For more than a year, my administration has worked with both parties in Congress to seek a path to bring this agreement up for approval. We continue to stand ready to negotiate a bipartisan way forward. But time is running out, and we must not allow delay to turn into inaction. The Colombia agreement is pivotal to America's national security and economic interests right now, and it is too important to be held up by politics. There needs to be a vote on Colombia this year.
GET THE JOB DONE
And that means that members of the Congress must be ready to move forward with the agreement when they return from the Easter recess. Members of both parties should work with this administration to bring legislation to implement the Colombia agreement to the floor for approval, and they need to get the job done, and get a bill to my desk.
And I'll tell you why -- because this agreement with Colombia will advance our national security and economic interests, in these ways: Colombia is one of our closest allies in the Western Hemisphere. Under the leadership of President Uribe, Colombia has been a strong and capable partner, a strong and effective partner in fighting drugs and crime and terror. Colombia has also strengthened its democracy, reformed its economy. It has spoken out against anti-Americanism. This government has made hard choices that deserves the admiration and the gratitude of the United States.
These actions have required courage, and they've come with costs. As we speak, Colombia is under assault from a terrorist network known as the FARC, which aims to overthrow Colombia's democracy and aims to impose a Marxist vision on the country. The FARC pursues this objective through bombing, hostage-taking and assassination, much of it funded by drug trafficking. Since 2003 -- since 2003 -- attacks by the FARC have killed or injured more than 1,500 civilians. Last summer the FARC executed 11 Colombian lawmakers after holding them captive for five years. And the FARC continues to use jungle camps to hold hundreds of kidnapped victims, including three U.S. citizens.
President Uribe has waged an aggressive campaign against FARC terrorists, who do not respect national sovereignty or borders. Earlier this month, Colombian forces killed one of FARC's most senior leaders -- a man believed to be responsible for trafficking cocaine and murdering hundreds of people.
And the response to all this action reveals the challenges that Colombia faces. The President of Venezuela praised the terrorist leader as a "good revolutionary," and ordered his troops to the Colombian border. This is the latest step in a disturbing pattern of provocative behavior by the regime in Caracas. It has also called for FARC terrorists to be recognized as a legitimate army, and senior regime officials have met with FARC leaders in Venezuela.
As it tries to expand its influence in Latin America, the regime claims to promote social justice. In truth, its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power. It has squandered its oil wealth in an effort to promote its hostile, anti-American vision. And it has left its own citizens to face food shortages while it threatens its neighbors.
The stakes are high in South America. As the recent standoff in the Andes shows, the region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe. I've made my choice. I'm standing with courageous leadership that believes in freedom and peace. (Applause.) And I believe when the American people hear the facts, they will make their choice and stand with a person who loves liberty and freedom.
SIGNAL OF US COMMITMENT
And there is no clearer sign of our support than a free trade agreement. This agreement would help President Uribe show his people that democracy leads to tangible benefits. This agreement would help create new jobs in Colombia, which would make it harder to recruit people to violence and terrorism and drug trafficking. The agreement would signal to the region that America's commitment to free markets and free people is unshakable.
And now it calls on Congress to decide -- to decide whether this agreement will take effect. People across the hemisphere are watching. They are waiting to see what Congress will do. Some members of Congress have raised concerns over the situation in Colombia.
Again and again, President Uribe has responded decisively. He's responded to concerns about violence by demobilizing tens of thousands of paramilitary fighters. He's responded to concerns about attacks on trade unionists by stepping up funding for prosecutions, establishing an independent prosecutors unit, and creating a special program to protect labor activists. He's responded to concerns over labor and environmental standards by revising the free trade agreement to include some of the most rigorous protections of any agreement in history.
CRIPPLE US INFLUENCE
As one Democratic House member put it, it's impossible for someone to go to Colombia and not be impressed with the strides they have made. (...) If this isn't enough to earn America's support, then what is? If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, we would validate antagonists in Latin America, who would say that the America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends. We would cripple our influence in the region, and make other nations less likely to cooperate with us in the future. We would betray one of our closest friends in our own backyard.
In the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, "If the U.S. turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin America dictator could hope to achieve." Congress needs to listen to those wise words as they consider this important bill. Members of both parties should come together, members of both parties should demonstrate their support for freedom in our hemisphere, and members of both parties should (...) approve the Colombian free trade agreement.
These strategic benefits are not the only reason for Congress to approve our trade agreement with Colombia. The agreement will also bring economic gains for both countries. Today virtually all exports from Colombia enter into the United States duty-free, but U.S. exports to Colombia face tariffs up to 35 percent. Now think about that: Goods coming from Colombia to us enter our country virtually duty-free, and yet goods going from the United States to Colombia are taxed.
Now, doesn't it make sense to pass an agreement that says the Colombians will treat us the way we treat them? If you're a farmer or interested in exporting construction equipment or aircraft and auto parts, or medical and scientific equipment, your goods will now go into Colombia duty-free, which means you're more likely to be able to sell your goods into Colombia. And if you're working for one of those companies, it means you're more likely to be able to keep your job.
