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Lame Duck: Colombia FTA?

Will the US-Colombia free trade agreement pass in a "Lame Duck" session? Four experts share their predictions.

Inter-American Dialogue 

A delegation from Colombia lobbied the US Congress [recently] for passage of the pending free trade agreement (FTA) with the US. Does the Colombia FTA stand a chance of passing in the "lame-duck" session of Congress, as some supporters of the bill have suggested? If the Colombia FTA does not pass, what is at stake for Colombia economically and politically?

Alexander Watson, Managing Director at Hills & Company and former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs: The Colombians seem to have done everything, and then some, to secure a Trade Promotion Agreement with the United States. The TPA includes very important benefits for U.S. exporters and investors. They made adjustments conforming to the bipartisan deal on labor and the environment. They addressed human rights concerns. They sent scores of private and public sector representatives to present their case in Washington, including President Alvaro Uribe, who has visited several times.(...)  In fact, there may well be enough support in Congress to approve the TPA if it comes to a vote. But that may not happen. The Colombia TPA is snared in a political and legislative web drawn tighter by the U.S. electoral campaign. In addition to issues concerning the TPA itself, its fate is entwined with that of the Andean Trade Preference Act that will expire at the end of the year unless extended. The Administration apparently wants Congress to vote on the TPA before considering the ATPA that provides temporary unilateral trade benefits. Some in Congress want to extend the ATPA soon, but this is complicated by differences on whether Bolivia (expulsion of the U.S. ambassador) and Ecuador (mistreatment of US firms) should be included. Thus, it seems unlikely the TPA or ATPA will come up in the current Congressional session. And it is not at all certain there will be a lame duck session. But anything can happen. If the TPA is not approved, Colombia will be denied permanent preferential access to the U.S. market and the consequent assurances for investors, with implications for the country's economic performance. Politically, Colombians and the world will see the United States unable to adopt a measure in its own interest that would solidify a relationship with a close neighbor in which it has invested billions of dollars in pursuit of common objectives.

Jerry Weller, (R-IL), member of the US House of Representatives: Much can be said about who wins and loses if Congress fails to bring up for a vote and ratify the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. Failure will cause my constituents to lose, especially farmers, manufacturers and workers who would benefit from greater access to a market of 42 million people, almost equal to the total population of the DR-CAFTA countries. Since Presidents Uribe and Bush signed the agreement almost two years ago, over $1 billion in tariffs have been levied on U.S. products exported to Colombia. This represents over $1 billion in lost sales since many buyers would use the savings to buy more US made products. We all win when Colombian import duties are lifted when the agreement goes into effect. Unfortunately, our enemies would also win if we rejected this agreement or failed to even bring it up for a vote. Almost everyone in Latin America identifies President Uribe and Colombia as the United States' closest friend and ally in South America. When democracy is under siege, our opponents would quickly label the United States as an unreliable partner and a friend that can't be counted upon to deliver when needed. It's time for Congress to act. At a time when exports are the primary driver of U.S. economic growth, we all win when we open new markets and expand trade opportunities.

Jeff Vogt, Global Economic Policy Specialist at the AFL-CIO: It is very unlikely that the free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia will be put to a vote this calendar year. The U.S. economy is in turmoil, trade agreements remain deeply unpopular, and the situation on the ground in Colombia is deteriorating. In the first eight months of 2008, 41 Colombian trade unionists were assassinated. This is a dramatic increase over 2007, when 39 unionists were murdered that year. Still, all too few are held accountable for these atrocities. The rate of impunity for the nearly 2,700 union murders since 1986 is over 96 percent. And the nation's labor laws, like our own, are in need of reform if workers are able to exercise their basic rights. The Uribe government has failed to take the necessary steps to implement needed labor law reforms. The hundreds of thousands of dollars that the Colombian government must have spent on the latest lobbying blitz would have been better used actually addressing the human rights situation, rather than talking about it. The government's desire for the FTA has provided some leverage in bringing about modest improvements; we should not give that up now, especially when there is mounting evidence that the problems are even more systemic and deeply rooted. Just [recently], the Washington Post reported that Gen. Mario Montoya, Colombia's army chief, is currently under investigation by Colombia’s Attorney General for his ties to paramilitary death squads. Paramilitaries are responsible for the majority of trade union murders in Colombia. Colombia must show concretely that it can enforce the rule of law and protect the rights and the lives of workers who struggle to unionize and bargain collectively. If the FTA does not pass this year, bilateral trade relations between the United States and Colombia will likely continue on their current path. Colombia currently enjoys virtually complete access to the U.S. market under the Andean Trade Preferences Act, and it is unlikely that Congress will allow these trade preferences to lapse. While trade preferences are not a permanent solution, they will provide a bridge until conditions on the ground improve and a better agreement can be worked out. Hopefully, the next Administration will engage with Colombia (and Latin America) in a more serious dialogue that, while including trade, embraces a much broader range of issues that address the needs and aspirations of both our countries.

Jay Eizenstat, attorney at Miller & Chevalier and former Director for Customs Affairs in the Office of the United States Trade Representative: Based on my recent conversations with Congressional staffers and officials at USTR, there are reasonably good prospects that, at long last, the Colombia FTA will get the vote it deserves during a 'Lame Duck' session of Congress. At the moment, the upcoming Presidential election is crowding-out the Colombia FTA, but clearly the recent visit by Colombia's Foreign Minister, the upcoming visit by President Uribe, the intense lobbying by the Colombian government, the frequent Congressional trips to Colombia, not to mention the rising regional instability all suggest that the politics are ripe for Congressional passage of the Colombia FTA—after the Presidential election. Congressional passage of the Colombia FTA will send a strong, positive message of continued US support for Colombia and our other regional trading partners at a time when it is important economically and politically for the United States to shore-up and show support for democracies in South America. Congressional passage of the Colombia FTA is in the U.S. economic and national security interest, and I am cautiously optimistic that Congress will consider and pass the Colombia FTA with those considerations in mind.

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



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