President George W. Bush today urged the Democrat-controlled US Congress to approve the US-Colombia free trade agreement, which has been stalled in Washington for over two years. Bush said the FTA is critical to strengthening Colombia’s war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) militant group, and countering the spreading regional influence of Venezuela’s “anti-American” government. Bush warned that if Congress fails to approve the FTA with Colombia it could be seen as proof the United States does not support its closest allies.
The US-Colombia FTA faces a steep uphill battle in Congress. Democrats are opposed to all free trade deals, but especially FTA’s with Latin American countries. Republicans pander to big business, but Democrats drop their pants for organized labor, environmentalists and human rights groups. But Colombia has an added disadvantage: leftist human rights groups and think tanks in Washington, DC which sympathize with all leftist causes including the FARC bitterly oppose the US-Colombia FTA, and these groups have powerful congressional allies like Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, who has always embraced leftist causes in Latin America.
The timing also could not be worse for Colombia’s expectations. Congress has never approved a trade agreement in a presidential election year or a mid-term congressional election year before elections are held. For example, the NAFTA framework agreement was signed in 1992, but Congress did not approve NAFTA until 1993 – after former President Bill Clinton forced the addition of labor and environmental side agreements to the core trade pact between the US, Mexico and Canada.
In the 1994 mid-term election year Congress did approve the Uruguay Round agreement of the GATT which created the WTO, but lawmakers waited until after the November elections which gave Republicans control of the Senate and House of Representatives. However, the GATT agreement Congress approved at the end of 1994 was multilateral and global, while the US-Colombia FTA in 2008 is bilateral and local.
The US-Colombia FTA will not be approved in 2008. Bush is a lame duck and also the least popular US president in memory. NAFTA was thoroughly trashed in the protracted battle between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, and likely will be hammered even harder when Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, contest the presidency in coming months. Also, Democratic congressional leaders like House speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada are bitter foes of NAFTA and free trade deals in general.
The Colombian government is fully aware of the overwhelming odds stacked against the US-Colombia FTA. Bogota would rejoice if the US Congress approves the FTA, but the government of President Alvaro Uribe Velez thinks the FTA will not even come up for a vote. This is bad news, but more so for the US than for Colombia. Trade between Colombia and the US is already significantly free thanks to Andean region trade preferences which have been in effect for years. Of course, these preferences are subject to periodic review and renewal by the US Congress, so there is always the risk the preferences could be cut off in the future.
However, Uribe doesn’t worry about what could happen in the future. Right now he is focused on pressing his successful military offensive against the FARC, which has been crippled in recent years thanks to the Uribe government’s Democratic Security policies which have been supported by the US. Barack Obama could be the next US president, and the Democrats may rout the Republicans in November’s elections, making it very likely that US military aid to Colombia will be curbed significantly in 2009. But Uribe has invested wisely in expanding the Colombian military and national police forces, and his government now has sufficient resources and personnel to continue attacking the FARC during the remainder of his second presidency.