Commentary

Unions As Safe in Colombia As in D.C.

As President Obama seeks to boost the U.S. economy and build stronger ties with our friends abroad, he could advance both goals at once by urging Congress to pass the pending trade agreement with our South American neighbor Colombia.

The U.S. and Colombia signed the free-trade agreement in November 2006, and every month that it languishes in Congress is another month of lost opportunities to export more U.S. goods and build ties to a key Latin American ally.

Upon enactment, the agreement would immediately eliminate duties on more than 80% of U.S. exports of consumer and industrial products to Colombia, 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, of manufactured and farm goods, by $1 billion a year.”

The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates the FTA would boost U.S. exports, of manufactured and farm goods, by $1 billion a year.

Most of Colombia’s exports to the U.S. already enter duty-free because of the Andean Trade Preferences Act. The FTA would make Colombia’s access to the U.S. market permanent, boosting investment and growth in that country.

And by reducing and eliminating Colombia’s tariffs, the agreement would deliver the “level paying field” that critics of trade are always demanding.

More importantly, the agreement would strengthen U.S. relations with the Colombian government, which under President Alvaro Uribe has been a bulwark in the region against terrorism and the authoritarian socialism of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Rejecting the agreement would send a signal to the region that the U.S. does not stand by its friends.

The main domestic opposition to the agreement in the United States is organized labor. Reflexively opposed to almost all trade liberalizing agreements, the AFL-CIO complains that Colombia is unworthy of the agreement because of continuing violence there against union members.

Labor complaints ignore the dramatic progress that has been made under Uribe against violence of all kinds. Since he took office in 2002, the government has disarmed 30,000 paramilitary fighters and largely defeated the left-wing guerrilla movement known as FARC.

As a result, the murder rate in Colombia has been cut by 40%, and murders of union members by 80%. One study showed that union members in Colombia are actually at less risk of murder than nonunion members.

In a recent visit to EAFIT University in Medellin, Colombia, in February, I was struck by what a normal city it has become. A decade ago, it was the epicenter of drug cartel and FARC violence. Today it is a bustling commercial, cultural and tourist center.

The murder rate in Medellin has fallen by more than 90% since the early 1990s, to the same level as that of Washington, D.C. Today a union member is probably safer walking the streets of Medellin than those of our own capital.

The students I met at the university are eager to build ties with the United States and other countries in the region. Medellin’s former mayor and possible presidential candidate, the blue-jeans-clad Sergio Fajardo, told me that, for Colombia, “Trade is an opportunity, not a problem.”

What message will it send to the current and rising generation of leaders in Colombia if the U.S. Congress spurns an opportunity to deepen our commercial ties and to recognize the dramatic progress the country has already made?

The president’s new U.S. Trade Representative, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, warned Congress earlier this month not to “set the bar too high” for Colombia with vague demands for further reductions in violence. Kirk expressed hope that the same Democratic congressional leaders that put the agreement on the shelf last year would bring it up for a vote by the end of 2009. The sooner the better.

Rejecting the Colombia free trade agreement would not save a single life in that country. To punish the people and the government of Colombia for past problems that they have managed to overcome would be an insult to our friends and a major setback for the Obama administration.

The potential benefits of the Colombia agreement are far greater than the similar agreement with Panama that USTR Kirk has been urging Congress to pass. The administration needs to put in at least as much, if not more, into promoting the Colombia agreement.

Daniel Griswold is the director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.