As the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement languishes, the U.S. stands to lose some of its influence with that staunch and critical ally in South America. The agreement was signed in 2006, then, in mid-2007, at the behest of the Congressional leadership under Nancy Pelosi, had stringent environmental and labor provisions inserted, and since then, has been largely ignored by the administration.
The major opposition all along the way has been from U.S. trade unions, which charge the Colombia is not doing enough to stop violence against domestic trade union leaders and members. Yet Cato research has shown that “the rate for union killings was 5.3 per 100,000 unionists in 2010, six times lower than the homicide rate for the overall population (33.9 per 100,000 inhabitants).” Colombia is still a violent country, but the strengthening of the legal system in Colombia under former President Alvaro Uribe and continued under the new President Juan Manuel Santos has meant that a larger percentage of perpetrators of union violence have come to justice.
Meanwhile, Colombian leaders were gracious even though they were pushing for fast action on the pact. The U.S., after all, is Colombia’s chief trading partner, and they were looking for assurance through the trade pact that the tariff preferences in the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) would continue into the future, without having to be reauthorized each year as is now the case.
Colombia’s patience may be wearing thin, and that wouldn’t be good news for the U.S. Already China is Colombia’s number two trading partner and may overtake the U.S. if the FTA isn’t implemented. There’s also a new twist that increases the odds that this will happen. China and Colombia are having very serious discussions about China building a transcontinental railroad across Colombia – from the Atlantic to the Pacific — that would be a “rail canal” rivaling the Panama Canal for moving imports and exports across Latin America.
Now that would be a real coup of a different kind.
The Obama administration should get its head out of the sand and put the three pending FTAs on the fast track. Colombia already gets preferential tariffs under the ATPDEA. With the U.S.-Colombia deal, Colombia would remove more than 80 percent of Colombian duties on U.S. imports, with the remaining tariffs being phased out over ten years.
The agreement can also promote the national security interests of both Colombia and the U.S. Colombia faces increased tensions with its near neighbors, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stokes anti-American sentiment. Ecuador briefly suspended diplomatic ties with Colombia after Colombian forces raided a narco-terrorist camp located in that country. Approval of the FTA will bolster Colombia’s ties with the U.S. and standing in the region, and help counter Chavez’s influence.
Image credit: tanya~b’s flickr photostream.