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Why The Colombian Trade Agreement Will Go To Congress This Year

January 29, 2011

During his crucial five-day trip to Washington, D.C. recently, Colombia’s Vice President Angelino Garzon, a former organized labor leader, had to struggle for attention. The week was dominated by the State of the Union address and by other international news  — the fall of the Tunisian government, and mass demonstrations threatening the Mubarak government in Egypt. There was also a devastating mine explosion in Colombia that killed 21 miners.  Garzon persevered, however. He met a wide array of officials as well as students and human rights groups. The outlook for the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement has improved, and a vote in Congress this year looks like it will happen.

In the Constitutionally mandated annual State of the Union address, President Obama pushed hard for immediate passage of the US-Korean trade agreement, but his mention of the Colombian and Panamanian agreements was anemic and cryptic by comparison. Obama’s cryptic promise? He would pursue the Colombian trade agreement — IF it “keeps faith with American workers and promotes American jobs.” It was anemic, with no timeline and no clarity on where the President stands.

The beltway debate on trade is whether to hold out for more improvements in Colombia or to reward and reinforce progress.  No one questions Colombia’s security improvements, dramatically reduced violence, regional leadership against drug trafficking, and rapidly improving economy. Everyone expressed sympathy for the hundreds of victims of recent flooding and the dozens killed in a coal mine blast this week. Those factors strengthen the relationship.

The trade debate rages within the Obama administration as well as outside it. This week, GE Chairman and CEO  Jeffrey Immelt agreed to chair Obama’s Council on Competitiveness and promptly called for trade agreement approvals, saying “Those who advocate increasing domestic manufacturing jobs by erecting trade barriers have it exactly wrong.”   Less than fully enthusiastic, Secretary Clinton said that Colombia “knows what it needs to do” for passage of the trade agreement.

After meeting with Garzon, Vice President Biden backed sending the trade deal to Congress this year.  Secretary Clinton too said there would be a vote this year, but only barely elaborated on the conditions needed for approval in her press conference with Garzon (excerpted below, omitting the Egypt talking points and Q&A). This is her strongest statement yet that Congress would get to vote this year on the agreement, which has deep Republican support and support from moderates such as Rep. Steny Hoyer, the no. 2 Democrat in the House.

Outside the Administration, the US Chamber of Commerce updated its list of who in Congress supports the US-Colombian agreement. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana was in Colombia this week. Baucus called for a prompt vote on the deal.  Even Michigan Democratic Congressman Sander Levin, ranking member of the House Ways & Means committee and an opponent, softened his position this week.  Levin now sees “a real opportunity” to pass the agreement.

Human Rights Watch Americas softened its opposition somewhat, in an open letter to Garzon and in its annual report chapter on Colombia. While noting the persistent problems it also praised the significant shift in government attitudes and policies in Bogotá.  HRW pointed out Santos’ rapid accomplishments such as new laws providing land to the displaced, compensation to victims of state violence, and respect for an independent judiciary, but said that “‘concrete results remain to be seen.”  The Washington Office on Latin America, however, emphasized that Obama is skipping Colombia on his Latin America tour this spring, which says everything about its view of the prospects for the trade agreement.

These and other human rights groups hold back praise for their own credibility — and for leverage, but leverage for what?  These groups now have unprecedented high-level access and cooperation.  Results will only be measured over time (how much time?), but the policy and personnel changes are real. If they are not rewarded and reinforced, then they are weakened.  It’s time to shift to a pro-trade agreement position in order to continue to better the lives of all Colombians and instill the democratic and middle-class values that help crowd out those who would commit atrocities.

Colombia’s domestic economy is “roaring” with “strong” industrial production and “stunning” retail sales, according to Bulltick Capital.  America’s Quarterly called the merger of Colombia’s stock exchange merger with Chile’s and Peru’s a “milestone for hemisphere finance, economic confidence.”  The Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Report this week cited Colombia as the most-improved country in Latin America, and tenth most improved in the world.

America’s Quarterly also reported this week that the Colombian trade deal is “inching” forward.  My judgment is that is correct, but weak.  The fundamentals are all there for passage this year, and businesses should launch a full-throated push for approval now.

On the US side, the emphasis is all about jobs; trade and exports are overwhelmingly important. Personnel and attitudes in the Obama administration have shifted remarkably to the center just since November.  Colombia’s trade agreement opponents in the Administration have lost ammunition because President Santos’s election and numerous quick achievements convincingly demonstrate concrete progress.  Santos’s designation of the labor leader Garzon as his Vice President and Washington point-man was a savvy move to put these issues in the past and catapult Colombia forward. Garzon did pretty well in Washington this week against enormous challenges just for time and attention. Garzon smartly engaged a wide selection of the constituencies with whom dialogue and trust are essential — he did not just rally supporters. All of this bodes well for finding a way to finalize the agreement package and send it to Congress this year. The “High Level Partnership Dialogue” in Bogotá this March presents the opportunity to cement the agreement.

Prompt action is needed, too.  This week, peaceful Switzerland approved a Colombia trade agreement, joining the EU, Canada, and the Southern Cone countries that are now displacing US exports to Colombia.

* * *

 Here are the Clinton-Garzon press conference excerpts with my commentary:

January 28, 2011

SECRETARY CLINTON: Good morning. I am very pleased to be here with Vice President Garzon of Colombia on his first visit to Washington as vice president. Before discussing the important matters that were part of our meeting, I would like to say something about the unfolding events in Egypt….

