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Obama should press for Colombia free-trade pact

The deal has languished in Congress. Under Obama's trade agenda, it has a future.

March 04, 2009

President Obama's trade agenda is nothing if not ambitious. His just-released policy statement, titled "Making Trade Work for American Families," ties trade to energy efficiency and environmental concerns, entrepreneurship and market competition, workers' rights and global competitiveness. Of course, it remains to be seen how all of these interests will fit into one coherent policy.

To be fair, presidents' annual trade statements are typically broad on goals and sketchy on specifics, and in this respect Obama's is no different from those of his predecessors. But the global economic crisis gives his agenda a certain urgency. Businesses, labor organizations and our trading partners around the world are waiting for a strong, clear position on trade from the president, who says he supports free trade but also has quibbles with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Obama could clarify his position and ameliorate fears of renewed protectionism by pressing for quick approval of the long-stalled free-trade pact with Colombia.

This would accomplish three things: It would lower tariffs on U.S. exports to Colombia, adding an estimated $1 billion to our economy; it would preserve our relationship with our only friend in the region; and it would demonstrate that Obama is willing to take on the "special interests," in this case union leaders, who are holding congressional Democrats hostage on the pact. The alternative is grim: If the United States continues to delay action on this, Colombia might begin to recalibrate its relationship with us and seek new, more reliable trading partners. It already has signed an agreement with Canada.

Colombian officials aren't even sure why the pact is controversial. For a time, human rights advocates and union organizers saw it as a means of pressuring the Colombian government to stop the persecution of labor organizers, who are routinely threatened and killed. The government responded by protecting organizers and prosecuting their attackers. Activists should declare victory and move on.

Colombia remains a violent country, almost incomprehensibly so by U.S. standards. But its improvement in recent years is also remarkable and should be acknowledged. Obama's trade statement mentions setting "benchmarks" for Colombia and "conducting extensive outreach and discourse with the [American] public," which is beyond exasperating. Colombia has listened to labor concerns and implemented changes in its judicial system to address them. The country has earned this agreement; the United States should approve it.

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