Venezuela on the edge of a cliff. That oil rich country now rations food (when it isn’t rotting in government warehouses), endures energy blackouts, censors its press, represses independent labor leaders, and allegedly harbors some of Colombia’s guerrillas. Reportedly it now has one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere.  

One who understands Colombia’s importance is Chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) who stated last March: "At a time when democratic space is closing in certain countries in the hemisphere, Colombia’s strong institutions and adherence to the rule of law should serve as an example to us all."

To his credit, President Obama seems to comprehend this as well. On July 7, he asked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to sort out remaining issues on pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea so they could be submitted to Congress for ratification. Even trade skeptic Barack Obama realizes that it makes sense to strengthen alliances by opening markets. But convincing Congress is another matter and the White House will need to push hard. 

In December 1999, then-Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey said Colombia was "out of control" and called it a "flipping nightmare." Fearing the spillover effects of a failed state on the northern tip of South America, the Clinton administration and Congress initiated investments that have totaled some $7 billion over the last decade. Thanks to a visionary plan, cooperation from the international community, and lots of political will, Colombia has transformed itself. Now it is time for the United States to help solidify that success with a mutually beneficial trade partnership.