Now there is a great deal of concern also in our government, Mr. Vice President, about the mining disaster that killed 21 miners in Colombia. And we will have our translator translate these remarks about Colombia as we go along.

I know that President Santos cut short his stay at the World Economic Forum to join the families of these victims. And I would like the people of Colombia to know they are in the thoughts and prayers of all Americans not just for the mining tragedy, but for the terrible flooding that in the past two months has claimed more than 300 lives, affected more than 2 million people and incurred billions of dollars in reconstruction and clean-up costs.

The Vice President and I had a very productive, wide-ranging discussion on many important issues, and we reaffirmed the resilient, enduring partnership and friendship between our peoples. We share common values and a respect for democratic governance, the rule of law, and self-determination. And the United States has stood with Colombia for more than a decade as they take on security challenges. We’ve made considerable progress together, but we have more work to do on security and other issues. That is why we are hosting the second round of the U.S.-Colombia High Level Partnership Dialogue in March, where we will cover so many of these issues. We are committed to a very broad discussion of issues, from sustainable energy to human rights. And as President Obama said in his State of the Union address, we are committed to a successful conclusion and ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement. And I look forward to working with the vice president and members of the Colombian Government to bring that result about.

I also commended the vice president and the Santos administration for the progress that is being made on resolving long-term disputes having to do with displaced people in the country and reaching out to civil society to add their voices to a national conversation about human rights and labor rights. And I want to thank Colombia for their assistance to other countries in the fight against drug traffickers and criminal organizations, their assistance to the people of Haiti and of Afghanistan and in so many ways the leadership that Colombia is showing in helping to solve difficult issues.

We look forward to continuing and close cooperation, Mr. Vice President.

VICE PRESIDENT GARZON: (Via interpreter) Thank you so much Mrs. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States. I want to say on behalf of the Government of Colombia and very especially on behalf of President Santos, I would like to express our thanks to you, Mrs. Clinton, and to President Obama for the solidarity of your government and your people to the people of Colombia on the occasion of the recent floods and in particular the recent mining tragedy, which has cost 21 lives, has left several injured in the area of Santander in our country.

And in our broad-ranging discussions today, we have agreed, among other things, to work together to defend fundamental rights of humankind, the human rights that affect all of us, in particular, labor groups, indigenous groups, women’s groups, and others. And we have also agreed to continue to work and cooperate with all countries to combat organized crime, in particular, transnational crime, which includes drug trafficking, which is – which attacks our democracies.

In our dialogue, we have expressed our gratefulness for the political will of the United States Government and, in particular, President Obama and Secretary Clinton to find all paths necessary to achieve ratification of the free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. It is an agreement that helps the people and the Government of Colombia, and it also helps the people and Government of the United States. And we also greatly appreciate the willingness of the U.S. Government and the U.S. Congress to extend the Andean Trade Preferences Act, not just to the region, but to Colombia in particular, this is a sign of great solidarity at a time when we are busy with the reconstruction of our country after the devastating floods.

And we also agreed to redouble our joint efforts along with Secretary Clinton and President Santos Calderon regarding Haiti, to support the people of Haiti in their quest to elect, freely and fairly, their own leaders. And we will consolidate our high-level dialogue, a dialogue that we began last year between the United States and Colombia. This has been headed by Secretary Clinton.

We will be strengthening our programs, our – to discuss issues ranging from all kinds of progress in democracy, human rights, new technologies, energy, and also one that we have added after our dialogue today – the environment. And on behalf of the Government of Colombia, President Santos, and the people of Colombia, I want to thank you very much for recognizing the progress that Colombia has made as a developing country to consolidate itself as a modern state in combating corruption, violence and impunity, and upholding human rights.

MR. CROWLEY: First question, the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Yes, Madam Secretary. Excuse me, I have two rather direct questions to ask you about Egypt….

MR. CROWLEY: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Madam Secretary, two points. The first one is: (inaudible) Vice President Garzon asked two days ago the Obama Administration to send this year to Congress the Free Trade Agreement. With all due respect, is the – you – Obama Administration going to do that, yes or no?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes.

QUESTION: This year?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: When?

SECRETARY CLINTON: When we have an agreement. There are still negotiations[i] that are taking place. And as the vice president and I discussed, when we have an agreed-upon text, we will, as quickly as possible, send it to the Congress.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) time (inaudible)?

SECRETARY CLINTON: It is not yet in the form of agreement that we have been discussing with our Colombian counterparts. They know what we need to do in order to get a successful outcome. We don’t want to send an agreement just for the sake of sending an agreement. We want to send an agreement and get it passed.

QUESTION: What —

QUESTION: So you want to change the agreement” I mean, to —

SECRETARY CLINTON: We are discussing about some clarifications and some concerns that we know will have to be addressed in the Congress. I mean, I’m just being very clear with you. We want to pass the agreement. In order to pass the agreement, we have to be able to make the case to the Congress, and that is what I am intent upon doing.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) —

SECRETARY CLINTON: Excuse me, this gentleman has the microphone.

QUESTION: No, I have a second question. In Colombia, a sector of the public opinion —

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Yes.

(Pause during interpretation.)

VICE PRESIDENT GARZON: (Via interpreter) I want to stress what’s really important and basic here. I want to point out the great political will of President Obama, the Secretary of State, and of the U.S. Government and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to move as soon as possible to achieve ratification of this agreement. I think that’s the most important thing.

SECRETARY CLINTON: And we agree, and that’s why we want to proceed as quickly and effectively to guarantee success as possible.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you very much.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you.

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