Cheap Shots Over Free Trade

Pointless politics threatens a pact with Colombia that would aid U.S. manufacturers
U.S. companies currently export $9 billion worth of goods to Colombia Jeffery Salter/Redux

A little fair disclosure: I'm not some rabid sweatshops-and-pollution-be-damned free trader. We went too far in that direction with China, which is now feeling the karmic backlash of toothpaste recalls, torch protests, and wheezing sprinters in advance of its Olympic games. So much for best-laid central planning.

But I resent the obstruction of trade just for the sake of politics and without regard to the economic and diplomatic costs. Witness how Congress is waylaying the free-trade agreement with Colombia, perhaps the best friend the U.S. has in Latin America. For a reputationally damaged U.S., this might be the last piece of low-hanging foreign policy fruit out there—no troop surges, no 11th-hour hustling at the U.N.—and it's withering on the vine.

As recently as 2002, the Andean nation of 45 million, South America's oldest democracy, was so besieged with narco-guerrilla and paramilitary terror that it was dismissed as a failed state. Now, with the bad guys on the run, Colombia is a booming hub for investment and tourism. A year ago, when I went there, I was blindsided by the number of people—from a hotel maid in Medellín to the Harvard Business School-educated Commerce Minister—who anxiously brought up House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Could the average American even I.D. her?)

Indeed, last month, Pelosi spearheaded a procedural blockage of the free-trade pact, which the White House sent down for ratification. Her argument: The U.S. cannot reward a regime that countenances the killing of labor activists. In a supportive Apr. 14 op-ed, AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney alleged that the administration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (which enjoys 70% approval) has overseen the extrajudicial and military killings of more than 400 unionists. But break down that number and you can't help but wonder whether the argument is less about antiunion violence than about regaining clout in the free-trade debate. In fact, homicides in Colombia have fallen 40% since Uribe came to power in 2002; union killings fell from 186 in 2002 to 39 last year—a 79% drop.

Meanwhile, in the past year alone, Colombia's prosecutor's office has commenced more than 700 investigations, resulting in 38 convictions for union murders. Canvass Colombia's press corps and wage earners, and you'll find little opposition to the free-trade measure.

General Barry McCaffrey, the former U.S. drug czar, ardently supports the deal, arguing that it will lower unemployment in Colombia by 2% and "sop up even more demobilized illegal fighters" and drug runners who now cleave to the anti-Americanism of Hugo Chávez in nearby Venezuela. Indeed, McCaffrey's old boss Bill Clinton (unlike candidate Hillary) said he would sign the pact.

The posturing is especially expensive at a time when, the dollar being so weak, every last cent made abroad matters to the U.S. The agreement with Colombia would chiefly benefit American companies, which pay huge levies on the $9 billion worth of goods they export there. (Nearly all Colombian goods are already sold to the U.S. duty-free.) For example, a U.S.-made crane or tractor has to clear a 35% tariff. How does that help dwindling manufacturing employment?

And why gum up the exchange of billions of dollars worth of beef, wheat, and soybeans amid a global food crisis? "It's hard to look Colombians in the eye when my country is kicking them in the teeth," says a dispirited major U.S. agricultural investor.

So why not have a straight up-down vote in Congress? Maybe because the pact might well pass—thus blessing the bogey of free trade in a downbeat election year.

It's procedural punting. Kabuki concern. Potemkin protectionism.

And really no way to treat a friend.

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