Politics & Policy

One Down, Two to Go

To appreciate just how long America’s bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia have been waiting for congressional approval, consider this: The Korea and Panama deals were signed during “National Homeownership Month” (June 2007), several weeks before the global credit crunch began and just a few days after President Bush’s immigration-reform bill died in the Senate. The Colombia accord, meanwhile, was inked the same month (November 2006) that voters granted Democrats control of Congress, at a time when Denny Hastert was still speaker of the House.

Barack Obama campaigned for the White House as an opponent of all three agreements, yet he has adopted a more pragmatic attitude since taking office. Last week, American and Korean negotiators settled on final changes to their FTA, which now heads to Capitol Hill. Texas Republican Kevin Brady, incoming chairman of the House trade panel, has expressed hope that lawmakers will green-light the Korea, Panama, and Colombia pacts within the first half of 2011. The United Autoworkers have lent their blessing to the revised Korea deal, but Big Labor continues to lobby hard against Panama and Colombia.

Critics of the Panama FTA have voiced anxiety about the country’s status as a tax haven and about the relative opacity of its banking system. The Panamanian government took a major step toward assuaging these concerns on November 30 when it signed a formal “tax-information exchange agreement” with the United States. Led by Pres. Ricardo Martinelli — a conservative, staunchly pro-American businessman — Panama is currently expanding its famous waterway, which handles roughly 15 percent of all U.S. trade. As Heritage Foundation scholar James Roberts observes, passing the FTA would greatly benefit those U.S. firms that are bidding for construction contracts related to the seven-year, $5.2 billion canal project. It would also demonstrate Washington’s strategic commitment to Central America, a region tormented by violent crime and the Chávez-like depredations of Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, who recently sent troops to occupy a portion of Costa Rican territory during a border dispute.

The Colombia FTA remains much more controversial than its Panamanian counterpart, though not for economic reasons. According to a 2010 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, approximately 90 percent of Colombian exports to the United States already enjoy duty-free access, while the duties imposed on U.S. exports to Colombia can reach 20 percent. The FTA would greatly boost market access for U.S. companies and (as the CRS study noted) have a positive impact on the U.S. economy.

No, Democratic opposition to the Colombia pact has very little (if anything) to do with safeguarding American jobs. Rather, it is about security — more specifically, the perceived lack of security afforded to Colombian trade unionists. Prodded by labor groups and left-wing NGOs, anti-FTA Democrats continue to cite political violence as a deal-breaker. Taken at face value, this argument is stunning in its lack of perspective.

Over the past decade, Colombia has witnessed an extraordinary decline in all types of serious violence, including terrorist attacks, homicides, and kidnappings. The drop in trade-unionists’ murders has been particularly impressive. Indeed, according to research by Colombian economists Daniel Mejía and María José Uribe, “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).” Moreover, Mejía and Uribe dismiss the argument that most unionist killings are motivated by anti-labor sentiment, concluding that “violence against union members in Colombia is neither systematic nor targeted.”

One big factor behind the plunge in unionists’ murders is a government-run security initiative launched several years ago. The number of labor figures protected by this program has grown steadily. In other words, to oppose the FTA because of Bogotá’s “inaction” on union violence is absurd. If any country deserves to be rewarded for its progress against violence, it is Colombia, a vital U.S. partner that houses American military personnel and sits next door to Venezuela. By allowing the FTA to languish since 2006, Congress has already done significant damage to Washington’s credibility. Republicans should push for speedy approval of the Colombia deal in 2011

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