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On Colombia, Better Late Than Never

4:25 PM, Apr 9, 2011 • By PATRICK CHRISTY
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The Obama administration finally announced earlier this week an agreement on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, paving the way for its ratification. The Colombia FTA is long overdue, and President Obama’s change of heart is a welcome step for America and Colombia alike. As the White House notes, American workers will immediately benefit from the agreement:

The U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement will expand U.S. goods exports alone by more than $1.1 billion and give key U.S. goods and services duty free access in sectors from manufacturing to agriculture.  It will increase U.S. GDP by $2.5 billion and support thousands of additional U.S. jobs.

But while Obama finally did the right thing, the president's foot dragging has come at a great cost to the American economy. Exports to Colombia, plagued by high tariffs, suffered as Colombian businesses replaced American goods with those from new markets in Argentina, Brazil, and Canada. Democratic senators Max Baucus and John Kerry noted as much in a recent op-ed, writing that “The U.S. share of Colombia's corn, wheat and soybean imports dropped by more than 60 [percent]” and “Argentina has surpassed the United States as Colombia's top supplier of agricultural products.” The agreement, like that signed by President Bush, will eliminate more than 70 percent of Colombian duties on U.S. farm exports.

Despite the clear economic gain, politics trumped economics for two years in the Obama White House, as the president maintained the premise that Colombia failed to properly address human rights and labor violations. But Colombia has a drastically improved record from the past decade. Under the Uribe administration, funding to protect community leaders, human rights advocates, labor union members, and journalists increased over 250 percent to a record $47 million in 2009. Obama’s objections, wrote the Washington Post, “were never as serious as he contended, and are well on their way to resolution.”

For Colombia, a decade long recipient of U.S. foreign aid, the deal marks an important step in U.S.-Colombian relations. While Colombian goods benefited from duty free access to the United States for years under the Andean Trade Preference Act of 1981, Colombia’s export industry was at the mercy and whim of the United States Congress. In December 2010, the “periodically renewable” agreement became a political bargaining chip for Senate Democrats. Two months later, the act expired. For Colombia, the FTA ensures permanent access to American markets for industry and investors alike.

More importantly, the agreement strengthens bonds with a key ally and friend. Passage of the agreement will send a powerful and much needed message to American foes throughout the region--particularly, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. In a volatile region, Colombia remains of critical importance.

And that importance has been long understood. Eleven years ago, at the height of Colombia’s struggles in 2000, President Clinton led a bipartisan delegation to Cartagena, Colombia to announce details of Plan Colombia. Prior to the trip, President Clinton delivered an important and passionate video address to the people of Colombia: “As you struggle, with courage, to make peace, to build your economy, to fight drugs, and to deepen democracy, the United States will be on your side.” In the ensuing years President Bush followed suit and made relations with Colombia a cornerstone of American foreign policy.

Perhaps now, after two years, President Obama understands Colombia’s true importance. Though long delayed, this week's announcement is a very welcome step.

Patrick Christy is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

UPDATE: Since being published, this post has been edited for clarity.

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