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How to Get Colombia FTA Approved

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How to get congressional approval of the Colombia-U.S. FTA.

BY PETER HAKIM


There are two reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the chances that Congress will ratify the Colombia-U.S. free trade agreement this year or shortly thereafter.

  • First, the House Democratic leadership cares about what happens in Colombia. The Foreign Aid bill for 2008, which continued major support for Plan Colombia, was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House. To be sure, the bill contained items other than Colombia that were important to members, and funding for Colombia was cut modestly and money was reallocated from military and anti-drug aid toward humanitarian and development programs. This shift, however, reflected both the success of the Uribe government in improving the security situation across Colombia, and the Democrats’ long standing interest in giving increased attention to social development and human rights in Colombia. The easy approval of the Colombia package underscores the good will toward Colombia on both sides of the aisle.
  • Second, 109 Democratic representatives (or nearly one-half of all Democrats in the House) voted to approve the Peru-U.S. FTA.  This was a half dozen more Democratic votes than NAFTA received in 1993 and some 35 more than supported the Chile-U.S. FTA in 2003. Some dismiss this vote as irrelevant, arguing that many Democrats supported the Peru accord simply to show they were not universally opposed to free trade, but they should now be expected to reject Colombia and most other agreements. To be sure, most Democrats do not benefit politically from voting for free trade pacts; the great majority has no real incentive ever to demonstrate a willingness to support free trade. But, the fact is that the bulk of Democrats who voted for the Peru-U.S. agreement did so because it included labor and environmental conditions they had long wanted incorporated in FTAs. And many of them may also be willing to vote for the Colombia-U.S. accord if it addresses their concerns.
In order to ratify the Colombia-U.S. FTA, some 40 to 50 Democratic votes will probably be needed in the House. More importantly, Speaker Pelosi’s assent will be needed to allow a vote to take place. (U.S. fast track legislation says that the White House can insist on a congressional vote without the Speaker’s concurrence. If the Administration proceeds that way, however, the result is almost certain to be a nearly straight partisan vote that will assure the FTA’s defeat.) The problem is that the Speaker has a series of linked incentives to avoid a vote. Most Democrats do not want to vote on trade legislation in this election year. The 50 or so Democrats who were newly elected in 2006 are especially wary because many of them face difficult re-election campaigns in competitive districts. Moreover, the AFL-CIO fiercely opposes the Colombia FTA—and there is no chance that it will shift to the neutral stance it adopted for the Peru accord. Although opposition to the Colombia pact partly reflects the AFL-CIO’s distaste for free trade generally, it also emerges from a genuine anger at the continuing (albeit abating) violence against labor leaders in Colombia and from the perception that the Uribe government has not vigorously pursued those responsible. The AFL-CIO is reinforced in its position by the advocacy of most private human rights organizations, which are influential among an important group of congressional Democrats. And the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee may use his or her influence to avert a vote as well.   

The challenge is how to surmount these disincentives facing the Speaker. What, if anything, can be done to persuade the Speaker to agree to a vote on the Colombia FTA and to help mobilize enough Democratic votes so that it will pass? The answer is suggested by the press release that she (along with Majority Leader Hoyer and Chairmen Rangel and Levin) issued on June 29th following the approval of the Peru-U.S. FTA by the Peruvian Congress.

In the press release, the Speaker and the two Chairmen refer to Colombia as “a crucial ally” and go on to say that:  
“There is widespread concern in Congress about the level of violence in Colombia, the impunity, the lack of investigations and prosecutions, and the role of the paramilitary….There must…be concrete evidence of sustained results on the ground…before consideration of any FTA.”
An earlier letter, dated May 10, 2007, from Chairmen Rangel and Levin to USTR Susan Schwab, agreeing “on the terms of the FTA for Peru and Panama” was more explicit and detailed. It said:
“Colombia has special problems and considerations not presented in the context of the Peru and Panama FTAs, including the systematic, persistent violence against trade unionists and other human rights defenders, the related problem of impunity, and the role of the paramilitaries in perpetuating these crimes. Congress and the Administration must work with the Government of Colombia…to determine what additional steps can be taken to allow for consideration of the FTA. Examples include a massive strengthening of the Attorney-General’s Office to prosecute crimes against trade unionists and others, and to prosecute crimes by paramilitaries.”
More recently (December 14), Chairman Levin set out a similar set of requirements, stating that:
“… he did not see congressional consideration of the pending Colombia free trade agreement unless major improvements are made with respect to the violence against labor leaders and killings with impunity….”

