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Colombia Deserves Better



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Once upon a time, the United States and Colombia signed a free-trade agreement. The date was Nov. 22, 2006 — a moment when Don Rumsfeld was still U.S. defense secretary, John Bolton was still U.N. ambassador, Denny Hastert was still House speaker, Bill Frist was still Senate majority leader, and Saddam Hussein was still alive. America had not yet begun surging troops in Iraq, and Steve Jobs had not yet unveiled the original iPhone.

Think of it this way: We are now closer to the inauguration of the 114th Congress (in January 2015) than we are to November 2006. But the Colombia FTA still has not received final approval on Capitol Hill.

It gets worse: On February 12, the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) expired, which means that many Colombian exporters have temporarily lost their duty-free access to the U.S. market. ATPA began in the early 1990s, briefly lapsed at the end of 2001, and then was revived in 2002 through the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Its purpose has been to discourage drug cultivation and boost legal economic activity in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.

When ATPA expired, so did Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a federal program that helps workers whose jobs were eliminated either by import competition or by specified production shifts. A House vote to extend both ATPA and TAA was slated for February 8, but it was postponed after Republicans objected to the TAA provisions and Democrats voiced concerns about the funding method. Why not simply extend ATPA and deal with TAA separately? “Linking TAA and ATPA was seen as the only way to get Andean trade preferences through the Senate,” says a senior GOP House aide.

Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp has now introduced separate legislation that would resuscitate ATPA without addressing TAA (though Democrats will surely seek to block it). The Michigan Republican is also demanding that the Obama administration take action on the Colombia, Panama, and South Korea FTAs by July 1. According to U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk, the Korea pact — which Washington and Seoul recently finalized — will be sent to Capitol Hill sometime “in the next few weeks.” As for the Colombia and Panama accords, the administration is hoping to have them “transmitted to the Congress by around the middle of the year, with the objective of having them completed, approved by the Congress, maybe before the end of the year,” senior State Department official Matthew Rooney told reporters last week.

The same day Rooney made those comments, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus and GOP ranking member Orrin Hatch sent a letter to the U.S. trade chief urging swift movement on the Colombia and Panama deals. Noting that Kirk is scheduled to testify before their panel on March 9, Baucus and Hatch conveyed their expectation that he would “come prepared to (1) identify specifically any additional steps that the Administration believes Panama or Colombia should take; and (2) provide a clear and expeditious timetable for moving both agreements through the U.S. Congress.”

Opponents of the Colombia FTA continue to argue that Bogotá has shown insufficient progress in curbing violence against labor unionists. Yet by any objective measure, the South American country has made extraordinary security gains — gains that were unimaginable during the Escobar years or the dark days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The horrific guerrilla and paramilitary violence that once threatened its destruction has been subdued through U.S.-aided military efforts and a massive demobilization campaign. Cities and towns have been reclaimed from illegal combatants; democratic institutions have been strengthened; societal confidence has been restored; and Colombia has experienced an economic renaissance.

Regardless of whether we rely on official government statistics or figures from a union-affiliated source, both the number and the rate of trade-unionist murders have declined enormously, thanks in part to a special government protection program. Indeed, according to an exhaustive study by Colombian economists Daniel Mejía and María José Uribe, “the decrease in homicides of union members is larger when one uses the data reported by the unions’ NGO — Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS) — than when one uses government data. Furthermore, the decrease in homicides against union members has been steeper than the reduction observed in the total homicide rate for Colombia and in the rate for other vulnerable groups (teachers, journalists, mayors and councilmen). When analyzing the determinants of union member homicides, there is no evidence supporting the hypothesis that the homicide rate for union members can be explained by involvement in union activities, such as wage agreements and negotiations, or work stoppages and strikes” (emphasis added). Mejía and Uribe thus conclude that “violence against union members in Colombia is neither systematic nor targeted.”

Admittedly, the country still has a frighteningly high overall murder rate, and it is still plagued by nasty drug violence. (For example: Medellín — Colombia’s second-largest city, and once the most dangerous on earth — witnessed a sharp spike in drug-related crime after the 2008 extradition of paramilitary boss/drug lord Diego “Don Berna” Murillo created a volatile power vacuum.) Nevertheless, Colombia remains the biggest Latin American success story of the last decade. “Against all odds,” Newsweek correspondent Mac Margolis wrote in July, “Colombia has become the country to watch in the hemisphere. In the past eight years the nation of 45 million has gone from a crime- and drug-addled candidate for failed state to a prospering dynamo.” According to the World Bank, it is now easier to do business in Colombia than in Chile, which has long been hailed as the region’s free-market powerhouse.

Concerns about persistent violence are legitimate, but they must be kept in perspective. Colombia has made remarkable progress. And it deserves better treatment from the United States.



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