Pass the Pact

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

PRESIDENT BUSH denies reports that, in conversations with President-elect Barack Obama, he linked his support for a bigger auto industry bailout, or possibly a fiscal stimulus package, to a demand that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) end her legislative blockade of the Colombia free-trade agreement. The Obama transition team denies it, too. That's just as well, since every legislative proposal should stand or fall on its own merits. Fortunately, the Colombia agreement passes that test.

Democrats in Congress, regrettably echoed by Mr. Obama on the campaign trail, frame their objections not in economic but political terms, arguing that Colombia has a dismal record on human rights. This characterization defies all reality. Since President Álvaro Uribe's first election in 2002, murder has declined by 40 percent; kidnappings have fallen by 75 percent. Supported by the United States and by a huge majority of the Colombian people, Mr. Uribe's firm but professional military approach has decimated the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC), which once threatened to render the country ungovernable. Mr. Uribe has also brought right-wing paramilitary groups to heel. When evidence emerged recently that some of his troops had killed innocent people to inflate enemy body counts, Mr. Uribe fired 27 army officers and soldiers, including three generals.

Nor do the facts support Democrats' oft-repeated claim that Colombia is a particularly deadly place for trade unionists. Crime statistics for 2007 show that union members in Colombia were actually less likely to be murdered than members of the general population. This is partly due to the overall drop in homicide, but it is also because of special protective measures instituted by the Uribe government, at a cost of $38 million last year. More broadly, the U.S.-Colombia pact contains the same protections for labor rights -- and the environment -- that Congress accepted in a separate deal between the United States and Peru. A steadfast U.S. ally in South America, Colombia deserves the political seal of approval that the free-trade agreement would deliver -- not ostracism.

And then there's self-interest: The main economic effect of the trade agreement would be to enable U.S. producers -- automakers included -- to export to Colombia tariff-free. This would simply level the playing field, because 90 percent of Colombian goods already arrive in the United States tariff-free under temporary trade preferences that Congress recently renewed. With U.S. goods exports to Colombia totaling over $8 billion per year, the pact offers a nifty dose of stimulus for U.S. businesses and workers. While America stalls, Europe moves: The European Commission announced yesterday that it wants to start free-trade talks with Bogota. Why would Democrats need any deals or inducements to pass a measure that would promote U.S. foreign policy interests and create American jobs?


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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