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Colombia FTA Next?

It remains unclear when and if the US Congress will approve the US-Colombia free trade agreement, experts say.

Special to the Chronicle

US Senator and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton [recently] announced her opposition to a proposed US free trade agreement with Colombia (as well as to FTAs with Panama and South Korea), citing concern about Colombia’s "history of violence against trade unionists." Where does that leave the FTA with Colombia? Given the opposition by Clinton and other Democratic lawmakers, is there any hope it will be approved by Congress?

Charles Rangel, Member of the US House of Representatives from New York and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee: I do not support passage of the Colombia FTA—there simply are not enough votes to take up the agreement at this time. As I have previously stated, it is up to those who do support the Colombia FTA to convince members of Congress and round up the votes for the bill. Proponents for the agreement have not adequately addressed the question of persistent violence in Colombia. The ball is in Colombia's court to show significant progress in this area if they wish to persuade the American people and Congress.

Edward Schumacher-Matos, columnist and media consultant, and former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Americas: Hillary Clinton's declaration bodes badly for congressional approval of a free trade agreement with Colombia before the presidential elections a year from now. The agreement—and Colombia—are victims of domestic politics and shortsighted self-righteousness. Ms. Clinton and many in Congress, particularly Democrats, are responding to electoral pressure from unions and populists opposed to free trade. The concern for Colombian trade unionists is a convenient fig leaf. That concern, pushed by human rights groups and by leftists opposed to President Alvaro Uribe, is legitimate but misplaced. The free trade agreement is designed to benefit Americans and Colombians, not their governments. Uribe, soon to be a lame duck anyway, is prickly but democratic and has made great strides in reducing violence in the face of a terrifically difficult guerrilla situation. Some decisions may come back to haunt him. The assassination of trade unionists, however, has in fact appreciably decreased. What remains, carried out by paramilitaries possibly helped by rogues in the military, is hardly justifiable but appears in many cases to have more to do with unionists suspected of aiding FARC guerrillas than with union activity. Legitimate union activity is becoming pretty much normal in Colombia today. The current mayor of Bogota is a popular trade unionist whose voters overlap greatly with the popular Uribe's. What we want to do is encourage those trends by making Colombia richer and stronger through trade, which benefits the US, too.

Jon Huenemann, Principal in the International Department at Miller & Chevalier, and a former Assistant US Trade Representative with responsibilities in the Americas: It certainly does not help the near-term prospects for FTA implementing legislation with Colombia being addressed by the Congress. On the other hand, Senator Clinton's concern as stated is focused on violence against labor union members in Colombia. This is nothing new and has been the central point of discussion in the public domain about the Colombia FTA and its obstacles in Congress for some time, and it is a relatively narrowly focused criticism by the senator. The trade committee leadership of the House and the Senate have been fully aware of this 'impediment' and yet they are not indicating there is no prospect this Colombia FTA will get taken up at some point by this Congress. That is in part due to the fact that the administration has a role in this matter in that it submits the implementing legislation package, which starts the clock ticking on a process within existing trade promotion authority. Furthermore, efforts continue to talk through and address the situation surrounding this 'violence' concern in the US Congress, the US administration and in Colombia by policymakers. Accordingly, it is not time to shut the door on a Colombia FTA in this Congress.

Enrique Gómez-Pinzón, Partner at Holland & Knight LLP in New York: The issue is not whether the FTA between Colombia and the US will be approved by the US Congress, but when it will be approved. Senator Clinton is the most visible of the Democrats who have raised concerns regarding the treatment that unionists receive in Colombia. But this alarm is not new. Many Democrats have brought up these concerns, echoing their constituents. The fact is that there are many other important issues in the local agenda that need to be addressed before the FTA with Colombia. Politics is local, and Colombians need to understand that the US is still a friend. No wonder Colombia continues to receive funds for the Plan Colombia. However, it is clear by now that while the Democrats are in control of Congress the FTA with Colombia will only be approved once Colombia is able to show evidence of progress in the way unionists are treated. The press reports that Colombia has been working to show not only members of Congress but also their constituents, e.g. US trade unions, that there is a will to change and that steps toward improving are being taken. Once the relevant Democrats as well as their constituents are satisfied with advancement, and only when other more pressing issues in the local political agenda are addressed, the Colombia-US FTA will be approved by Congress.

Mac Destler, Saul Stern Professor at the Maryland School of Public Policy and a Visiting Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics: The Colombia FTA faces strong opposition. Congressional consideration has already been pushed back to next year, and it may have to wait until after the 2008 presidential election. The United States would, of course, gain economically from the deal, since it would replace Colombia's preferential, one-way market access with reciprocal, two-way openness. Approval of the deal would also buttress an important political relationship. But there is widespread congressional concern (particularly among Democrats, but not limited to them) about murders of Colombian trade union leaders and impunity for the perpetrators. This is one reason why organized labor in the United States has declared its vehement opposition. Is there any hope? As an unpopular, lame-duck president, George W. Bush has little influence over congressional Democrats and diminishing impact over legislators in his own party. The only plausible route to approval is for leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee to find a way to support the accord. In conjunction with their May 10 accord with the administration on labor and environmental provisions of FTAs, full committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Trade Subcommittee chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) wrote US Trade Representative Susan Schwab highlighting the 'special' problem of 'persistent violence against trade unions,' but adding they 'undoubtedly will visit Colombia for first hand observation as we explore a timely and effective solution.' Such a visit might or might not prove successful, but it may be the best option available.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter. 


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