- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2011


When President Obama begins his tour of Latin America on Friday, two countries will be conspicuously missing from his itinerary: Colombia and Panama. Although Mr. Obama plans to swing by Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, he opted not to schedule visits to a pair of nations he claims are important partners in his plan to double U.S. exports by 2015.

Their absence on his schedule is disappointing - but no surprise. Five years ago, the United States negotiated free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, and Mr. Obama has called for their approval by Congress in his last two State of the Union addresses. Yet his administration has done virtually nothing to secure their passage. At a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, senators from both parties practically begged the White House to submit the trade accords - but U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk hemmed and hawed about how they weren’t quite ready just yet.

This is nonsense. They’re more than ready. Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana put it bluntly: “The time is here. The time is now. In fact, the time has passed to ratify the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.” He also made it clear that he supports the deal with Panama.

Mr. Baucus did something recently that Mr. Obama won’t do in the coming days: He visited Colombia. He came back convinced that the deal would be a boon to American farmers. Over the past two years, he said, the lack of a free-trade agreement with Colombia has cost American farmers $1 billion in sales. As a North Dakota wheat producer, I can tell you that much of the Colombian wheat market has gone to our competitors in Canada.

As a senator once famously said, a billion here and a billion there, and suddenly you’re talking real money.

What would farmers do with an extra $1 billion? Some would invest it in their operations, buying new tractors made by American workers. Others would create new jobs, to be filled by a number of the 9.5 percent of Americans who are unemployed - a depressingly high figure that ought to have the full attention of lawmakers.

Sadly, the biggest trade news to come out of Washington last week had nothing to do with expanding opportunities for American workers whose jobs depend on exports. Instead, it involved bureaucratic minutiae. As Bloomberg reported, the White House may try to fold the office of the U.S. Trade Representative into the Department of Commerce.

Perhaps this is sensible from the standpoint of an organizational chart. At the same time, it appears to downsize the importance of trade by making one Cabinet-level agency subservient to another Cabinet-level agency. Whatever the specifics, it all seems like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. The administration’s paper-pushers are working hard to rearrange a few offices. Meanwhile, the president’s trade agenda is sinking.

In Colombia, we’re surrendering economic opportunities. U.S. farm exports to this country of 46 million people fell by 48 percent between 2008 and 2009 and an additional 45 percent since then, according to the Wall Street Journal. Exports of corn, soybeans and wheat declined by more than two-thirds.

Many times, free-trade agreements generate opposition from people who worry that the agreements will threaten employment in the United States. Yet even some of the strongest foes of the deal with Colombia are honest enough to admit the truth. “This does not pose job losses,” said Lori Wallach of Public Citizen in The Washington Post last week.

Her main concern, she says, is human rights. Under the leadership of its current and immediate past president, however, Colombia has improved enormously and can boast of a very good record on human rights. Its record certainly hasn’t created any hang-ups for other countries. While the United States has dithered on its free-trade agreement, Colombia has negotiated deals with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and the European Union.

This is why U.S. market share has suffered so badly: Competitors have swooped in and taken the business that ought to be ours.

If the president had worked harder to finish the deals with Colombia and Panama, his trip to Latin America wouldn’t have to be a case study in avoiding the subject. It could have been a victory lap.

Terry Wanzek is a North Dakota state senator and a farmer. He is also a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology.

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