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Trade Accord With Colombia a Plus for Like-Minded U.S.

John Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State
Special to the San Antonio Express-News
April 8, 2008

The fate of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement rests with Congress.

And whether you consider its potential benefits in domestic or international terms, in economic or geopolitical terms, the conclusion is the same: This agreement is a great deal both for the United States and Colombia.

It will not only increase opportunities for U.S. workers, but also provide crucial support to one of our most stalwart democratic partners, at a time when the stakes for democracy and free markets could not be higher in this hemisphere.

Though critics of free trade may shout about "job-killing" trade deals, the fact is, this agreement with Colombia is an outstanding deal for American workers and farmers. Colombia's exports here already enjoy duty free access, while our products entering the Colombian market are subject to an average of 12 percent duty. The agreement will immediately eliminate tariffs on three-fourths of U.S. exports to Colombia.

The International Trade Commission estimates this agreement could result in $1.1 billion annually in additional U.S. exports. Even the opponents of this trade agreement concede that it will benefit the U.S. economy by leveling the playing field for our workers and opening an important market to us.

What is at stake here is also the broader well-being of our hemisphere—and thus, our country's place in a secure, peaceful, and prosperous neighborhood. The United States must support those who are committed to democracy and the rule of law in the Americas to build responsible, peaceful governments that create opportunity and social justice.

If the democracies in our hemisphere cannot meet the high hopes of their people, the siren song of populism and authoritarianism grows louder. In no country in our region are the stakes higher, and in no country have we invested more in democratic transformation, than in Colombia.

For decades, Colombia's people and leaders have courageously sought to reclaim their country from narco-terrorists, whose campaigns of murder and kidnapping have destroyed the lives of thousands and pushed Colombia to the brink of collapse. Beginning under President Clinton and increasing under President Bush, the United States has supported Colombia's efforts through a sustained, bipartisan policy: Plan Colombia. And the results thus far speak for themselves.

Just a decade ago, Colombia was nearly a failed state; today, it is on the brink of lasting success. Since 2002 in Colombia, murders have dropped by 40 percent, kidnappings by 83 percent and terrorist attacks by 76 percent. Colombia's economy is rebounding strongly, with the number of Colombians living in poverty declining by more than 20 percent in the past five years. Passing the free trade agreement with Colombia would enable our partner to consolidate its gains and to emerge as a pillar of freedom and democracy as some in our neighborhood are working to undermine these principles.

Recent events illustrate this fact. In early March, Colombia attacked a top terrorist leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who was using a deserted stretch of jungle in Ecuador to plan more murders of innocent Colombians. Evidence recovered at the scene raises serious questions about the funding and support that the FARC has received from the Venezuelan government. This places in high relief the positive agenda of peace, prosperity, and social justice that the United States and Colombia are pursuing in this hemisphere—an agenda that would be greatly enhanced by passing the free trade agreement.

Some have reservations about this agreement because of concerns over labor and human rights—concerns that we understand. Protecting labor and human rights is a top priority both for Colombia's government and for ours, and our ongoing cooperation has brought considerable improvement by virtually every measure.

The Uribe administration has established an ambitious program to protect vulnerable citizens, including union members, and it is working to bring justice for past abuses. No one can deny that Colombia is an effective democracy, and if this trade agreement is defeated, let no one think that Colombia's challenges will be resolved more easily. To the contrary, they will be harder.

The United States and Colombia have made strategic commitments to one another that have enabled Colombia to build a foundation of peace and prosperity. A free trade agreement with Colombia is an opportunity to support a committed partner that shares our values and our interests—as it completes an historic transformation into a bulwark of freedom in our hemisphere.

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