From the April 16, 2008 New York Sun
April 16, 2008
by Jaime Daremblum
"Colombia needs its democratic friends to lean forward and give them a chance at partnership and trade with North America," Mr. Harper said in a speech last fall. "I am very concerned that some in the United States seem unwilling to do that. What message does that send to those who want to share in freedom and prosperity?"
Then he delivered a stern warning: "If the U.S. turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin American dictator could hope to achieve."
Last week that cause was dealt a significant blow, when the House of Representatives changed its own rules in order to delay a vote on the FTA, which was signed 17 months ago.
Make no mistake: Latin American leaders will take notice. There is currently an ideological struggle raging across the region. While the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, tries to export his populist-authoritarian "revolution" — he has found eager clients in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua — Colombia continues to show that democracy and free markets offer the best path to economic and social progress.
Colombia also is on the front lines of the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism. All Latin American countries have an interest in seeing Colombia succeed. So does America, which is why Congress has given the Colombian government billions of dollars over the past several years to help squash the drug trade and reduce violence.
To be sure, narcotics and terrorism are intimately connected in Colombia, as they are in so many other countries. Until a few years ago, the narco-terrorists appeared to be gaining ground and pushing Colombian democracy toward the point of collapse. Bogotá, Medellín, and other cities were being ripped apart by chaos and violence.
But thanks to the resilience of the Colombian people, huge amounts of American aid money, and, most critically, the courageous leadership of the president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, the country has begun to turn the tide in its decades-long battle. Today, Colombia is easily the closest U.S. partner in all of Latin America. America has a clear strategic interest in consolidating the gains of its allies in the region. This is the only approach that can yield sustainable results in the quest for democratic and social improvement. It would thus be a serious mistake to weaken friendly Latin American democracies by depriving them of crucial support. Doing so will merely breed mistrust of America and make Chávez-style populism sound more appealing.
We should note that support for the U.S.-Colombia FTA is strong all around Latin America. FTA backers include both right of center leaders, such as Felipe Calderón of Mexico, and left of center leaders, such as Michelle Bachelet of Chile. It is especially encouraging to see so many left of center regimes embracing free trade and foreign investment. This is a sign of Latin America's political and economic maturation.
Moreover, the U.S.-Colombia FTA would provide a boon to American exporters by opening the Colombian market. Still, many Democrats complain about the murders of Colombian trade unionists. This remains a serious problem, but the Colombian government has taken extensive steps to protect union members. These efforts have produced undeniable results. Since President Uribe first took office in 2002, union killings have decreased significantly, as have kidnappings, terrorist attacks, and homicides.
After six years of amazing progress, Mr. Uribe's Colombia deserves a reward for its efforts, not a lecture from American politicians pandering to anti-trade sentiment. Providing Colombia with more foreign investment and permanent access to the U.S. market would help both American companies and Colombian workers. It would also solidify America's relationship with a vital regional partner.
We should remember that Plan Colombia was originally a bipartisan initiative started by the Clinton administration. It is distressing that the U.S.-Colombia FTA has failed to garner similar support. By blocking a vote on the FTA, House members have sent a terrible signal to American allies. They have put narrow partisan interests ahead of a broader national interest. Let's hope it is not too late for Mrs. Pelosi and other top Democrats to reverse the course.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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