BY ELISABETH BURGESS
Latin America Advisor
WASHINGTON, DC—More and more Democrats, many of whom have been skeptical about the Bush administration's trade agenda in Latin America, now support pending free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, and Panama, Democratic lawmakers said [last week].
Democrats Greg Meeks, Henry Cuellar, and Xavier Becerra said they expect at least two of the three to be passed soon.
"Looks like we're gonna do Peru very soon," Meeks predicted, speaking to an audience at the Andean Development Corporation's annual conference on trade and investment, co-sponsored with the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Dialogue. "I think Panama's gonna follow," he said, but noted there's concern about Colombia.
Still, a number of lawmakers have changed their views on the controversial Colombia pact since visiting the country and seeing improvements on the ground, Meeks said, citing social gains for Afro-Colombians and infrastructure investment, among others.
"I think that is starting to circulate in the halls of Congress," the four-term New York representative said, referring to news of the lawmakers' observations about Colombia.
Democrats, concerned about Colombia's ability to protect labor unionists and human rights workers, have said they want to measure the country's progress in strengthening institutions and cracking down on right-wing paramilitary groups before approving an FTA.
Deputy US Trade Representative John Veroneau, also speaking at the conference on Wednesday, said he believes all three agreements "will pass in this Congress, in this administration."
The Peru agreement, the first of the three free trade agreements to be signed and therefore the first that Congress will consider, "will provide confidence that there is a new bipartisan consensus," Veroneau said, referring to the deal reached in May between Democratic lawmakers and the Bush administration to add provisions for labor and environmental standards to the agreements. He said it was "very important" that the other trade agreements follow.
BACK ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Eight-term California Rep. Becerra, who said he has supported all US trade agreements except one with the Dominican Republic and five Central American countries (DR-CAFTA), said that Colombia has shown Congress that it is committed to making changes. But, to be meaningful, that commitment will have to be corroborated by "facts on the ground," he said.
Becerra suggested that trade deals with the region would help put the US' relationship with Latin America "back on the right track," and warned that other leaders in the region are stepping in to fill a void left by the US.
"When the US is a no-show, others will fill the void," Becerra warned, citing the presidents of Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba as stepping in to represent "a lot of folks who've decided not to follow our lead."
"We have an opportunity now to move forward on Peru, Panama, and I hope on Colombia perhaps in the future," he said.
"I think it would be a mistake for us ... to turn our backs on our neighbors," agreed Cuellar, a second-term member from Texas who said he was the first Democrat to support DR-CAFTA. "So we're certainly waiting for those trade agreements and hopefully we can vote on them hopefully before the month, at least one of them coming in."
Several of the lawmakers also expressed support for a US aid package to help Mexico curb illicit drug trafficking.
Cuellar predicts that the Bush administration will iron out the details with Mexico and present a package for Congress' approval by the end of this month.
"I certainly feel confident we'll get the support," Cuellar said. But it will be important to stress the package as a "partnership" and not "aid" in order to reach an agreement with Mexico, he said.
"It's about time that we engage Mexico in a serious way to address all forms of trafficking," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) said.
Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter.