Colombia Hasn't Given up Hope On Shelved Free Trade Agreement

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The proposed U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement has shaped up to be one of the most bruising bilateral free trade controversies of the Bush administration, and heavyweights on both sides of the issue are still slugging it out along K Street and in the corridors of Capitol Hill.

In early April, discussion on the free trade agreement was shelved at the direction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), essentially killing the deal’s chances of passage until after the November presidential election. On April 18, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón urged Congress to reconsider the FTA in a speech before the hugely sympathetic U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

“I’m optimistic,” said Santos, who was elected vice president on the same national ballot as President Álvaro Uribe in May 2002, and re-elected in 2006. “We still think the concerns of Democratic congressmen can be addressed. It still has a chance. The doors haven’t been closed, and I’m not giving up this fight yet.”

In his address, the vice president recited the usual litany of statistics Colombia trots out to demonstrate how the government has gotten violence under control, indirectly bolstering its argument for an FTA: Homicides are down by 50 percent in the last six years, from 35,000 to under 17,000, kidnappings are down by 90 percent, and investment is up dramatically.

“In 1997, two executives of General Electric were kidnapped, and ransom was paid to FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia],” Santos recalled. “[Then Chief Executive Officer] Jack Welch took a map of the world, crossed out Colombia and said, ‘We’re never going back to that country.’ Now, GE is reinvesting in Colombia and their business is doing fantastically. There’s been such a dramatic reduction in violence that kidnappings have once again become news in Colombia.”

Santos is somewhat of an expert on this subject, having been kidnapped himself in 1990 by Pablo Escobar, then leader of the Medellín drug cartel. At the time, Santos was editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest daily newspaper. Along with 10 other journalists, he was held for nearly eight months in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to extort a promise from then President César Gaviria that the Colombian government would not extradite drug traffickers to the United States.

Once released, Santos spent a year at Harvard University as a Nieman fellow. In 1992, he returned to Bogotá and founded País Libre, an organization to assist the victims of kidnapping and their families.

“When President Uribe asked me to be his vice president, he said we had only one thing to do — get Colombians to once again trust our institutions,” said Santos, 45. “And that’s what has happened. Colombians believe in their future. We had lost that in 2002, and that’s why we were re-elected, to bring back that trust.”

He added: “Five years ago, our country was divided and struggling to preserve the territory it had. Today, the paramilitaries have been demobilized, their leaders are in jail, and the state is recuperating. Investors now understand that Colombia is becoming a very good place to invest in, a place where you have judicial security, and a big market where you can grow.”

Yet opposition persists and the FTA’s chances of survival are looking dimmer as time goes by. Not helping matters was the April arrest of former senator Mario Uribe, a cousin and close ally of President Uribe, for his alleged ties to death squads in a widening probe that has implicated nearly a quarter of Colombia’s Congress — further backing up claims that Colombia hasn’t thoroughly cleaned up its act to merit an FTA.

In addition to the growing political scandal tarnishing Uribe’s administration, a long-standing objection to the trade pact has been Colombia’s dismal record in protecting labor unions.Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Congress must stand firm in rejecting the FTA.

“President Bush is aggressively pushing a free trade agreement with Colombia, which he submitted to Congress this week over the objections of the congressional leadership,” she wrote in an editorial published in mid-April. “In selling the deal, administration officials are blindly repeating Colombian claims that paramilitaries have demobilized and are a thing of the past. The main threats to security in Colombia, they say, are the abusive left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] and neighboring Venezuela.”

But that’s not true, she argues. “The House of Representatives’ leadership last year said that ratification of the U.S.-Colombia free trade deal would be contingent on ‘concrete evidence of sustained results’ on paramilitary power, impunity, and anti-union violence. Colombia has not met these conditions. In fact it has the world’s highest rate of trade unionist killings, with more than 400 killed during the government of current President Uribe — 17 already this year.”

The AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor organization, argued likewise. “Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for a trade unionist — 2,262 union leaders and members have been murdered there since 1991 — and the government routinely ignores or violates internationally recognized workers’ rights. Yet the Bush administration continues to push for a trade deal with Colombia,” wrote James Parks in a March 16 article posted on the AFL-CIO Web site.

“The United States should not negotiate a trade pact until Colombia meets an established set of human rights benchmarks” that includes “completely severing all ties with paramilitary organizations and international criminal networks, which are responsible for most of the murders of union members,” Parks wrote.

