Encouraging signs on achieving free trade


The Miami Herald
May 11, 2009

OUR OPINION: President Obama must use political capital to win approval for pacts

Sometime in the last few weeks, the Washington logjam over negotiating a free trade agreement with Colombia and other countries appears to have broken, at long last. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has signaled that the Obama administration is ready to move forward on these long-stalled pacts. He then warned against ”setting the bar too high” in working out pending issues between the United States on the one hand, and Panama, Colombia and South Korea — all of whom have pending trade deals in Congress.

Although it is too early to declare victory in the effort to overcome the protectionist sentiment that has kept these agreements bottled up in Congress, these are the most encouraging signs thus far that the administration is committed to promoting free trade. Many Democrats in Congress and their allies in the labor movement remain skeptical about the usefulness of free-trade agreements.

Still, President Obama, who talked tough against special trade pacts during the campaign, appears to have decided as president that their virtues far outweigh their liabilities.

Trade with Colombia is a particular concern because it is a proven ally of the United States in the volatile Andes region of Latin America. Under President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia has made significant strides in stabilizing the country’s political, economic and security situation.

Homicides, kidnappings and terror attacks are way down. The murder of labor leaders remains a worrisome problem — the rate increased slightly from 2007 to 2008 — but it has dropped by about 75 percent since 2000. Under Mr. Uribe, it no longer is true to say — as it was under some of his predecessors — that the government tolerates impunity.

The human-rights record is far from perfect, but it has improved. Meanwhile, the government has also made progress in improving health and education, and reducing poverty. The U.S./Colombia FTA, which former President Bush and President Uribe signed in 2006, would lock in these gains and stabilize Colombia’s democracy and its free-market system. Its impact would extend far beyond the immediate region, helping to complete a contiguous free-trade zone along the entire Pacific Rim from Chile to Alaska.

As a senator, Mr. Obama opposed the pact with Colombia, but perhaps he now understands that it would be a mistake to side with the forces working against free trade around the world. Until recently, his stance on free trade was unclear. Now that he seems ready to move forward, he must be prepared to use his political clout to overcome legislative opposition, mainly from the ranks of his own Democratic Party. He is starting to talk the talk. Can he walk the walk?


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