President Obama's first visit to South America, which begins this week, is intended to shore up relations with countries in the region. But one major ally is conspicuously absent from his agenda: Colombia.
The White House has publicly explained the decision to bypass the country by saying Obama will visit Colombia next year when President Juan Manuel Santos hosts the Summit of the Americas.
That explanation, however, doesn't tell the whole story. In fact, the president's decision to skip the Andean nation probably has more to do with the proposed free-trade agreement that has languished in Congress for nearly three years. Colombia is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid in the Americas, after Mexico, and trade between the two countries is more than $25 billion. Now, the United States' failure to approve the agreement is hurting bilateral relations.
Congress and the president should move quickly to approve it (along with the proposed free-trade agreement with Panama, which has also been stalled). The time is right. The new Republican leaders in the House signaled that they were willing to pass the measure. And Colombia has made significant efforts to address some of the human rights concerns that some opponents had held up as a reason not to pass the pact.
It's not as if the United States would be ratifying the agreement as a favor to Colombia. U.S. firms and farmers would benefit from a reduction in the steep taxes that Colombia levies against imports. Currently, U.S. products are taxed upwards of 30% while Colombian exports to this country are not subject to such tariffs. Moreover, U.S. products are increasingly taking a back seat to other imports in Colombia. Asia is now Latin America's second-largest trading partner, and Chile, Peru and Brazil send more goods to China than to the U.S., according to Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Colombia remains a steady ally in a region where other countries — including, most notably, Venezuela — are growing increasingly anti-American. It shouldn't be ignored.
Though Obama's upcoming visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador will certainly strengthen ties to new partners, the White House should be careful not to ignore long-standing allies.