Colombia hopes to win U.S. hearts in the free trade debate.
BY MATTHEW SCHEWEL
Latin America Advisor
WASHINGTON — With a Colombia-U.S. free trade agreement stalled in both houses of the U.S. Congress over concerns about human rights and judicial reform in the South American country, the Colombian government is taking its case directly to the American public, mounting a large-scale public relations campaign that made a stop earlier this month in downtown Washington.
The exhibit, which consists of 47 giant hearts showcasing various products and cultural contributions from Colombia, is now on display in New York, where Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, in town for the UN General Assembly meeting, paid a visit last week.
The effort, coordinated by Colombian export promotion agency ProExport, is aimed at reaching a broader audience than those typically involved in trade debates. "I think the campaign is not a message to the lobbyists or to the political people but to the general public," said Jaime Echavarria, director of ProExport USA. Echavarria and the Colombian government are hoping the "Discover Colombia Through Its Heart" campaign will help change people's minds about the country. "We are very aware of the fact that the perception of Colombia per se is not the best," he said in an interview with the Advisor.
The hearts campaign is part of a larger effort by the country's trade ministry to attract investment in sectors ranging from information technology to medical tourism, Echavarria said.
But labor groups and others who oppose the free trade deal with Colombia say the exhibit paints an incomplete picture of the country. "[H]earts, flowers and Juan Valdez don't tell the whole truth about Colombia," James P. Hoffa, head of the powerful Teamsters union, wrote in a column in The Detroit News. "Colombia engages in systematic aggression against workers," Hoffa said, adding that the proposed FTA would weaken workers' rights in Colombia in addition to costing U.S. workers their jobs. However, Echavarria argued Colombia has made great strides in reducing crime and improving its justice system.
Echavarria acknowledged that U.S. policy in the region under President Barack Obama has shifted away from a strong emphasis on Colombia to focus more on regional powers like Mexico and Brazil. But he said Obama's "pragmatic" trade policy has also made it possible for the two governments to work closely on human rights and judicial reform issues during the past three months, a sign that has left the Colombians "encouraged."
He pointed to two recent actions by the Obama administration that could bode well for the FTA's passage. The first is the agreement to allow the U.S. military greater access to Colombian bases, which Echavarria said strengthened Colombia's position as a U.S. ally despite a strong criticism from other South American countries. In addition, the Obama administration's recent decision to impose tariffs on cheap Chinese tires may indicate the United States sees Asia as a greater economic threat than Latin America.
Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter.