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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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"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.