As Hugo Chavez’s troops and tanks menace Colombia, President George W. Bush is pressing Congress to pass the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. For all the casual talk of U.S. militarism and “cowboy diplomacy,” it is the Bush administration that is offering peace, progress, and cooperation in Latin America, while Chavez and his allied thugs bluster and muster arms.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s courage in taking a perilous stand against terrorists is a persuasive indication that he is precisely the breed of ally we need in the region. Uribe deserves our support, and a trade accord would bolster his administration while benefiting both our nations’ economies.
The trade deal with Colombia would cost the U.S. almost nothing — most Colombian goods already enter the U.S. duty-free — but would open Colombia’s markets to American exporters, strengthening our economic and security ties to a country that shares our interest in countering terrorism and authoritarianism in South America.
The dispute between Uribe and Chavez arose after Colombia’s killing of terrorist Raul Reyes, the No. 2 in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC. The pursuit of Reyes took the Colombian military about a mile and a half into Ecuador, which has long provided a safe haven to FARC. The U.S., the European Union and virtually every civilized country in the world numbers FARC among the world’s bloodiest narco-terrorist gangs. Hugo Chavez is an exception to that rule and has declared that FARC is a legitimate army; subsequent to the killing of Reyes, Chavez raised a ruckus about the violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty and massed troops on the Venezuela-Colombia border — a signal that Colombia’s pursuit of FARC terrorists into their bases in Venezuela would mean war.
Uribe refused to kowtow to such bullying, declaring, “We are not warmongers, but we are not weak. We cannot allow terrorists who seek refuge in other countries to spill the blood of our countrymen.” No country can accept a status quo in which a terrorist organization is free to mount attacks and then flee to protection in a neighboring country.
While Chavez offers threats, we can offer Colombia enhanced trade — and it would be in our interest to do so. Most Colombian imports already enter the U.S. untaxed as a result of the Andean Trade Preferences Act. The new agreement will create business opportunities for American producers of machinery, plastics, and agricultural exports.
Democrats will raise the familiar objections that the agreement does not include sufficient protections for Colombian workers and the environment. These complaints do not withstand scrutiny. Last year, the Bush administration called the Democrats’ bluff and amended our pending trade agreements to include virtually every new labor and environmental standard the Democrats demanded. This compromise cleared the way for the passage of the Peru FTA in December. The Colombia FTA includes the same standards as the Peru deal. The only thing that’s changed is the date on the calendar: We’re now deeper into an election year in which the Democrats have decided that denouncing free trade is good for them in swing states.
The Democrats incessantly charge that Republicans have repulsed our nation’s friends and allies with their brutish unilateralism, but there is no one less diplomatic or more jingoistic than a Democrat in the throes of an anti-trade harangue. The leading Democratic candidates for president already have unnerved our nearest allies with their strident protectionist rhetoric on the campaign trail. Now is the time for more sensible members of their party in Congress to affirm that they will not sacrifice prosperity and security for short-term political advantage. Congress should pass the Colombia FTA as soon as possible to show President Uribe that we support Colombia’s fight against terrorists and the regimes that enable them.