There is little doubt that our reputation and motivations are under siege by demagogues around the world.
Only a few work as diligently at undermining the United States and threatening neighboring democracies as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s recent efforts to destabilize Latin America by amassing troops on the Colombian border in response to the killing of a terrorist leader cannot be ignored. Nor can we look the other way after a captured computer reveals Chavez’s direct funding of the notorious terrorist group FARC.
Ecuador, where the strike on the FARC camp took place, has frozen relations with Colombia. Meanwhile, another fellow Marxist. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, has followed Chavez’s lead and has also ended diplomatic ties to Colombia. Battle lines are being formed in Latin America; we need to look for ways to marginalize Chavez and reward our allies. One way to accomplish these objectives would be to pass the Colombian Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA).
Supporting a free-trade agreement is not easy. Global economists bring forward complex technical analyses and reams of mind-numbing statistics to back up their claims that free trade helps lift all boats. But I know from real-world experience that while some boats do rise, others sink. And it only takes one tour through the South Carolina communities where textile mills and manufacturing facilities have closed their doors because of unfair, foreign competition to realize there is a real-world human cost to supporting bad free trade agreements.
The Colombian TPA breaks that mold. In fact, I think it is vital to our national security and political interests, as it provides the opportunity to sustain and enhance our relationship with a key ally in South America. At this pivotal moment, the United States must stand with leaders who want to establish those roots more firmly, and who want to work against the short-sighted demagogues who would rip them out.
I recently toured Colombia with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and saw firsthand how a U.S. partnership with the brave people of Colombia, and their visionary leaders, has begun to bear fruit.
Anti-narcotics measures, such as Plan Colombia and the Andean Trade Preferences Act, have assisted Colombia in its determination to rid itself of turmoil and despair, and embrace a future of stability and prosperity. Drug cartels have been disbanded, and over 31,000 members of paramilitary groups have abandoned violence and returned to their towns and villages.
Cocaine production is down by a third since 2001. Homicides have dropped by 40 percent and kidnappings by a whopping 76 percent, while the number of people in poverty has dropped by 20 percent. I was deeply impressed by what I saw in Medellin and Bogota. Families now walk safely through streets that were drug-lord battlegrounds a decade ago.
Meetings with President Uribe, the defense minister, union officials, business leaders, and others, highlighted Colombia’s significant strides in dissuading people from paramilitary groups and illegal drug cultivation and trafficking. Now, as they attempt to turn people toward jobs and economic opportunities, the necessity of a free-trade agreement with the United States is clear.
President Uribe’s pleas to President Bush and many U.S. lawmakers to approve the agreement cannot easily be dismissed. If we reject his extended hand, we will send a signal throughout the region that the United States is an unreliable partner and that U.S. politicians are willing to let election year politics trump relationships with trusted allies.
No one would enjoy watching the U.S. abandon Colombia more than Hugo Chavez and new Cuban President Raul Castro. Chavez and Castro have seized on diminished U.S. popularity around the world to paint our country as a foe of freedom and economic opportunity. Why would we want to give them the political upper hand by rejecting the Colombia TPA?
The Peru FTA recognized the strategic imperative for creating a stronger bond with a country that rejects the hollow leadership of Chavez and Castro and embraces the ideals we hold dear — economic and political freedom. The arguments that supported approval of Peru FTA apply to the proposed agreement with Colombia.
The Colombia agreement is supported by a cross section of the manufacturing community, who see the economic impacts as minimal for some and outright beneficial for others.
I hope Speaker Pelosi will reconsider her ill-advised decision to change the rules of the House of Representatives to delay a vote on this important agreement. It is vital to America’s economic and security interests, while providing a swift, stinging, and powerful blow to enemies like Chavez and Castro.
– Senator Lindsey Graham is a Republican from South Carolina.