BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — That President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama discussed a Colombian free-trade agreement in their first postelection meeting indicates its importance to Bush's legacy and his concern for a nation that believes it gets little respect for its role as a key U.S. ally.
Representatives for Bush and Obama acknowledged that the two men discussed the proposed free-trade deal during their two-hour White House transition session Monday and whether the pact should come up for a vote during the lame-duck congressional session opening early next week.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino denied reports that Bush conditioned his support for a Democratic fiscal stimulus package, including help for the U.S. auto industry, on approval of the trade bill with Colombia.
But the fact that the topic came up at all, amid a welter of other pressing economic and geopolitical issues facing the incoming president, reflects the priority Bush attaches to the agreement in the waning weeks of his administration.
"The Bush administration has virtually no legacy in Latin America," said Sebastian Edwards, a UCLA professor and a former top Latin America economist with the World Bank. "Also, he had made a commitment to Colombia and wants to live up to his word."
Bush has contended that a deal with Colombia would shore up a key pro-U.S. regime in a region where leftist, anti-U.S. politicians are on the rise. The pact would also keep an administration promise and provide an economic boost to Colombia as a multibillion-dollar, U.S.-funded anti-drug aid package may start to wind down.
The free-trade pact has languished in Congress for two years, its path blocked largely by objections from Democratic lawmakers and labor unions over Colombia's poor human rights record. Last month, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe fired 20 army officers in connection with the military's slaying of innocent civilians who were falsely identified as guerrillas killed in combat to inflate body counts.
The bill being pushed by Bush would make permanent the temporary trade breaks Colombia has enjoyed since 1991 under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act in exchange for cooperation in drug-fighting efforts. That relationship has intensified in recent years under Plan Colombia, the U.S. anti-drug and anti-terrorism program that has channeled $5.5 billion in mostly military aid since 2000.
Colombia's trade breaks have helped boost its U.S. exports to $9 billion annually, including oil, coal, coffee and bananas, most of which enter duty-free. U.S. exports to Colombia total about $6 billion. Ecuador and Peru also receive the breaks, but Bolivia was excluded last month after leftist President Evo Morales kicked out the U.S. ambassador.
Plan Colombia has enabled Uribe to beef up his military, seizing the initiative from leftist rebel groups and improving security.
But the U.S. economic crisis, paired with Plan Colombia's mixed results in curbing cocaine production, has led to speculation that the aid program, which this year included $200 million in economic projects, may be downscaled sooner than envisioned by its supporters.
"No aid program can match the magnitude of impact on development that free trade produces," said John P. Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "That's why it's important to use it and not cast it away at a critical time."
Colombia wants a trade pact because it will soon face a more competitive regional trade climate, said Jeffrey J. Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington
A U.S. free-trade agreement with Peru takes effect Jan. 1. The U.S. has signed similar accords with Chile, Mexico and most Central American countries.
Without a trade deal of its own, Colombia will lose investment and trade to those countries, Schott said.
The fallout from a failed trade deal could also affect the United States' strategic interests. U.S. ally Uribe has staked much of his political prestige on securing the agreement and would see a defeat as a "door slammed in his face," said professor Juan Carlos Echeverry at the University of the Andes in Bogota.
The loss could represent a victory not just for the region's leftist free-trade opponents such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez but also for Uribe's critics in Colombia, who may then campaign against closer cooperation with the United States.
"A defeat would be insulting because Colombia would like to 'denarcotize' its common agenda with the United States, to show that, like other countries, it has an economy that isn't based solely on cocaine," Echeverry said.
He and others blame Uribe for his current predicament and say he paid too little attention to key Democratic members of Congress before 2006, when they won back a majority, because he may have believed that Republicans, whom he assiduously cultivated on frequent trips to Washington, were a permanent majority.
Analysts say the fate of a free-trade pact now hangs on how hard Bush is willing to fight for it. In the third presidential debate, Obama expressed reservations about the bill, citing human rights concerns.
"My guess is that President Bush reckons that President-elect Obama will get what he wants on the stimulus front after Jan. 20," said Gary Hufbauer, also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute.
"So why not shoot for the history books by adding the Colombia free-trade agreement to a stimulus measure to make a package deal this year? Nothing ventured, nothing gained."