The Right Trade Deals With Latin America

By Tom Daschle
Monday, June 25, 2007

Under an agreement Congress and the administration made last month, free-trade accords with Peru and Panama moved forward. They are far from done, however. Congress should pass these modified agreements, which solidify our access to key countries and whose enforceable labor and environmental standards would set an important precedent for future trade agreements. Congress should also enact the Colombia free-trade agreement after setting enforceable benchmarks for Colombia to improve its record on human rights.

Trade agreements have always been difficult for Congress. Rarely are the debates about the merits of the deals themselves or even about our economic strategy or trade policy. Presidents prefer to make trade agreements congressional referendums on how the United States views the country in question. It is a high-risk strategy that puts all our interests in a particular country on the line, even if the trade impact of the agreement itself is minimal (as is often the case).

There are important regional economic and political imperatives in favor of the Colombia agreement. It would affirm America's interest in and commitment to Colombia's economic development while also increasing market access for U.S. goods. Currently, the United States provides tariff-free access to many Colombian goods under the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Enforcement Act, but we are not afforded similar treatment in Colombia. This deal would change that.

The strategic importance of the Colombia deal is much greater than that of most trade agreements. The Bush administration's lack of concerted attention to Latin America in general has raised the stakes, as has its policy that advances trade and only trade in the few instances that the administration has focused on the region. Many in the region will watch Congress's deliberations.

Before enacting the agreement, though, lawmakers should require that the Colombians meet several benchmarks regarding, among other things, human rights conditions. Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a labor unionist, and more labor activists are killed there every year than are killed in all other countries combined, according to the AFL-CIO. We should insist that such killings are investigated and that investigations are followed with prosecutions. These murders, which have been carried out with impunity, should stop.

Congress should also insist on continuing the investigation of the "parapolitics" scandal. Throughout the 1990s, the United States required that arrested drug kingpins face the full force of Colombian law, including the threat of extradition to the United States for prosecution under our laws. Where supporters of paramilitaries affected U.S. interests -- by, for example, facilitating drug trafficking -- they should face extradition.

Reports about paramilitary members and their supporters receiving light sentences, being released on technicalities and even ordering murders or coordinating drug trafficking from their jail cells are reminiscent of the impunity that Colombian drug kingpins enjoyed in the early 1990s. Congressional demands to end such practices paid off then, and similar efforts should be made now.

Colombians will rightly point out that they have identified 200 priority cases of violence against labor leaders and created a special unit in their attorney general's office to prosecute these cases. It is true that the entire parapolitics scandal has been uncovered by the attorney general's office and the Supreme Court, a welcome indication that Colombia's democratic institutions are operating apart from the influence of the country's political leadership.

Congress should make clear that if these important human rights reforms show signs of being institutionalized, lawmakers will pass the free-trade agreement by year's end.

There is evidence of conditions-based support from Congress leading to positive changes in Colombia. For example, the Leahy law on U.S. military aid, which prohibits U.S. security assistance to any foreign military unit credibly suspected of gross violations of human rights, has been an important tool in decreasing human rights abuses by Colombian military and police units.

Congress has shown a new assertiveness on trade, and lawmakers appear ready to enact important trade deals with Peru and Panama that will result in enforceable new commitments on labor and environmental standards. That is a first, positive step. By establishing a series of verifiable steps on human rights in Colombia, Congress can take the next step before the end of this year.

The writer, a former Democratic senator from South Dakota, is special policy adviser at the Washington law firm Alston & Bird.

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