By letting trade pact languish, the U.S. aids Colombia's misery

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 12:00 PM


President Obama should lead a delegation of American union and human rights leaders to this Caribbean resort, not to marvel at the stunning colonial fortresses but to wander into the barrios of dirt-floor houses and with inventive names such as one called Boston.

What they would find are several hundred thousand displaced people from Colombia's long-running guerrilla war. There are also many thousands more from the past three months, as extraordinary flooding and landslides washed away houses, roads, farms and even entire villages in a slow-motion catastrophe that meteorologists say may continue until May.

About 2.2 million Colombians have had their lives damaged, according to the popular new government of President Juan Manuel Santos, which has had to tear up its ambitious development plans to focus on the recovery that he now expects will take up to four years.

Then Obama and his entourage of well-meaning Americans should hang their heads in shame. They aid the misery.

They do so by blocking a free-trade agreement signed four years ago that still awaits ratification in the Senate. Their actions have little to do with the human rights they proclaim and a lot to do with ideology and politics.

The ideology is against anything that smacks of freer trade. The politics was opposition to George W. Bush and Alvaro Uribe, the presidents who negotiated the deal.

An irony that a truly beneficent person might find bitter is that, under a temporary Andean anti-drug program, Colombia has for the past 19 years enjoyed almost all the access to the American market that the trade agreement offers. It is U.S.companies and workers who would benefit from access they don't now have to the Colombian market.

Colombia's interest is that the trade agreement makes its U.S. access permanent. That would give confidence to investors the country badly needs as it attempts to pay for the resettlement of more than 1 million people displaced by the war, pay indemnity to victims of violence, finance its ever expanding and ever more effective judicial investigations, and fund other measures that are central to real human rights.

The investment would also go to build a modern infrastructure of highways, railroads, telecommunications and affordable electricity that Colombia desperately needs to be economically competitive but that it has been unable to achieve because of war and, now, natural disaster. Economic development that raises the standard of living to a decent level in urban barrios and rural villages is also a human right.

The right that groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, in alliance with the AFL-CIO, claim to be protecting has to do with the murder of unionists. As of Nov. 11, according to the main Colombian union federation, 38 union members were killed this year. But as scores of such cases have come to be investigated and resolved with convictions by Colombia's very professional judiciary system, few of the solved murders have had to do with union activity. More important, nothing indicates a systematic, anti-union campaign, much less government complicity.

The murders, in other words, appear to be isolated cases, usually having more to do with passion or common crime. And Colombia's culture of violence is such that a third of all murders nationally this year were due to feuds, the national police reported this week.

The human rights groups are carrying the protectionist water for the AFL-CIO, which itself is not defending its members' interests in the jobs that would be created by allowing exports to Colombia. Together, they have cowed Obama and congressional Democrats so that the trade agreement hasn't even come up for a vote.

What rings hollow is their attempt to blame Republicans, as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did when he said Dec. 17 that Obama would not send the Colombia deal to the Senate "because it doesn't have the votes."

Colombia has paid dearly in blood in fighting our drug war and the guerrillas, whose customers primarily are Americans. Santos leads a national unity government and has popularity ratings of 90 percent by some measures. What have we done to help? Congress last week extended the expiring Colombian preferences by just another six weeks, creating even more uncertainty for that country's economy.

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