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Pass the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement

March 16, 2010

The Colombia TPA is good for America (exports), good for Colombia (growth through peace and stability), and good for the region.  Passage would boost U.S. exports, stabilize Colombia’s worldwide trade relations, and would reward and encourage Colombia for more major improvements in security, human rights, and the economy.

The Status of Trade Between the U.S. and Colombia

Colombian exports to the U.S., its largest trading partner, have continued to grow as they enjoy the best trade status the US affords any of its trading partners. This is due to the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), designed to promote peace and security through economic improvement.  Undermining this policy, however, Colombia’s trade status must be renewed annually, usually at the very last minute. Therefore, trading partners hedge their bets instead of fuller commitments to building business and employment in developing Colombia.

The Colombia TPA Is a Jobs Issue

U.S. exports to Colombia do not have the same preferences as they would once the TPA is approved by Congress under “fast-track” legislation.  Therefore, people are suddenly talking trade with renewed vigor. 

As this Washington Post article on a renewed Free Trade debate shows, trade agreements are crucial to the export promotion policy of the administration, especially on the ambitious level proponed by President Obama last week and in his State of the Union address.  President Obama’s signature economic agenda is export promotion: to double U.S. exports in five years, at a time when the U.S. is already the world’s largest exporter.  The initiative includes bureaucratic changes meant to emphasize exports, namely, an export council and export cabinet. But does it include free trade agreements?

The Administration Position Is Ambiguous

In testimony recently to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said, according to this Dow Jones report,  “It is ‘a priority’ to get approval of the three trade pacts held over from the Bush administration – with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Though he said there are still outstanding issues to be resolved.”

The Obama Administration’s generally positive but ambiguous statements seem to favor passage of the Colombia TPA, subject to Colombian legislative changes that are not specified and for which there is no timetable.

So what is the agenda?  There is as yet no administration commitment to working with Congress on a timetable for a vote on the Colombia TPA.

Human Rights: What Is The Truth Today?

The fight over the Colombia TPA is not really about economics. If it were, the fight would be over and the deal approved, because it is, on balance, widely-regarded as positive for both sides.  The hurdle in Washington remains human rights.

Human rights violations undoubtedly occur in Colombia, albeit on a greatly reduced level.  This is, after all, a country that has endured a war for almost five decades. The war is the principal culprit in the human rights violations. It began with a Marxist insurgency by the FARC and ELN rebels, committed to overthrow the government and bring justice to workers, the poor and the indigenous peoples against the oligarchs. The Army was largely feckless against what became the largest insrugent army in the WesternHemisphere, and paramilitaries forces formed to oppose them.  Allied with the paramilitaries, the Army had repeatedly-established illegal connections between some units and leaders with the paramilitaries.  Drug exports funded and dueled the forces of both extremes.  The line between labor organizers or peace activists and leftist forces was sometimes blurred. Dozens of their murders occurred.

In recent years, with billions in U.S. military and drug eradication aid,  the government has gained the upper hand, decimating the leftist forces and demobilizing the paramilitaries.  Kidnappings and murder have plummeted.  Whole swaths of the country, once closed, are now open and explored. Unsolved, and sometimes unreported, crimes are being reported and culprits prosecuted. The “Law of Justice and Peace,” far from perfect, has resulted in confessions that repeatedly resulted in the discovery and prosecution of human rights violations. “Impunity” was a hallmark of the nearly failed state in the 1990’s, but through hard work and public exhuastion with the war, “punishment” and “truth” are replacing it. A substantially improved economy is partly the result and partly the cause, and therein lies the trade debate.

To learn more about the human rights situation, readers should consult Human Rights Watch, which  issued a strong report recently on the actions of former paramilitaries. It argues forcefully that the demobilization was in many respects only a fig leaf. The evidence in the report is often anecdotal, and awful. As it is aimed at calling much-needed attention to the problem, it does not address what if anything is working to reduce levels of violations.

The U.S. State Dep’t Country Report on Human Rights in Colombia details human rights violations by all actors in Colombia’s long-running, and diminishing, war. The state actors committing human rights violations are said to be violating state policy and the government’s increasing efforts to prosecute them is documented. The State Department’s report acknowledges significant improvements in prosecutions to reduce impunity and investigations into past crimes, especially during the demobilization process of the former paramilitaries.

The AFL-CIO is also strongly opposed to the Colombia TPA based on workers rights but its website hosts mostly old data at this time.

Leverage, Or Reward, To Encourage More Gains?

The struggle in Congress is how to secure more human rights gains. The Congressional leadership and some in the administration, principally backed by unions, prefer to withhold passage for leverage of the Colombia TPA to compel more human rights improvements.

Others — and especially Colombians and businesses seeking to do business in Colombia and invest in its economy — fiercely argue that the Colombia TPA will stabilize long-term trade, build the legitimate economy and employment in it, and reward and acknowledge the transformation of the last decade and provide the economic foundation to move past the war state of the previous four-plus decades.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, but not their own facts. These facts include the undoubtable social and economic transformation in Colombia over recent years, as I wrote about here and here. Much more, though, needs to be done. What will be the key? Economic isolation?

Because the human rights violations are directly connected to the government’s war on the FARC, ELN, and paramilitaries, including the narcotrafficking rings they run to finance their war, it follows that decimating the illegal armed forces has reduced all human rights violations. And this is proven true by the data in, among other sources, the economic reports and the State Dep’t Human Rights report.

Linking human rights and economics, the proponents of the TPA argue that the TPA will provide the economic keys such as improved employment and productivity to ensure reduced poverty and violence. More jobs in the legitimate economy are expected to give workers more economic and personal security– that is the premise of the Andean Trade Preferences Act.

Trade Is Coming Up In Washington

More and more, members of Congress are facing trade as a jobs and economy issue. Trade is considered good for most of their districts. If submitted to a vote today, the Colombia TPA would surely pass both houses handily, with almost all Republicans supporting the measure joined by conservative and moderate Democrats, especially from farm states. 

Washington has been consumed with other, huge legislative priorities, such as bank stabilization, economic stimulus, health care reform, a Supreme Court nominee, financial regulation, education reform, and climate change.

The Democratic leadership in the House has been lukewarm to hostile to the Colombia TPA, reflecting a combination of anti-globalization, residual hostility to the policies of the prior Administration, public discontent over unemployment, and concerns over hostility to the Colombia TPA from organized labor.

Political Change In Colombia 

This spring’s elections in Colombia may bring opportunities with new players, if not different policies, to bridge the gap. Colombian President Uribe will not run for a third term, after a Constitutional Court decision recently rejected a proposed referendum to amend the Constitution to allowed a third term. Uribe accepted the Court’s decision immediately and with grace. Last week, President Obama sent an unusual and very kind note of respect and congratulations to President Uribe.

Perhaps in this spirit the change of government from Uribe may open doors in Washington a little wider.  Uribe’s policies remain enormously popular, reflected in Congressional elections a few days ago that produced a mirror of the current Congress that is heavily oriented to supporting his policies, even as it faces the need to act on numerous items of reform legislation.

While conceding its necessary efforts and successes, many American leaders have shown a distance and, in some, a distaste for Colombia’s current government, despite all its loyalty to the U.S. and all its efforts to turn around the country’s human rights record.

Policymakers seeking positive change have the tools in their hands to make it happen.  The track record may be imperfect, but it is compelling.  And it makes passing the Colombia TPA more than good economically, it is good as a matter of human rights.

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