The Colombian free trade agreement is a long-delayed but very welcome step, says FPI Policy Analyst Patrick Christy

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After playing politics for the better part for four years, the Obama administration today announced an agreement on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, paving the way for ratification of the agreement later this year. The Colombia FTA is long overdue, 1596 days to be exact, 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 President Obama’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%” 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% of Colombian duties on US 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. Such ignorance ignored Colombia’s drastically improved record of the past decade and ignored the concrete actions taken by the Colombian governments since 2002 to protect persons at risk. 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. At the same time, the murder of trade unionists dropped from 274 in 1996, to 51 in 2010 – a rate far below that for the general population at large. 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 US foreign aid, the deal marks an important step in US-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. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez continues to harbor FARC terrorists on Venezuelan soil, and evidence of collusion between top Venezuelan and international drug traffickers is surfacing with the arrest of alleged drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia. Just this week, Ecuador declared U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges a "persona non grata" and ordered her to leave the country. 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, today’s announcement is a very welcome step.

- Originally posted on The Weekly Standard Blog

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