It is, in a way, unsurprising that the president gave Bogota a brief nod during his State of the Union address. After all, In 2010 State of the Union address, the president claimed, “we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.” And, in 2009, President Obama told Colombian president Alvaro Uribe that he was “confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States.” Yet, no such deal has been struck.
Most troubling is the fact there are no signs the administration is serious about moving forward with the agreement, which Bush brokered in 2006. If the president is serious about signing trade “deals that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs,” as he stated in his 2011 State of the Union, an agreement with Colombia would help him reach these goals. The Colombia free trade agreement would allow U.S. industries to reach of new markets. By slashing Colombian tariffs for U.S. goods (which are sometimes as high as 35 percent), the agreement would increase American exports to Colombia by approximately $1.1 billion, and increase U.S. GDP by $2.5 billion “Delaying the free trade agreement is destroying jobs in America,” Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Gabriel Silva, has said.
While the economic arguments of this agreement are clear, the greatest benefit to the United States would be solidifying a long-lasting alliance with a key regional ally. Colombia remains a steadfast ally dedicated to American ideals of democracy and free markets. At the urging of the U.S., Colombia has used its experienced police and antidrug experts to train and advise governments from Mexico to Afghanistan. But, most importantly, the United States, under President Alvaro Uribe and now under President Santos, has an ally willing to confront and defeat the FARC and drug cartels.
For Colombia too, the agreement is about more than economics, though the Colombian economy would benefit from increased American imports and foreign investment. More importantly, the free trade agreement ties Colombia’s future to the United States, sending a powerful signal to questionable neighbors in the unstable region. Moreover, “rejecting” the agreement, as the New York Times wrote after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, “would send a dismal message to allies the world over that the United States is an unreliable partner.”
Further complicating what would normally be a no-brainer agreement is the AFL-CIO, the largest trade union in the United States. The organization, which was also opposed to the Korea Trade Deal and is an important political ally to the Obama White House, has raised its tired objections to free trade agreements. Colombia is no exception. AFL-CIO has spearheaded the campaign to kill the Colombia free trade agreement, arguing that Colombia’s (often violent) crackdowns on unions are reason enough to spike the pact. Given Bogota’s years of progress in ending anti-union intimidation, and noting the AFL-CIO’s protectionist history, this is hardly reason enough to delay an agreement.
Last month, Colombian vice president Angelino Garzon visited Washington to meet with the Pentagon, White House, and union officials, hoping to jumpstart this stalled agreement. At the time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration is “committed to a successful conclusion and ratification of the U.S.—Colombia Trade Agreement.” But actions speak louder than words.
John Noonan is a policy advisor and Patrick Christy is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.