Commentary

Dems Betray Our Ally Colombia

By refusing to allow a vote on a free-trade agreement with Colombia, Democrat leaders in the House have come down on the wrong side of the struggle to promote liberty in the Americas.

Under pressure from organized labor, the Democrat majority in the U.S. House voted last week to postpone indefinitely a vote on the agreement, even though President Bush had requested a vote within 90 days under existing U.S. trade law.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed the vote in a statement: “Despite progress made by President (Alvaro) Uribe, Colombia remains a dangerous place to be a labor activist, and for those who commit these acts of violence, there is little threat of prosecution or punishment. Sustained progress on the ground remains a prerequisite for our support.” The stance of House leaders is an insult to the people of Colombia.

To appease one of the party’s core constituencies, Democrat leaders would punish the people of Colombia for the failings of previous governments.”

Since taking office in 2002, President Uribe has made heroic progress in stemming violence, including violence against trade unionists. His government has boosted the police presence in every major city and region of the country. More than 30,000 paramilitary fighters have returned to civilian life. Through more aggressive policing, prosecution of murderers and military action against insurgents, the level of violence has dropped dramatically. Since 2002, homicides have declined by 40 percent, kidnappings by 82 percent, and terrorist attacks by 77 percent.

Beefed-up government action has reduced the killings of trade union members by almost 90 percent. Union members in Colombia are now safer than non-unionized citizens. Last year, the general murder rate in Colombia was eight times higher than the murder rate among the country’s 831,000 unionists.

The U.S.-Colombia FTA would strengthen our ties to a democratically elected ally in our own backyard. It would eliminate almost all tariffs on trade between our countries. More than 80 percent of U.S. consumer and industrial products exported to Colombia would become duty-free on enactment, and remaining tariffs would be phased out over the next 10 years.

The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates the FTA would boost U.S. exports by $1 billion a year.

President Uribe has been a bulwark against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his plans to spread anti-American and anti-democratic socialism in Latin America. Rejecting the agreement would jeopardize our relationship with Colombia and undermine Uribe’s credibility in the region.

The people of Colombia certainly recognize the progress that has been made. President Uribe was re-elected to a second term in 2006 with 62 percent of the vote. Life has returned to normal in the major cities, including Medellin, once the center of drug violence. Security and hope have also boosted Colombia’s economy. Economic growth has reached its highest level in several years, reducing unemployment and attracting record amounts of foreign investment. Tourism has doubled since 2002 and set a record in 2007.

To appease one of the party’s core constituencies, Democrat leaders would punish the people of Colombia for the failings of previous governments. They have set a vague and impossibly high standard designed to thwart any fair consideration of the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement.

President Uribe’s actions since taking office and the dramatic results he has shown should demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt his commitment to freedom, security and democracy in Colombia. If the Democrat Congress rejects this worthwhile agreement and Colombia slips back toward drug-fueled anarchy, it will bear much of the blame.

For the sake of a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic hemisphere, Congress should vote on and approve this important trade agreement.

Daniel T. Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.