To hear Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pander for votes in Ohio, one would think free trade is the scourge of America. Don’t buy it. In the years since 1993, when NAFTA first took effect, our economy has grown by over 54 percent, added over 25 million jobs and experienced historically low unemployment numbers hovering around 5 percent.
But the isolationist fervor on the Democratic campaign trail has further exhausted Congress’s willingness to approve pending free-trade deals with important allies such as Colombia. Our Latin American friends have long complained that we treat them like a forgotten backwater. We sit on our heels, however, at our own peril. Our reluctance to deepen our economic ties with Latin America leaves a vacuum to be exploited by our adversaries. Venezuelan socialist megalomaniac-in-chief Hugo Chavez is making this point abundantly clear.
As Colombia and Panama anxiously wait for Congress to decide on free-trade agreements they signed with President Bush, Chavez ramps up efforts to export his Bolivarian revolution across Latin America. His brashness unleashes a wave of fear in capitals from Brazil to Mexico. In the hearts and minds of ordinary people across the region, the choices are clear: A Chavez-style authoritarian government that stifles democracy and looks upon America with contempt; or a politically open, democratic government that works with America to build prosperity. There is no better way to reassure our allies and reaffirm our commitment to region than to forge free-trade pacts. The more exposure Latin American countries have to economic opportunity, prosperity, and peace, the less attractive they will find Chavez’s siren-song of freedom-free socialism.
Today in our hemisphere Colombia is ground zero in the struggle for democracy. President Alvaro Uribe, our reliable partner in the war on drugs, last week found himself in a rhetorical fistfight with Chavez that threatened to plunge the Andes into war. On March 1, Colombia launched a strike that killed 24 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels encamped in Ecuador less than a mile from Colombia’s southwestern border. Among the dead was Raul Reyes, a high-level figure in the leftist group that uses the drug trade — yes, the same network we have spent billions to combat — to finance its brutal terrorist activities inside Colombia.
Most revealing was Chavez’s explosive response to the strike. Venezuela immediately recalled its diplomats from Colombia and mobilized 10 army battalions on the Colombian border while pressing Chavez’s ally, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, to activate his forces as well. Now we learn that after the strike on Reyes, Colombian authorities recovered a treasure trove of incriminating data on three laptop computers exposing Chavez and Correa’s intimate ties to the FARC. For years, Bogota has complained about the free rein and outright support Chavez has given the rebels inside Venezuela. But now Colombia says it has evidence that Chavez recently gave the rebels $300 million, met several times in secret with high-level FARC leaders, and has even accepted cash from them when he was imprisoned 16 years ago.
Chavez’s determination to undermine both Colombia and our war on drugs is why we cannot turn our backs on the pending trade deal with Colombia. While the agreement languishes in the halls of Congress, Chavez seizes the opportunity to expand his influence and provoke crises in the region. Venezuela’s windfall oil profits have fueled purchases of $3 billion in Russian arms, terrorists to fight proxy wars and, here in America, Joe Kennedy. Some of these purchases of military hardware include helicopters, SU-30 Sukhoi fighter jets, and other weapons that are bankrupting the Venezuelan people but making Chavez a major threat to the stability of South America.
Congress took a welcome first step when it recently passed an extension of the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA) to eliminate or reduce tariffs on imports from Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. But the ATPA fails to level the playing field for U.S. exporters. That’s unfortunate since Colombia is the third-largest market in South America. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement would increase U.S. exports to Colombia by $1.1 billion. Imports would increase by $487 million. How ironic that so many of this trade agreement’s opponents are the same people who continually wring their hands over the trade deficit.
U.S. opponents of the agreement use the issue of violence against union members in Colombia to squelch the deal. They won’t acknowledge the redoubled effort the Uribe government recently has made to protect unionists and prosecute those who do them harm. Violence against labor leaders has dropped markedly as the government spends $38 million for their protection.
In the 21st century, free trade and the open exchange of ideas is a powerful mechanism not only to enhance our economy, but to promote democracy and good will. Congress would be wise to pass the Colombian trade deal and uphold the bond of trust entered into at the start of negotiations with Colombia. In Latin America, and especially Colombia, it can serve as an antidote to Chavez’s aggressive anti-American socialist ambitions.
– Eric Cantor, a congressman from Virginia, is chief deputy Republican whip.