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Free trade, now

The U.S. must act quickly on a Colombia trade agreement.

August 12, 2010

Even in the gloom of an international economic crisis, there is a bright spot of hope: free trade. Successful trade pacts with Panama and Colombia and a pending agreement with South Korea will serve to accelerate investment opportunities across a broad spectrum of business and industry, including agriculture, communications technology and natural resources — for Canada, that is. As for the United States, the best that can be said is that farmers, producers and exporters here have front-row seats as they watch three-quarters of a billion dollars in potential trade flow northward. In recent weeks, however, President Obama has indicated that he intends to finalize a long-overdue free trade agreement with Colombia. We hope he means it.

The president has set the ambitious goal of doubling exports over the next five years, which could create 2 million jobs. But this can't be achieved without ratification of the pact with Colombia, as well as those with Panama and South Korea. Recently, when introducing his newly formed national export council, Obama made his most forceful comments yet on the prospects of the Colombia agreement, saying he would send it to Congress for ratification "as soon as possible." Technically, "soon" came and went some time ago. But a new sense of urgency in the White House is understandable. Unemployment is seemingly entrenched at 9.5%; the administration is under attack as unfriendly to business; and the trade deficit increased by $7.7 billion from May to June. There could not be a better time for Congress to balance this lopsided policy: Most of Colombia's exports to the U.S. are not subject to tariffs, while U.S. exports face taxes of up to 35%.

Our inertia on trade has consequences. According to the Department of Agriculture, Colombia was the United States' eighth-largest market for corn last year, down from sixth a year earlier. Its ranking for wheat fell to 10th place, down from seventh in 2008. "The landscape is changing, with displacement of the U.S. from our markets by new trade partners who are coming in," Colombia's trade and tourism minister, Luis Plata, recently told reporters.

It is unfortunate that Congress did not ratify the agreement when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was in office; during his tenure, the country made significant strides in addressing the human rights issues that caused Democrats to sideline the pact. But the election of his successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, offers a chance to demonstrate continued friendship and to begin an era of new economic opportunities. And that can't happen too soon.

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