I can't understand a mentality that doesn't recognize that causing America to be treated equally is not [sic] in our interests. It is in our interests. Every day that Congress goes without approving this agreement is a day that our businesses, large and small, become less competitive. It's missed opportunity.
This agreement is especially important during a difficult period for our economy. Listen, last year exports accounted for more than 40 percent of growth. Doesn't it make sense to open up markets, to continue to grow our economy with good exports? I think it does, and this is an opportunity for the United States Congress to send a clear message that they are concerned, like I'm concerned, about the state of our economy. They, like me, want to provide opportunities for our producers and our workers to be able to find new markets and expanded markets for U.S. goods and services.
This agreement will also benefit Colombia. It will give Colombian exporters the certainty that comes with permanent access. This will help stimulate investment and economic growth and higher standards of living for families in Colombia. And it will make it clear to the Colombian people we're partners in prosperity and we're partners in peace.
The time is coming when members will get their vote, yes or no. My administration is committed to working this agreement hard on the floor of the Congress. I firmly believe it is in our interests that this be passed. It's not in our political interests -- we ought to just put politics aside and focus on what's best for the United States of America. And what is best for our country is to get this agreement approved soon.
Congress also ought to approve the other two trade agreements on their agenda after they approve this one. Congress needs to approve the trade agreement with Panama, which will open up U.S. access to one of the fastest-growing economies in Central America and support a key democratic partner. Congress also needs to approve the free trade agreement with South Korea, which has the potential to boost U.S. exports by more than $10 billion while strengthening a key ally. (...)
TIMEOUT FROM GROWTH
You know, some have called for a "timeout" from trade. I guess that's probably popular with the focus group. You know, they toss out the word "timeout" from trade -- it's got this kind of catchy little title to it. In the 21st century, a timeout from trade would be a timeout from growth, a timeout from jobs, and a timeout from good results. And retreating from the opportunities of the global economy would be a reckless mistake that our country cannot afford.
And there's a better answer -- and one of them shows faith in the American workers. Instead of trying to stand against the growth of global trade, instead of granting other people access to markets that we ourselves could have, instead of squandering an opportunity, why don't we help educate people? Why don't we provide educational opportunities so workers will have the skills necessary to fill the high-paying jobs of the 21st century?
These agreements that I've talked about deserve support from both sides of the aisle. Today I want to make a direct appeal to the members of the Democratic Party. From Franklin Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, Democrats have a long history of supporting trade. Opening markets has been a history and a cornerstone of Democratic policy. President Clinton said, when he signed legislation to implement NAFTA 14 years ago, "We're on the verge of a global economic expansion that is sparked by the fact that the United States at this critical moment decided we would compete and not retreat." I fully support those strong words, those confident words, those optimistic words about America's ability to compete in the world. Thanks in part to the market-opening set in motion by the President, trade between the United States, Mexico and Canada has more than tripled since 1993.
I know there's a lot of criticism of NAFTA, but I will tell you this: I grew up in Texas, I remember what the border was like. And I would ask people to go down to that border today and see the benefits, the mutual benefits, of what trade has meant for people who, on both sides of the border, for years grew up in abject poverty. (...)
The transformation has been remarkable because both sides have benefited. Both sides have realized the blessings of trade, as has Canada. All three of our economies, by the way, since that agreement was signed, have grown by more than 50 percent. More than 25 million new jobs have been created in the United States. The unemployment rate is lower than in previous decades. Workers, farmers, entrepreneurs have seen real improvements in their daily lives, including many Hispanic-owned businesses on both sides of the border.
Listen, NAFTA has worked. People shouldn't back away from NAFTA. It's been a positive development for a lot of people. And if you're worried about people coming to our country to find jobs, there's no better way to help somebody stay home than for there to be prosperity in their neighborhood. I'm convinced most people don't want to try to sneak into America to work. I'm convinced most people would rather have a job close to their -- close to where they live. And trade helps increase prosperity. It's mutually beneficial for Canada, the United States and (...) Mexico. (...)
NOT POLITICALLY EASY
I understand supporting free trade agreements is not politically easy. There are a lot of special interest groups that are willing to spend a lot of money to make somebody's life miserable when it comes to supporting free trade agreements. But I believe leadership requires people rising above this empty, hollow political rhetoric. If you're committed to multilateral diplomacy, you cannot support unilateral withdrawal from trade agreements. If you're worried (...) about America's image in the world, it makes no sense to disappoint the nations that are counting on us most. If you care about lifting developing nations out of poverty, you cannot deny them access to the world's greatest engine of economic growth. If you're truly optimistic about our country's future, there's no reason to wall our nation off from the opportunities of the world. (..)
I believe Congress will do the right thing. When it's all said and done, they'll take a hard look at the facts. They will take a look at the consequences of rejecting a trade agreement with our close ally. They'll take a good look at the consequences of sending the wrong message to the false populists of the region. They'll take a simple logical look at how this can benefit our farmers and small business owners and employers.
George W. Bush is the president of the United States. This column is based on an excerpt from his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. on March 5, 2008.