Democrats: Wrong on Colombia

At a dinner I attended a few weeks ago, a young professional working at an international NGO launched into a tirade against the Colombian government, calling it fascist.  This is the sort of hostility to the government of Alvaro Uribe that has enabled the Democratic Party to oppose a free trade agreement with that country, which died in Congress last week.  The failure of this legislation could throw millions of poor Colombians out of work, yet the Democrats claim they are standing up for human rights, when in fact they are merely protecting the privileges of a narrow segment of American workers in an election year. 

Unlike the callow woman I dined with, the Democratic Party does not have the excuse of youth (unless of course it insists on choosing youthful leadership).  The Democratic Party has been the party of the less fortunate since the days of FDR.  FDR internationalized support for the downtrodden with his famous four freedoms speech, in which he sought to guarantee all citizens of the planet freedom of expression and worship, freedom from fear, and “freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.” 


FDR’s program of reducing trade barriers and Truman’s Marshall Plan to aid the war-ravaged economies of Europe led logically to JFK’s efforts to raise millions out of poverty, with such programs as the Alliance for Progress for Latin America, the Peace Corps, and the Kennedy round trade talks to reduce barriers to trade worldwide.

Bill Clinton deepened this commitment with the NAFTA free trade agreement, which brought tens of millions of Mexicans into the global trading system and enabled the US, Mexico and Canada to specialize in production for the mutual benefit of citizens in all three nations.  Likewise, the Clinton administration helped bring China into the World Trade Organization, raising the living standards of some 300 million Chinese who work in factories along the eastern seaboard of that giant country.  Since 1994, a number of countries have secured FTAs with the U.S., including Mexico, Canada, Central American countries, Peru, Chile, Israel and Jordan.  As a result, they have gotten access to our market, investment in their economies and job growth, and we have gotten lower-cost products and markets for our products.  A win-win situation.
However, over the last several years, Democrats have become opposed to free trade, and by extension, to helping the poor of the world.  Last week, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, when presented with the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, voted for the first time since the 1970s to deny the president “fast track” trade authority to push the deal through.  Hillary Clinton let her campaign manager go because his P.R. firm had a discussion with the Colombian ambassador over trade.  The Democratic presidential candidates have promised to scrap NAFTA and to staunch trade liberalization, in order to win votes in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where certain industries have declined as our economy has been transformed from one based on manufacturing to one based on knowledge.  Furthermore, a few years ago, but for the heavy lobbying of President Bush, CAFTA, the free trade agreement with the impoverished nations of Central America and the Caribbean, would have failed.
The Democrats are experiencing cognitive dissonance.  They don’t want to oppose trade and they don’t want to be seen as protecting the privileges of the few.  So, they come up with a nifty construct: we’re not against free trade; we’re for “fair trade.”  They propose attaching labor and environmental riders to the free trade agreements in order to protect the poor from abuse and pollution.  In principle, it’s not a bad argument.  But it’s pure politics, rather than sound policy. A trade agreement is not the place to pressure foreign governments on labor and environmental standards.  That should be done in other accords or treaties.
By attaching labor and environmental riders, investment will be discouraged and jobs lost.  Tell a Guatemalan man, with a family of four to feed, that you are attaching labor protection to an agreement so that he will work shorter hours, and environmental protection to keep his air clean.  Such statutory protections do him and his family little good if his job disappears.  It is no accident that almost everyone across the board in Latin America supports free trade agreements with the U.S., without the Democratic riders.  The only ones who oppose them, by and large, are in protected industries, such as state-owned telecoms and agriculture, which would have to compete with American firms. 
Further, the Democratic Party argues this election year that its leaders will correct Bush’s heavy-handed relations with the rest of the world.   The hypocrisy here is that by halting the progress of free trade, the Democrats will do more harm to U.S. relations with friendly nations than George W. Bush has done with two wars and a lot of swagger.  Witness the worried comments by Canadian and Mexican officials in the run-up to the Democratic primary in Ohio.
