- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2011

It has been four years since the United States and Colombia signed a reciprocal trade agreement. Unfortunately, the agreement has yet to be implemented. In June 2007, then-President George W. Bush sent the agreement to Congress but the Democratic majority in the House refused to vote on it. The new Republican Majority in the House must ensure a vote on this agreement, as it will create U.S. jobs and make good on a promise to an important ally.

Passing the agreement would create U.S. jobs by eliminating tariffs on U.S. exports to Colombia. Tariff elimination would enable U.S. exporters to compete on a level playing field with exporters from countries such as Canada and those in the European Union whose products already enter Colombia duty-free because of their existing trade agreements. It also would level the playing field between the United States and Colombia. This is because most Colombian goods already enter the United States duty-free, while most U.S. exports to Colombia face significant tariffs.

Longtime opponents of free trade oppose passage of the agreement, arguing that Colombia should be punished for violence affecting union members. They contend that Colombia is particularly dangerous for union members. In fact, a study by the highly regarded nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that union members were less likely to be targeted than other Colombians. In recent decades, Colombia has suffered tremendous and heart-wrenching violence at the hands of drug lords and terrorists. The violence has touched nearly every corner of Colombia’s soil as the government has struggled for control of the country. It has touched nearly every family. It is misleading to suggest that union members have been disproportionately affected by the violence.

Fortunately, violence against all people in Colombia has dropped dramatically over the past decade as terrorist groups such as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) have been marginalized. Under former President Alvaro Uribe’s leadership, the people of Colombia regained control of their country. At a time when the Colombian people are celebrating the gradual return of peace to their country, they must wonder why some in Washington say they have not done enough to deserve a trade agreement with America. Leaving Colombia at the altar waiting for the U.S. Congress to act sends the wrong message and undermines the image we would like to project of the United States as a fair and trustworthy friend.

More remarkable than the arguments deployed by free-trade opponents in their campaign against the agreement is the result they seek. By opposing passage of the agreement, they perversely punish Colombia by destroying jobs in America. In fact, they punish the very American workers whose interests they aim to represent. This makes no sense. Since the 1980s, Congress has given Colombia duty-free access to our markets. Failure to pass the agreement simply denies U.S. exporters the same duty-free access to Colombia enjoyed by our competitors, thereby costing American jobs.

In his State of the Union address last year, President Obama announced his goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years. To be credible and meaningful, this aspiration must connect to policy changes that actually will open foreign markets. In his speech last year at the Summit of the Americas, the president promised to treat Latin American countries as equal partners. A reciprocal trade agreement with Colombia offers the best way to demonstrate the president’s promise of “engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.” Conversely, opposing congressional efforts to move this agreement would undermine the administration’s credibility in Latin America.

The new Republican House leadership should be no less insistent in supporting the Colombia agreement than the Democratic leadership has been in opposing it. Moreover, by enacting the Colombia agreement, the president and Congress can demonstrate their ability to work together on important issues.

Carlos M. Gutierrez served as U.S. secretary of commerce from 2005-09. John K. Veroneau, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP, was deputy U.S. trade representative and signatory to the U.S.-Colombia agreement.