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The Real Colombian-Trade Story


It’s understandable that Mark Penn’s departure from the Clinton campaign has made so much news over the weekend, but the political story isn’t the most important. That’s the fate for the Colombian free-trade deal that Penn’s firm was helping to promote.

As the Houston Chronicle reports, the trade pact is about to be submitted to Congress, perhaps as soon as this week. There will be a vote by September, giving the issue heightened attention during political-convention season. Given the loss of momentum for sensible international trade policy in recent years, the vote will have a symbolic value far beyond the economic benefits from codifying free trade with the South-American nation. It will also be seen as a key vote of confidence — or lack of confidence — in Alvaro Uribe, a pro-U.S. leader in a dangerous neighborhood and a counterweight to the revolutionary pretensions and violence of Hugo Chavez, a financier of terrorism.

It won’t be an easy sell:

Many Democrats oppose the accord on the grounds it would reward a government that has condoned anti-union violence and human-rights abuses. The House Republican leadership is attempting to frame the political struggle as a vote for either Uribe or Chavez.

As part of the lobbying effort, the U.S. Trade Representative, Susan Schwab, has been taking congressional delegations to the Andean country. One such delegation, which left Washington this weekend with Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, planned to stop in Bogota, Medellin and a coffee farm whose crop is exported to the United States. The lawmakers planned to meet with Uribe, whose crackdown on rebels, drug traffickers and kidnappers has made him highly popular at home.

But the timing of the vote could not be more precarious for the administration, with the economy becoming a top concern of many voters, and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton competing to show their opposition to free trade.

“In most parts of the country, free trade is a dirty word,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst.

Critics blame, in particular, the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada for blue-collar job losses, particularly in the Rust Belt states of the Midwest.

Exit polls taken during the March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio seem to bear Rothenberg out. Some 81 percent of Ohio voters who participated in the exit polls said NAFTA took away U.S. jobs. Even in Texas, which has been more friendly to free trade, 59 percent said NAFTA had cost American jobs.


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