For all the pain experienced in the rust belt due to inevitable economic adjustment, there has been gain in border areas trading with Mexico and Canada and in the knowledge-based industries located all across the country.  This includes Wisconsin, which, though in the Midwest and having lost manufacturing jobs, has also gained knowledge-based jobs due to its superior universities.  Americans’ famous flexibility of movement, such as when dust bowl migrants from the South moved north to get manufacturing jobs in the last century, continues today.  The inevitable should not be stalled through trade protection, making our nation poorer.  Sure, we should soften the blow of adjustment through job training and out-placement services and an adequate social safety net.
Back to Colombia.  My young friend with whom I dined was badly mistaken about that country and its government.  She was not alone.  The AFL-CIO blog on Colombia has been rabid, almost suggesting that the Colombian government itself has been complicit in the murder of trade unionists, a baseless assertion — and character assassination — made simply to protect a few assembly line jobs.  A lot of trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia, but so have a lot of people from many walks of life.  It is the most violent place in our hemisphere.   That’s because there is a civil war going on, largely caused by the guerrilla groups that the government is fighting.
From the time I began working on Colombia in 1994, the principal weakness of that country in my mind has been the inability of the central government to control its territory.  As the entity that should exercise sole police power in a country, the central government fails to provide one of its basic functions if armed guerrilla groups roam freely as they do in Colombia.  A succession of Colombian governments have been unable to discharge this basic public service.  It has in large part been due to Colombia’s terrain, a mountainous country of remote, disconnected communities.  As a result, vicious, leftist, drug-dealing guerrilla groups have flourished, and a succession of weak presidents have been unable to contain them.  This has resulted in violence, narcotics dealing and poverty.  Commercial life has been sharply restricted, as road travel has been limited and dangerous. 
I had lunch once with Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia.  He has an authoritarian personality and is far from perfect.  Yet he is a democrat (small d), won a landslide victory for a second term in 2006, and maintains very high approval ratings in Colombia.  This is because he has done more to reduce violence, encourage commerce, contain the guerrillas, and disarm the right-wing paramilitaries than any previous president. Not to mention his sound economic reforms and an opening up of the oil sector to investment.  The latter has resulted in new discoveries, which will provide the U.S. with energy security from an ally that shares a long border with the much-less-friendly, oil-rich Venezuela.   Surely, such a reliable ally deserves a free trade agreement.
Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries proliferated in remote regions precisely because of the inaction of previous governments against the guerrillas.  Although some in the Uribe administration have been tainted by the paramilitaries, more paramilitary soldiers have been demobilized under Uribe than before.  Yet the guerrillas continue to hold vast swathes of territory and hundreds of hostages, many of them tortured and chained to trees, and continue to ply the drug trade.  In spite of this, Uribe has asserted central government control over more territory than his predecessors, freeing up highways to legitimate commerce. 
Thus, it is no accident that most Latin Americans you speak to, not to mention Colombians, many of whom are liberal opponents of George W. Bush, supporters of Barack Obama, and broadly speaking, sympathetic to the Democrats, are miffed by the Democratic opposition to free trade with Colombia. And, they smell the hypocrisy, as the Democrats claim to be standing up for human rights and against the ravages of modern capitalism, when their real intent is to win the votes of working class Americans in the rust belt and get a Democrat back in the White House.  At least the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, explained his opposition to NAFTA in simple, honest terms: that he owed a lot to the unions who helped him get elected.

2 Responses to “Democrats: Wrong on Colombia”

  1. Colombia: Some straight talk « Scherblog Says:

    […] to staunch the circulation of lies.  Ask someone you know from Latin America about Alvaro Uribe.  I wrote about this issue a while back in a post.  Have a […]

  2. Colombia/Venezuela: What would Simon Bolivar say? « Scherblog Says:

    […] by George W. Bush and scuttled by Democrats in Congress, including then Senator Barack Obama.  See a note on this I penned a year and a half ago.  President Bush openly talked about America’s strong alliance with Colombia.  It might be […]

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