Investor’s Business Daily
Issues & Insights Section
April 21, 2009

Trade: Hugo Chavez may have gotten a grinning handshake from President Obama in Trinidad. But it was our authentic friend and ally, Colombia, that got substance. The president got one right.

There was quite a media din over the president’s greeting of Venezuela’s strongman at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain over the weekend. Sure, it was a first. But along with bones he threw to Cuba, it crowded out weightier news.

Obama may have shaken hands, accepted an idiotic book and politely listened to diatribes from regional troublemakers. But for our ally Colombia, he wasn’t just gesturing. He was delivering results.

It started Saturday, when he put himself next to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at lunch and then studiously exchanged notes.

Having listened to Uribe, (and that must have been a nice dose of sanity after enduring 50 minutes of ravings from Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, or weird conspiracy theories by Bolivia’s Evo Morales), Obama then seemed to realize that the long-stalled Colombia free trade agreement should have been passed yesterday.

The president announced that his team must find a way to pass the agreement. With world trade down 80%, the pact opens new markets to the U.S. He demanded immediate action, asking Colombia’s trade minister to fly to Washington this week.

Then it got even better: Obama invited Uribe to the White House and promised to visit Colombia himself, allowing the Colombians to lay out for him their vast economic and social progress, and their desire to integrate into global trade.

In a final flourish, Obama scribbled his autograph onto President Uribe’s notes, writing: “To President Uribe, with admiration! Barack H. Obama.” A smiling Uribe showed it to reporters. Given Uribe’s discretion, it’s likely that Obama asked him to do that.

The media made much of Obama’s polite gestures to dictators, but he gave them nothing resembling what he gave to Uribe. Name one dictator Obama sat with for lunch. Which troublemaker got a White House invitation? Which tinhorn got a promise to visit?

And has anyone heard of Obama giving his autograph — “with admiration!” — to another president? It was as if Obama himself unclenched his own fist to reach out to the Colombian hand.

Obama may have had political reasons to seek out Colombia — the Chavez-Obama pictures didn’t do him any good domestically, and Drudge Report ran pictures of them all weekend, infuriating White House officials.

But the outlook for free trade has been improving for several weeks, too. On a visit to Medellin last month, Uribe gave us a veiled signal of positive moves on trade under the surface, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has since made encouraging statements.

Two congressional delegations of pro-trade Democrats turned up in Colombia this month, back-slapping with the Colombians. But nothing approaches the good news seen now.

At a press conference Monday, Kirk was upbeat: “When you’ve got two willing partners, it’s a pretty good recipe for getting things done.” That beats handshakes. The Obama team is showing a welcome shift to substance over style, and that deserves notice.