Thursday, April 10, 2008

With time running out on this year’s legislative calendar, President Bush has sent the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress. The trade deal deserves to be approved for four very big reasons. First, the trade pact effectively levels the playing field by providing much greater benefits to U.S. exporters, which face high tariffs, than it gives to Colombia, whose products already arrive in the United States with very few restrictions. Second, in a South American region that has moved decidedly leftward in recent years — e.g., Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador — Colombia remains our strongest ally on the continent. Third, with an expanding economy and a population of 44 million, Colombia has South America’s second-largest number of consumers whose demand for unrestricted U.S. industrial, farm and consumer products offers great potential for U.S. firms and workers. Fourth, Colombia has indisputably made great strides in recent years on the economic- and political-reform fronts; in its efforts to demobilize paramilitary forces; and in its battle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, an internationally designated terrorist organization and narco-trafficking syndicate). Under the brave, competent leadership of President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia deserves to become a free-trade partner of the United States.

The trade agreement was signed 16 months ago. It was later revised in accordance with Democratic demands that more stringent labor and environmental standards be added. Under the terms of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) process, Congress has 90 legislative days to conduct up-or-down votes without adding amendments. However, the Colombia trade deal, which may become the first trade agreement that Congress has ever rejected, is strongly opposed by the Democratic congressional leadership, which is threatening to delay consideration of the trade pact.

The economic benefits are clear. Colombia has enjoyed preferential-trade access to the U.S. market since 1991. Today more than 90 percent of its exports arrive in the United States duty-free. Colombia wants the free-trade agreement because it would make this preferential-trade access permanent. Tariffs up to 35 percent currently apply to U.S. industrial and consumer products exported to Colombia; many U.S. agricultural products face tariffs above 80 percent. The free-trade agreement would immediately eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of industrial and consumer products exported to Colombia. Eventually, 100 percent of U.S. exports would enter Colombia’s large and growing market duty-free.

Democrats, U.S. labor leaders and others, including this page, are rightly concerned about the labor activists who have been murdered during the past 20 years in Colombia. Under Mr. Uribe, however, who became president in 2002, violence against labor activists has plunged. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez, the increasingly authoritarian, anti-American president of Venezuela, continues to support the murderous FARC. As Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently observed: “If the U.S. turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin American dictator could hope to achieve.”

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