BY CARLOS M. GUTIERREZ
An important issue for me, and I hope that it is an important issue for all Latinos, is the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.
This, of course, is a trade issue, but it’s also commercial issue. It is also a foreign policy issue. It is a national security issue. But for me, I would say that it is also a Latino issue, it’s an Hispanic American issue, and I would hope that it is an issue that is important to all members of our community.
I’ve spent some time in Colombia. Over the last six months or so I’ve taken down four delegations of members of Congress. Colombia, as you know, is a friend. Colombia is a great ally. Colombia is a great country. And Colombia has achieved over the past 6, 8, 10 years, probably the single most impressive turnaround that I have ever seen in my career.
Colombia has been an ally for a long, long time. Colombia was the only Latin American country to send troops to Korea 50 years ago. So we’ve had a long standing relationship. We’ve been friends for a long time, and we have a strong interest in seeing Colombia have a prosperous and peaceful community.
About 10 years ago the only thing people heard about Colombia, the only thing you saw in the news about Colombia, was that the FARC, I’m sure you heard recently about the FARC over the last few days, this guerilla organization, the FARC, was outside of Bogotá, and there were risks that the government would fall. And that it literally would fall to the hands of guerilla organizations and drug cartels
With the help of Plan Colombia, a bipartisan initiative started then by President Clinton, we have helped Colombia today become a proud, vibrant, growing society. Crime is down in Colombia. The economy is growing; poverty rates are down. Labor violence has declined more than violence in the country as a whole. It’s been an amazing accomplishment. Over 30 thousand paramilitaries have turned in their weapons and have reincorporated into civil society.
REJOICED AFTER RESCUE
[Recently] I’m sure you all saw as the whole world rejoiced with the families and friends of the 15 hostages that were rescued from the FARC as a result of efforts of the Colombian government and the Colombian military. And we believe and I believe very passionately that the U.S. government should support Colombia and that Latinos throughout the United States should support Colombia given what Colombia has been through, given what they have accomplished, given how far they have come.
Now is the time that Colombia needs us. President Uribe, who by the way has an approval rating of about 80 percent in Colombia, 80 percent before the rescues, who knows where it is today, he believes the single biggest thing we can do to help Colombia continue to make progress is to approve the Free Trade Agreement.
Every time the President has asked him, every time we have asked him, “What can we do to help?” his response is “Ask Congress to approve the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.” So when you hear people say that they think they are doing the right thing for Colombian workers by not approving the agreement, just remind them that President Uribe has an 80 percent approval rating and he represents the Colombian people and he believes the single biggest thing we can do to help them is to approve the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. (...)
IMPORTANT FOR HEMISPHERE
It’s an important agreement for all Latin Americans. It’s an important agreement for our hemisphere. It’s an important agreement for our country.
We have asked our Congress to simply allow the FTA to come up for a vote. We don’t want any guarantees that it will pass. We just want it to be submitted for a vote. The agreement was signed over 600 days ago. And the incredible thing from a commercial standpoint, our exporters have paid over $1 billion dollars of tariffs that they wouldn’t have had to pay had the Agreement been approved.
So there’s no reason except for politics to keep this agreement from going to the floor of Congress. There is no reason to deny Colombia a Free Trade Agreement. Even though this is an election year and Free Trade Agreements are always tricky, we believe Colombia deserves better. (...)
I don’t like the fact that at a time when Colombia is getting so close to achieving something that they have been fighting for, literally fighting for, for almost 50 years, they’re getting close to having what they’ve always wanted: a peaceful society. Now that they are getting close, I don’t like the fact that the U.S. appears to be turning their back on Colombia. It’s not fair. It’s not right. We should be there every step of the way, and the way to help Colombia is to approve the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.
Carlos M. Gutierrez is the US Commerce Secretary and a former Chairmand and CEO of Kellogg Company. This column is based on an excerpt of the Secretary's remarks to the League of United Latin American Citizens, Washington, D.C., July 9, 2008.