The Speaker and the two Chairmen should be taken at their word. That is that the Colombia FTA will not be brought up for a vote unless their concerns are addressed—and it will be if there is a serious response to those concerns.  This means that Colombia will have to make further progress on the various issues raised by the Speaker and the Chairmen, particularly on the issue of violence against labor union leaders. It seems clear that that is the only way that the Colombia FTA will be considered by the House and potentially gain congressional approval.

Although possible in principle, it would be self-defeating for President Bush to try to force the Democrats’ hand by submitting the FTA to Congress without the Speaker’s agreement. Staunch Democratic supporters of the Colombian accord have said they would vote against it, if it came to the floor without the leadership’s endorsement.

There is some argument that, since the Democratic leadership is, in effect, making a set of demands on the Colombian government, they should put forth what specifically they want in exchange for their support—rather than simply raising a series of concerns. The fact is, however, that the Democrats have made clear that they are not going to propose specific goals or measures to Colombia. But, in their letter to Susan Schwab, Chairmen Rangel and Levin say they and the Administration must “work with the Government of Colombia…to determine what additional steps can be taken to allow for consideration of the FTA.”  That means to me that key Democratic leaders are prepared to consult with the Colombian government on what it has to accomplish to allow a vote on the FTA.

The White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress should encourage the Colombian government to take the lead in developing a proposal for addressing the issues raised by the Speaker and her colleagues. Democratic leaders should be prepared to engage in a continuing give and take with members of the Colombian government as they develop the proposal.  Colombian officials should also be consulting with U.S. and Colombian labor leaders and human rights groups.

The Colombian proposal might start with a summary of what Colombia has, in fact, accomplished over the past several years in meeting the Democrats’ concerns. It might then present plans for the coming period, including:
  • A set of targets in each area of concern. For example, on the issue of violence against labor—the Colombian government might state its goals for investigating and prosecuting threats, assaults, and murders against union leaders, and what more it might do to protect them. On the issue of judicial impunity, the Colombians might set an objective for the number of cases they want to bring to trial in the next six months.
  • A plan for meeting each target, clearly stating the resources that would be available and the concrete initiatives that would be taken. For instance, the plan should include a statement of how many new investigators and prosecutors the government proposes to assign to bring to justice those responsible for attacking labor leaders, or to end impunity for other human rights crimes.
  • A plan for monitoring progress.  This should probably involve both official agencies and private groups.
10.  Colombian officials may not have much enthusiasm for taking the lead on this.  They are frustrated that the Democrats in Congress (and the party’s presidential candidates) seem unwilling to acknowledge Colombia’s enormous progress in recent years toward making the country more secure, grappling with human rights issues, and building the rule of law. Colombians also feel that Washington is largely ignoring the fact that their country has been the most important U.S. ally in Latin America in recent years. More than Peru or even Chile, Colombia has been the South American country that has consistently stood with the United States during a difficult period for US relations in the hemisphere.

Nonetheless, the Colombians should take the initiative, not only because it is the best way they can move the FTA forward—but also because it provides them with the opportunity to (1) make clear how far they have already advanced on the Democrats’ concerns and (2) demonstrate their continuing commitment to advancing further on all these fronts, which will, in the end, strengthen Colombian democracy further.  In addition, a forceful effort now to confront outstanding humanitarian and human rights issues would also help to highlight the progress that the Colombian government has made on security matters—by emphasizing it can now turn attention to other priority issues.

Still, it is important to recognize that, no matter what the Colombians do in the coming period, there is no guarantee that the Democratic leadership will allow a vote on the FTA. After all, a large majority of Democrats will likely oppose the FTA under any circumstances and the AFL-CIO is almost certain to continue its vehement opposition. The main reason to be hopeful is that an important number of Democrats have shown they care about Colombia—by voting time and again for major assistance (the most to any country outside the Middle East)  to support Colombia’s efforts to deal with its devastating drug and guerrilla problems and to restore security and law to the country. But, in order to gain ratification of the FTA, Colombia will have to work to address the Democrats’ continuing concerns about human rights in their country. Supporters of the FTA should be encouraging Colombia to do so, even though success is not assured.

This year, the Democratic majority managed to shift the emphasis of Plan Colombia aid away from anti-drug and anti-guerrilla activities toward humanitarian initiatives—including rural employment opportunities, assistance for displaced persons, the rebuilding of war-torn communities, and the protection of human rights. Democrats, or at least an important number of them, know that all of these goals will be reinforced by the economic benefits of a free trade pact with the United States—particularly a pact that requires further attention to human and labor rights from the Colombian government.  If the FTA is approved, the Democratic leadership can take substantial credit for encouraging a more humanitarian, more socially progressive, and more rights-directed course in Colombia. This is the main incentive for Democratic support for the Colombia-U.S. free trade agreement.

Peter Hakim is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
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