Is Obama Warming to Colombia Free Trade?

Congressional Quarterly has a short piece on team Obama’s sudden revisiting of three free trade agreements that have been languishing in Congress for quite some time, all three efforts that the Bush Administration began but was unable to settle.

One is a trade agreement with South Korea, the second is a Panama trade agreement and the third the Colombia Free Trade pact. It is the later that I find the most interesting and the most hopeful.

I find it interesting because the Democrats have been adamantly against this agreement with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for several years now. The Democrats base their claim against supporting the agreement upon the long, bleak history of government violence against union organizers there.

For decades union organizers in Colombia have been assassinated by shadowy government kill squads and anti-union activists. Unions in the United States have used this as a basis to claim that Colombia is not a legitimate member of the international community and is not worthy of our trust by cementing a trade agreement with her. In 2008, John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO gave the union line against Colombia that is echoed by the Democratic Party.

“In Colombia, joining a union or advocating for workers’ rights can be a de facto death sentence,” he said. “The human-rights atrocities against union activists and supporters are not isolated, rogue events; they are committed largely by the armed forces and paramilitary organizations with ties to elected officials close to President [Alvaro] Uribe.”

As I wrote in May of 2008, Sweeney’s stance is easy to agree with if Colombia had never made an effort to change its ways. But, what makes Sweeney’s position incorrect is that Colombia has come a long, long way towards cleaning up its criminal history.

Writing for the New York Post in April of 2008, Michael Fumento effectively demolished the union stance against Colombia.

Yes, Colombia has a high murder rate. With much of the country still in the control of vicious leftist narco-terrorists (supported by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez), you’d expect a high murder rate among any one group – from union members to midgets. That said, last year’s 17,198 homicides (among 45 million people) was a drop of 40 percent from the 28,837 in 2002.

Deaths among Colombia’s union members plummeted even farther – from a high of 275 in 1996 to only 39 last year. That’s a drop of 86 percent in a decade.

And that’s 39 killings (a figure the AFL-CIO itself cited last month) out of about 800,000 union workers – or about five murders per 100,000 union members. How does that constitute “a de facto death sentence” – when the murder rate for the population as a whole is about eight times higher?

As I said then, why are we still punishing Colombia for a vast improvement over the horrid conditions that sparked our ire on human rights in the 1990s? Should we not reward Colombia’s efforts?

On top of that, we have for decades looked away as China maintains its status as the worst human rights violator in history, we’ve never said a word as China continues without apology or improvement for its murderous oppression of its own citizenry, yet we continue to punish a nation that truly has worked hard to improve its own troubles?

Naturally, the real reason that the unions here in the U.S. are against free trade pacts with anyone is because it cuts into their cushy existence. Unions hate trade pacts and are inherent protectionists. This is really the only reason the Democrats have opposed the Colombia agreement. Unions control the Democrats and the unions are against trade. Its really quite that simple.

Yet, I am hopeful about this because the Obama administration is making noise about restarting this agreement with Colombia (and Panama and So. Korea). These are good moves if pursued to an equitable agreement.

We desperately need to support our friends in Central and South America and Uribe is a worthy friend to cultivate.

If Obama gets this done, I for one will applaud his efforts. Let us hope that this is not just another cynical show of lipservice like so much of what Obama has done thus far in the White House.