Colombian Agreement a Sign of Things to Come?

Supporters of Senator Barack Obama claim that their candidate’s post-partisan rhetoric shows he will listen to Republicans and Democrats alike and take good ideas from anyone, regardless of party. However, Obama’s support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to halt President Bush’s fast-track authority to implement free trade agreements with other countries further undermines the image that Obama, ranked the most liberal senator in 2007, seeks to create for himself as a uniter. Any politician dedicated to weighing the positives and negatives of any issue sans partisanship would come to support the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.

According to a 2007 joint press release by Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel, and Trade Subcommittee Chair Sander Levin, “There is widespread concern in Congress about the level of violence in Colombia, the impunity, the lack of investigations and prosecutions, and the role of the paramilitary… Consequently, we cannot support the Colombian FTA at this time.” Other Democrats in Congress echoed these words in support of Pelosi’s decision to delay debate on the agreement. However, such sentiment not only ignores the tremendous progress made by one of our most steadfast allies in Latin America, but also plays election year politics by rejecting a treaty that would actually serve to benefit America’s workers.

In recent years, the Colombian government under President Alvaro Uribe has made great strides fighting FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a group of pro-Chavez Marxist dissidents seeking to overthrow the government. While Congressional Democrats expressed concern at ongoing violence in Colombia, Matthew Continetti clarified in an April 28 online article for the Weekly Standard, “Since 2002, however, the murder of trade unionists has fallen by close to 80 percent. Homicides, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks are down. Colombia’s human rights record is improving. It used to be that Colombia was so dangerous mayors had to live outside the cities they governed. Not any more. Today all of them live and work in the cities they govern.”

Colombia receives the third largest amount of American aid in the world, after only Iraq and Afghanistan. The free trade agreement would have rewarded a friend of the United States for moving in the right direction. Even if one disagrees in the correlation between international trade and a country’s stability, one cannot argue against the show of political support to Uribe and an official recognition of Colombia’s place on the world map. It seems that congressional Democrats might know this, too. The only mention of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement on Rangel’s Ways and Means Committee website was the announcement of a rule fighting the way Bush presented the agreement. Levin, who talked about human rights violations in his opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), does not mention Colombia even once on his website.

To better understand the agreement’s delay, one must take the times into account. 2008 is an election year, and one in which trade, and even the overhaul of NAFTA, has been a hot-button issue. Both Obama and Hillary Clinton not only opposed the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, but also continue to entertain the idea of repealing NAFTA. Parts of the country dependent on manufacturing like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and of course, Ohio, which were economically depressed long before the subprime crisis, are some of the most hotly contested electoral battlegrounds in the country. In the ongoing battle for the Democratic nomination, Ohio’s superdelegates banded together to withhold their support from either potential nominee until they can decide which has the most comprehensive plan to oppose free trade. This is an election where scandals are made out of an Obama operative’s visit to a Canadian consulate to reassure a fellow NAFTA member or former Clinton campaign manager Mark Penn’s lobbying ties to Colombian free trade.

Even still, were Clinton or Obama really interested in the welfare of blue-collar workers in these states instead of their votes, they would support the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. Under existing agreements, nearly all imports from Colombia already enter the United States duty free. Colombia, on the other hand, would institute a series of reforms relating to intellectual property, investment, and telecommunications that would in practice eliminate tariffs on American exports. As a result, the agreement levels the playing field for the American worker. It would allow American goods to pass more freely into Colombia. It increases the competitiveness of goods manufactured in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other manufacturing states, and maybe allows those voters to keep their jobs as plant closings otherwise continue.

But don’t expect Barack Obama to see it that way. And don’t expect him to take good ideas from Republicans and Democrats alike, his “post-partisan” rhetoric notwithstanding. The Colombian Free Trade Agreement exposes Obama’s willingness as president to defer to partisanship and polarizing Democratic leaders like Pelosi. Can we afford to elect a president so willing to turn his back on one of our best friends in Latin America and continue to ignore the livelihood of blue-collar workers in rust belt states?

President Uribe had strong words for Obama after he announced his opposition to the agreement: “I deplore the fact that Senator Obama, aspiring to be president of the United States, should be unaware of Colombia’s efforts. I think it is for political calculations that he is making a statement that does not correspond to Colombia’s reality.” In his article, Continetti draws another important implication of Pelosi’s delay of the agreement, strengthening Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez’s position in his struggle to eliminate American influence from South America. Yet Obama seems not only willing to tote the Democratic line on national issues, he’s also indicated a perfect willingness to unconditionally sit down with Chavez. Maybe they’ll do it over coffee. Maybe Colombian coffee.

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