July 11, 2008

Commentary:

U.S.-Colombia FTA: More Timely — And Needed — Than Ever

By Israel Ortega

As Americans headed out for vacation over the 4th of July weekend, they may have missed a major story: the news of Ingrid Betancourt’s release. She’d been held for years by terrorists from the Colombian separatist group FARC.

Her release marks a triumph for freedom and a defeat for oppression. But the news is particularly timely for Congress. Members are back at work after a recess and face a pile of work. One thing that ought to rise right to the top of that stack is the stalled trade agreement with Colombia.

The dramatic rescue of Betancourt and three fellow Americans — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — was so astounding that it could have easily been from the latest action movie blockbuster.

After years of infiltrating the leftist guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombian operatives waited for the most opportune time to execute this daring rescue mission.

By combining U.S. assistance and military intelligence with Colombian intelligence and military operations, the rescue operation demonstrated the strong partnership between the two countries. That’s a stark contrast to the state of Colombia only a few years ago, when kidnappings and violence were commonplace and the military seemed overwhelmed by guerrillas, drug traffickers and paramilitaries.

It was in this environment that Ingrid Betancourt vanished five years ago while campaigning in rural Colombia. Betancourt had been a high-profile Colombian elected official, having served in both the Colombian House of Representatives and Senate before launching her bid for the presidency. She promised to fight corruption and drug traffickers, and her bid attracted the attention of many Colombians eager for peace and prosperity. Unfortunately for Betancourt, her bold agenda also attracted the attention of the FARC, which wanted her out of the picture.

Fast-forwarding to the present, Colombia has made a remarkable turnaround. Today, the country attracts foreign investment and interest. Shortly after electing Alvaro Uribe as their President, Colombians demonstrated a steadfast resolve in taking on the drug cartels and the paramilitaries, no matter the consequences. Fighting corruption and violence were atop Uribe’s agenda. As a result, life in Colombia has slowly changed for the better.

As day-to-day life improved, so did the Colombian economy, prompting the start of foreign trade agreements. And it’s in the light of this win-win situation that the U.S.-Colombian Trade Agreement was negotiated.

The facts are overwhelming. Colombia is our largest export market for U.S. agriculture products in South America. Through this lens, it’s easy to see the rationale behind the Colombian FTA: It would level the playing field by eliminating unnecessary tariffs on Colombian imports to the United States.

Unfortunately, it seems that in Washington, D.C., scoring political points and catering to narrow political interests is more important than getting anything accomplished.

Looking for a scapegoat to blame for the sluggish economy and tougher international competition, a number of politicians are listening to the powerful labor unions who mistakenly blame job losses on free trade. For months, labor unions and their allies in Congress have been looking for anything in Colombia and the Colombian FTA to criticize. The most common line of attack has been criticizing the level of violence in Colombia and the country’s supposed hostility towards labor unions.

With the successful hostage rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, detractors of the FTA seem to be scrambling for yet another excuse to delay approval. Yet still the question screams from all those who believe in fairness, common sense and supporting a friend: “If not now — when?”

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

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