In his speech to the Chamber of Commerce, Santos had harsh words for Human Rights Watch, the AFL-CIO and other groups that oppose the FTA, accusing such organizations of distorting the truth to suit their own needs.

“Unfortunately, there’s a malicious campaign against us that tries to portray Colombia in a light that has nothing to do with reality — as if nothing had improved in the last six years. That type of discussion breaks any trust that is needed to move forward. We think we’re ready for those frank discussions, but they must start by recognizing the immense advancement Colombia has achieved,” the vice president said, adding, “No matter how much we do, no matter how much improvement we show, it’s never enough. It’s as if we’re playing a game of ‘heads you win, tails I lose.’”

John Murphy, vice president of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that most of the U.S. opposition toward the Colombia FTA has to do with violence against trade unionists, not the effect such a deal may have on the U.S. economy.

“Opponents of this agreement are not spending much time talking at all about jobs,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “It is now well understood that the U.S. market is already wide open to Colombian goods — 93 percent of them enter our market duty-free, whereas U.S. manufacturers face tariffs of 14 percent in Colombia. So the playing field is not level. What this trade agreement will do is sweep away Colombia’s trade barriers. So to be for the status quo is to be for a continued unfair playing field against the United States.”

Murphy is head of the Latin America Trade Coalition, a grouping of more than 800 companies that supports the U.S.-Colombia FTA; members include Citibank, Wal-Mart, Caterpillar and other Fortune 500 companies.

“Trade preferences have been in force since 1991, but they have to be renewed regularly. That creates uncertainty…. And also, an FTA goes far beyond reducing tariffs,” Murphy explained, citing the North American Free Trade Agreement as an example. “NAFTA has helped the United States and Mexico tremendously, and the agreement we’ve reached with Colombia is much more comprehensive than NAFTA. In fact, it is enforceable under the trade agreement. These are the demands that the Democratic majority made early last year.”

Murphy, noting that his coalition has organized more than 350 targeted meetings with members of Congress, said he’s “cheered on” by the widespread criticism of Pelosi’s actions among Washington’s allies in Latin America. “I think many people on Capitol Hill were taken aback, at a time when we are encouraging all the parties to come back to the table and negotiate,” he said.

Santos conceded that Pelosi’s tabling of discussions on the FTA has him “worried” and “concerned” about the future of the deal. For her part, Pelosi has countered by blaming President Bush for not consulting with Congress before sending the contested trade pact up for a vote. (Under “fast-track” rules negotiated with Congress, Bush’s move forces lawmakers to conduct an up-or-down vote on the proposed pact within 90 legislative days — already an unlikely scenario in a politically risky election year.) She’s also criticized the administration for failing to provide American workers with trade-adjustment assistance and for not extending unemployment, foreclosure or health care benefits at a time when vulnerabilities are already high in a shaky U.S. labor market. But many international observers are concerned about the broader impact this domestic political sparring will have on U.S. relations with key allies like Colombia as well as South Korea, which is also awaiting approval on its FTA, and the protectionist message it would send at a time when the global Doha trade talks have stalled.

Moreover, Santos said there’s something deeply unfair about Colombia being denied a special trading relationship with the United States, given that Uribe has become Washington’s strongest ally in Latin America and an important counterweight to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his fiery brand of anti-Americanism.

“You’re the best student in class, you hand your homework in on time, and the minute the teacher turns around, you’re picked on as a bad student,” he complained. “It’s frustrating for us, but we understand it’s part of the political reality. We will keep engaging the AFL-CIO and the human rights community, even though it sometimes produces no results.”

Santos noted that U.S.-Colombian trade has already nearly doubled over the last five years, approaching billion in 2007. If approved, the FTA would not only directly benefit workers and farmers on both sides of the aisle, supporters claim, but also service providers in sectors such as financial services, express delivery, telecommunications, audiovisual and information technology, retail services and others.

“We cannot allow investment to grow below 5 percent a year,” the vice president warned. “We are currently the number-one recipient of foreign investment as a percentage of GDP in Latin America, and in Colombia, you see a vibrant economy that’s becoming more Chileanized every year. That’s the model we want,” he said, referring to Chile’s market-driven economy.

Asked why not just wait for a new U.S. president to take office in 2009, Santos said this isn’t an option. “We cannot wait,” he insisted. “We’re losing competitiveness as we speak.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999