That’s nothing to take for granted. Colombia’s neighbor, Venezuela, is in the grip of a strongman, Hugo Chavez. Several other countries, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, have joined Chavez’s anti-American camp.
Colombia may be Latin America’s oldest democracy, but it was in serious trouble just eight years ago. “In 2002, Colombia was overrun with guerrilla and paramilitary violence,” wrote Mary Anastasia O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal. “It was an environment that could have easily spawned a dictatorship, as happened in Argentina in 1976.”
Colombia avoided this sorry fate. It owes much of its success to its outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe. He has led his nation to this turning-point moment, with a free and fair election that can serve as a model for the region. Democracy can be a frail thing in Central and South America, but in Colombia it is vibrant.
This offers an excellent opportunity for the White House to push for final passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama called for strengthening trade ties with Colombia. If he intends to meet his announced goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years, it will require the approval of new trade pacts such as this one with Colombia, which the Bush administration negotiated but Congress has ignored.
The rest of the world certainly isn’t ignoring Colombia and its population of more than 45 million people–i.e., potential consumers of American-made goods and services. On May 19, the European Union signed its own trade pact with Colombia. An agreement with Canada is also in the works.
Farmers have much to gain from improved access to Colombian consumers. Under the provisions of the free-trade agreement, tariffs on a variety of U.S. products would be lifted immediately: high-quality beef, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and fruits such as apples, cherries, peaches, and pears. Other restrictions would vanish over time.
The opponents of the agreement complain that Colombia has a rotten human-rights record. But this is difficult to square with the country’s actual achievements under Uribe, who has devoted much of his presidency to fighting violent narco-terrorists. Since 2002, murders are down by 45 percent and kidnappings are down by 90 percent.
Ordinary Colombians also have benefited from an improving economy. Poverty and unemployment remain ongoing problems, but they have loosened their tight hold.
Uribe not only has made Colombia safer and more prosperous, he has performed these feats while also bolstering its fragile democracy. The world saw the proof of this on Sunday, when millions of voters cast ballots in the presidential election.
Juan Manuel Santos, a former cabinet member of Uribe’s government, finished in first place, with almost 47 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus, captured less than half as much. Santos and Mockus will compete in a runoff on June 20. Most experts think Santos will prevail, based on his better-than-expected showing in the first round of voting. Whatever the outcome, this is the picture of a healthy democracy at work.
Before the election, the case for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was overwhelmingly persuasive. Now it has only gotten stronger. It would reward Colombia for its outstanding progress. It would also provide economic opportunity for Americans, in the service of a worthy export goal.
If Obama is truly serious about doubling exports in the next five years, he can’t count on a general improvement in the global economy to lead the way. He will have to show leadership and push for trade pacts that he is already on the record as supporting, such as the agreements with Panama and South Korea, which also await congressional action.
But Colombia may be the best place to start–right now, in the aftermath of its latest success story.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org