Let’s start on the positive side of the ledger, with Uribe’s big victory. He carried 62 percent of the vote, a huge margin that’s unheard of in our own photo-finish politics. But Uribe deserved the win: When he was first elected four years ago, Colombia was torn by civil war, with killings common, kidnappings rampant, and the economy a wreck. Today, guerilla groups are either disarming or struggling. The cities and the countryside are much safer. Although narcotic trafficking remains a big problem, the Colombian economy is starting to make real progress under his leadership.
It will make even more progress if the United States and Colombia finalize a free-trade agreement whose negotiations were concluded in February.
We should care about the Colombian economy – it is in our national interest for nations below the Rio Grande to be stable and prosperous. We know from recent history that stability and prosperity in Latin America are nothing to take for granted. Just think of Fidel Castro in Cuba, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, or Hugo Chavez, the current president of Venezuela.
Congress should set aside its own election-year aversion to trade bills and approve this one with Colombia as soon as possible. Not only will it help Uribe, who is exactly the kind of leader we should cultivate, but it will also increase our own export opportunities. Colombia is already the second most important destination for U.S. agricultural products in Latin America. Even more trade is now in the offing.
This weekend, voters in Peru, a neighbor of Colombia, will have a say in their country’s own free-trade agreement with the United States, which was concluded in December but which also awaits its day in Congress. In the presidential election held on April 9, no candidate received a majority of the vote, forcing a runoff that will occur this Sunday between Ollanta Humala, a leftist who probably will quash the trade pact, and Alan Garcia, a moderate former president. Although Humala was the top vote-getter in April, polls now suggest that Garcia will prevail.
Unfortunately, Garcia is no Uribe. When he led Peru in the 1980s, the results were dismal: He nationalized a U.S. oil company, hyperinflation hurt the economy, and Maoist rebels threatened to do much worse. Still, Garcia is a responsible voice compared to Humala, and there’s every reason to believe that he’ll do his part to make sure the trade agreement becomes a reality. Assuming he wins on Sunday, our own Congress will want to do its part as well.
Last year, there was a lot of talk in Washington about a U.S.-Andean trade agreement that would include South America’s three Andean nations–not only Colombia and Peru, but also Ecuador. This now seems unlikely, with the Bush administration announcing on May 16 that it had broken off trade talks with Ecuador. This comes following Ecuador’s decision to revoke its contract with Occidental Petroleum, a California-based company. This is tantamount to seizing roughly $1 billion in assets, because that’s the amount of money Occidental has invested in Ecuador since 1999.
Perhaps the Ecuadorians will see a problem–a new report estimates that they’ll lose 30,000 jobs if their current trade agreement with the United States expires at the end of this year. Then there are the lost opportunities that will result from failing to achieve a deal similar to Colombia and Peru’s. Ecuador’s own presidential election is scheduled for October.
There has long been an anti-American streak in Latin America: Twenty years ago, much of our foreign policy was devoted to undermining the Communists in Nicaragua and keeping them out of El Salvador. In these efforts, we prevailed. But we see ongoing problems in the actions of Ecuador, the candidacy of Humala in Peru, and the rise of divisive figures such as Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
We have a clear interest in seeing that presidents such as Uribe flourish, potential presidents such as Garcia have an opportunity to succeed, and responsible rule returns to Ecuador. Free trade is an important tool in this process–one that not only improves our own economic prospects but also helps preserve our security.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He currently chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).