Politics & Policy

Meekly Sensible

A Democrat to listen to on free trade.

The Colombian military’s rescue of 15 hostages on July 2 from the narco-terrorist group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym “FARC”) put an exclamation point on what have been several months of successes in Colombian president Alvaro Uribe’s campaign to eradicate political violence in the country. But hopes that the episode would revive the stalled U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement appear to be in vain, at least according to one of the FTA’s top Democratic supporters.

Congressman Gregory Meeks is among the dwindling number of pro-trade Democrats. He voted for normalized trade relations with China and in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Meeks has been to Colombia several times and supports the Colombia FTA. Most of his Democratic colleagues oppose it, citing President Uribe’s supposed willingness to tolerate violence against union members even though the number of unionists killed has fallen by 88 percent since 2002.

Of the chances that Congress will pass the Colombia FTA before the November elections, Meeks says, “There’s a possibility, but it really would be tough to get done.” The Democrats control both houses of Congress, and their party’s presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, opposes the deal.

Meeks says that Obama’s opposition to the FTA doesn’t necessarily mean that his election would doom the deal’s chances. “I would like to make the offer at some point, if he is president, to do as he’s doing right now with reference to Iraq,” Meeks says. “I’d love to take him to Colombia. I’d love to go with him to places I’ve found, in the jungle, where there are things they’ve done for African-Colombians that had never been done before. I’d love to show him where the violence has been reduced substantially.”

Meeks says, “Is it all done? Of course not. But under the last five years of the Uribe administration, a substantial, not a minimal, but a substantial change has happened.” Murders, kidnappings, assassinations, and other acts of terrorism common in Colombia five years ago have all decreased by double-digit percentages since Uribe took office in 2002.

While acknowledging that Obama’s opposition to the FTA makes passage difficult, Meeks does not blame Democrats for stalling the deal. “I think that the burden is not so much on the Democrats, but the administration,” he says. He argues that the administration needs to make it easier for Democrats to vote for the Colombia FTA by agreeing to work with Congress on an expansion of trade-adjustment assistance (TAA), which is aid to workers who lose their jobs due to import competition.

I point out to Meeks that, as he’s aware, the Colombia FTA wouldn’t result in a substantial inflow of new imports because over 90 percent of Colombian goods already come into the country duty-free. He agrees that the Colombia FTA wouldn’t really displace any U.S. workers, but he says, “We need to get TAA done to give members the freedom to feel that they could do the right thing [by voting for the Colombia FTA].” Meeks adds:

Hey look, some people say that trade is what causes jobs to leave. I think that’s not true. I think if you look at efficiency and technology, there are jobs that once existed that don’t exist anymore, but we don’t stop technology, and it has nothing to do with trade. However, the reality is that we have members who need to take things home to their districts, and one of the things they need to say to the individuals who were in a job for 20-25 years and now they have lost their job is that we’ve got something to bridge you.

But doesn’t the administration support an expansion of TAA, I ask Meeks. “They haven’t signaled anything,” he says. “They stopped talking.”

That’s an accusation that White House spokesman Tony Fratto disputes: “Clearly the Speaker [of the House Nancy Pelosi] hasn’t been subtle about the fact that there’s nothing we or the Colombians could possibly do to get her to bring it up for a vote, and I presume that’s where labor wants her to be.” On TAA, he says, “When the Democrats say, ‘You should do something on TAA,’ our answer has consistently been yes.” He says the Democratic leadership has explicitly stated that an expansion of TAA wouldn’t be enough to get the Colombia deal passed.

And that’s too bad. The Colombia FTA is important for reasons Meeks himself explains: “I think Uribe has been doing a great job showing what a great ally he is and how determined he is to be that ally and to rid his country of the FARC and other groups that are hell-bent on violence,” he says. “And I think that causes people to look and say that this is a good man and we need to do something.” I agree. I just wish his fellow Democrats did too.

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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