- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2001

As President Bush and Congress step up efforts to combat terrorists in the Middle East, they shouldn't lose

sight of threats closer to home. In fact, 10 of 30 terrorist organizations operating around the world, including one linked to Osama bin Laden, are located or have cells in Latin America. Most of their activities have been linked to drug traffickers,guerrillas, or criminal mafias.

The U.S. strategy to defeat terrorism in these various guises has been wide-ranging from encouraging political and economic reforms to providing security assistance and training. But a critical ingredient to achieving success is giving Latin American countries access to U.S. markets. Trade promotes strong allied economies without committing the United States to costly bailouts or wasteful international welfare programs.

That's why extending the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) is now key to protecting the vulnerable Andean region. In the last five years, Bolivia has cooperated with U.S. counternarcotics policies by eradicating 95 percent of its illicit coca plantations. But this brave endeavor has cost its economy $1 billion. And now, partly as a result of the global economic downturn, Bolivia faces a slowdown of its own, with the possible resurgence of illegal cultivation and civil unrest.

Peru finds itself in similar economic straits rebuilding its democracy after the departure of the autocrat Alberto Fujimori and as Shining Path and Tupac Amaru insurgents seem to be making a comeback. Guerrilla violence from Colombia has spilled over into Ecuador, while Colombia itself fights against drug trafficking rebels who earn the equivalent of bin Laden's estimated net worth ($300 million) every three months.

Since it was first signed into law by the first President Bush in 1991, ATPA has exempted tariffs on selected goods exported from the region to the United States. As a result, two-way trade between these countries and the United States doubled. In Colombia, the primary beneficiary, ATPA helped generate more than $1.2 billion in output and create some 140,000 jobs. In Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, ATPA has helped stem rampant unemployment and create a more diverse export base.

Ideally, these nations and the United States would be better served by free trade agreements along the lines of the Free Trade Area of the Americas now under negotiation or a global free trade association. But such arrangements could be years from being concluded, and in the interim ATPA can provide market openings instead of a handout.

To be more effective, ATPA should be expanded to include textiles, apparel, sugar, canned tuna and asparagus products that might be more competitive than coffee now in a price freefall. Indeed, the Congressional Research Service estimates that only 10 percent of Andean exports to the United States are currently eligible for ATPA exemptions.

To its credit, the House of Representatives passed an expanded version on Nov. 16, leaving it to the Senate to act before the original measure expires on Dec. 4. But lawmakers are now focused on the war on terrorism in the Middle East. As a consequence, anything more than a simple renewal of ATPA provisions may not be resolved before Congress adjourns.

Today, the growth of terror and criminal organizations in Latin America makes it imperative that the United States help to counter such threats. Like us, our Andean friends would like to crack down on violent actors in the neighborhood. But they can't without the resources a strong economy provides.

To avoid backsliding on our commitment to assist Andean neighbors in developing healthy economies and to safeguard their democracies at a critical moment, Congress should not only extend ATPA but expand it to include new products. Failing to do so will undermine our partnership with Andean allies that have so far supported U.S. interests. This in turn will disrupt efforts to root out Latin American terrorists and criminal networks that may someday threaten the United States as well.

Gina Marie Hatheway is deputy director of government relations, and Stephen Johnson is policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.

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