The Magazine

Trading with Colombia

President Uribe achieves a miracle--why won't the Democrats help him?

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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During their mid-November junket, American lawmakers met with some of the former paramilitary fighters at Medellín's Library Park España. These sessions were off the record, but the ex-paramilitaries in my group seemed optimistic about the societal reintegration process. One said that the paramilitary forces have virtually "disappeared" in Medellín.

The U.S. delegation also attended an informal town hall-style meeting on the outskirts of Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean coast. There, amid the sweltering heat and humidity, they saw Uribe interact with throngs of impoverished slum dwellers, most of them Afro-Colombians who either were displaced from their original homes by violence or were demobilized. The locals were not shy about airing their grievances on such issues as housing and sanitation, but they seemed to admire and respect Uribe. As a U.S. embassy official explains, ordinary Colombians appreciate the risks he takes in visiting their communities. (Uribe has survived numerous assassination attempts, including a roadside bomb attack during the 2002 campaign.) His national approval rating now hovers around 70 percent.

Thanks to the security gains and some economic reforms, Colombia's economy grew by 6.8 percent in 2006, its fastest rate of expansion since the late 1970s. The U.S.-Colombia free trade pact would give American exporters the same market access that Colombian exporters have enjoyed under unilateral trade preference programs. How would it help Colombia? Secretary Gutierrez says that, among other things, it would swell U.S. investment, promote more favorable business conditions, and allow the Colombians to buy cheaper agricultural machinery. But opponents in Colombia fear that domestic companies would be unable to compete with U.S.-based multinationals. On the recent junket, U.S. lawmakers met with Colombian trade unionists both for and against the agreement.

The Commerce Department is planning more such trips in the near future. Whether they will sway a sufficient number of Democrats to get the agreement approved is unclear. Administration officials privately fear it may never reach a floor vote. Meeks, though, reckons that supporting the trade deal is "a no-brainer," even if it means handing a political victory to a lame-duck president. "This isn't about George Bush," Meeks says. "This is bigger than politics."

Duncan Currie is the managing editor of the American.