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Democrats for Free Trade

Former Clinton officials are urging Congress to ratify deals with Latin America.

12:00 AM, Sep 20, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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SEVERAL FORMER CLINTON administration officials--including Bruce Babbitt, Sandy Berger, Henry Cisneros, Richard Feinberg, Dan Glickman, Leon Panetta, Donna Shalala, and Ira Shapiro--have endorsed an open letter to Congressional Democrats urging them to ratify free trade agreements with Latin America.

"The United States is already virtually open to products from Colombia, Panama, and Peru through unilateral trade preference programs, but those economies do not give reciprocal benefits to the United States," the letter reads. "Far from being 'job killing,' these trade agreements would open markets wider to U.S. goods and services and therefore support jobs in the United States." In addition, the letter notes, trade expansion would help foster Latin American growth, bolster democracy, maintain strategic cooperation, and preserve U.S. regional influence in the face of a challenge from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

Other signatories to the letter include a mix of former Democratic congressmen, diplomats, and policy advisers, plus retired senators such as Bob Graham and Sam Nunn. (The list of signatories is actually still growing.) "It would be the height of irony," they argue, "were we to talk of 'losing' Latin America while refusing to take actions that would directly support fundamental relationships and interests in the region."

Of the three trade deals in question, Colombia remains the most divisive. After a lengthy delay, the U.S.-Peru FTA is now expected to win congressional approval next month. The U.S.-Panama accord may be hindered by the recent election of Pedro Miguel González as leader of the Panamanian national assembly--González has been indicted in the United States for the 1992 murder of an American soldier--but it has heretofore been far less controversial than the U.S.-Colombia pact.

Why is Colombia such a hot potato? The answer is somewhat ironic. Since his election in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe has weakened Colombia's revolutionary guerrillas and driven them into the jungles, while also demobilizing thousands of right-wing paramilitaries. The metrics are undeniable: Uribe has presided over historic declines in murders, political assassinations, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks. The security gains have been especially noticeable in the two largest cities, Bogotá and Medellín, which once resembled war-torn Baghdad.

These gains have also provided a boon to the Colombian economy. GDP expanded by 6.8 percent last year, its fastest annual growth rate since the late 1970s. Foreign direct investment reached a combined total of over $16 billion in 2005 and 2006, up from less than $5 billion combined in 2003 and 2004. As financial journalist Karina Robinson observes, "Colombia is rated above Chile, Mexico, and Spain in the authoritative 2006 IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook." Uribe won reelection by a landslide and remains enormously popular.

Lately, however, he has been dealing with fallout from the "parapolitics" scandal--the discovery of just how deeply right-wing paramilitaries were able to infiltrate the government, the police, and the armed forces. Among those implicated are several of Uribe's political supporters, including his former intelligence boss, Jorge Noguera. This has been highly embarrassing. Both the army and the justice system continue to be plagued by corruption and malfeasance. Though weakened, the drug cartels maintain their poisonous influence over all sides of Colombian politics.

But this must all be seen in context. Uribe has cooperated with the "parapolitics" investigations and moved to purge the army of compromised officers. Critics have yet to produce a smoking gun tying Uribe himself to the paramilitaries. "That direct link has never been made," says Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society (and one of the Democrats who endorsed the pro-FTA letter). The Colombian president has demobilized more than 30,000 paramilitary fighters and promoted independent judicial institutions to expedite the process. He recently sacked three high-ranking army officers for their connections to drug traffickers.

"Uribe started doing this in 2002," says Otto Reich, who served as a senior U.S. diplomat for Latin America during George W. Bush's first term. "It's not fair to say that he's just now replacing these officers." The irony is that, without his successful efforts to improve security, stamp out corruption, and demobilize the paramilitaries, the "parapolitics" scandal might not have emerged when it did. As Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, puts it, "If Uribe hadn't gone after these guys, all this stuff wouldn't be coming out." In some ways, then, Uribe is a victim of his own success.

Along with American labor groups, Democratic House leaders point to the brutal violence faced by Colombian trade unionists. They lodge valid concerns. But, again, to act as if Uribe has made no progress on this issue is grossly unfair. In fact, he has created new government programs designed to protect union members. "The labor union 'disappearances' have dropped precipitously," Sabatini notes. As the Economist reported in May, "Even on the unions' own figures, murders have fallen to less than two-fifths of the number in 2001."

Violence and corruption persist in Colombian society, which the aforementioned pro-FTA Democrats acknowledge in their letter. But they also stress the need for perspective: "Rather than hiding the scandals or minimizing them, Colombia is taking steps to root them out and cleanse the political system, even while recognizing that more must be done, including bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against unionists."

Congress might also consider the argument made by Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, who visited Colombia in July (the first official visit by a Canadian leader since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1953). Announcing the start of Canada-Colombia FTA talks, he rejected the notion that Colombia's ongoing troubles should forestall trade expansion. "I don't think you say to a country, 'Well, you still have problems, therefore we'll back off and we won't have anything to do with your economy,'" Harper said. "Quite the contrary. When we see a country like Colombia, that has decided it has to address its social, political, and economic problems in an integrated manner, that wants to embrace economic freedom, that wants to embrace political democracy and human rights and social development, then we say, 'We're there to encourage you and we're there to help you.'"

The pro-FTA Democratic letter warns that the strategic consequences of scuttling the U.S.-Colombia pact could be damaging: "Walking away from the Colombia trade agreement or postponing it until conditions are perfect would send an unambiguous signal to our friends and opponents alike that the United States is an unreliable partner without a vision for cooperation in our hemisphere. Colombia would certainly reevaluate its relationship with the United States, a process that is already underway."

Goldman Sachs economist Alberto Ramos, a Latin America expert, has made a similar point. "If Congress doesn't pass it, they lose the opportunity to reinforce a link with an important ally in the region," he told Bloomberg News. "It would signal that U.S. commitment to free trade isn't as strong." Though Uribe may have saved his country from becoming a failed state, he may not be able to save his free trade deal. Which says more about the U.S. Congress than it does about the Colombian president.

Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American.