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Holding Up Trade Deal Won't Solve Colombia's Woes

Authors: Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program, and Sebastian Chaskel
November 27, 2008
Washington Times


Two years ago, President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe negotiated a free-trade agreement. Yet when President-elect Barack Obama steps into the White House in January, the deal will still be awaiting congressional ratification.

Experts agree that both countries will benefit from the pact: Colombia by attracting investment and the U.S. by reducing tariffs on its Colombia-bound exports.

As a senator and presidential candidate, Mr. Obama opposed the free-trade agreement (FTA) for noneconomic reasons, arguing along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that as long as Colombia maintains a dismal human rights record, Congress should not review the agreement. During the last campaign debate, Mr. Obama stated that Colombian "labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis, and there have not been prosecutions."

While true, withholding the FTA will not solve this situation. Instead, the U.S. can improve Colombia's human rights situation by bolstering economic opportunities through the FTA and more importantly by strengthening Colombia's courts through Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar aid program to fight drug production and insecurity in Colombia.

Colombia has made great strides in the past decade, reducing the violence tied to the drug trade from a threat to the state itself to a serious law enforcement problem. Yet even though Colombians are now safer, political killings continue. In 2007, at least 39 trade unionists were slain. This year, 41 have died, making up about half of the assassinated union leaders worldwide.

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