Good morning from BogotÃ¡. I spent the entire day yesterday in a conference / strategy meeting attended by more than 100 human-rights defenders from all over Colombia. Though it was fascinating and informative, it did have a few slow moments, during which I wrote the following about this week’s fight over the free-trade agreement.
Many Republican members of Congress from blue-collar, swing districts no doubt breathed a sigh of relief yesterday. Thanks to the House Democratic leadership’s unprecedented change in the “fast track” rules, these vulnerable legislators would not have to cast a potentially damaging vote for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement before the November elections.
While opinions about the FTA diverge sharply, few members of Congress could have been anxious to debate and vote on a controversial free-trade agreement in the midst of an election year (an election year in which the free trade issue has already arisen a few times), while the economy appears to be in recession. In this climate, even an FTA with Canada or Norway would have been in trouble – and Colombia is not Canada or Norway.
Now that “fast track” is stripped out, though, what happens next? This week’s move in Congress leaves some key questions unanswered.
1. Is the agreement dead, or is the intention to bring it up in 2009?
While the White House and House Republican leaders clearly believe that the FTA was “killed” on Thursday, that is not certain. Some speculate that the Congress might try to vote on the FTA between the November election and the January negotiation. A more likely scenario could be that it comes up in 2009, with a new (presumably Democratic-majority) Congress and a new (anyone’s guess which party) administration.
Bringing up the agreement in 2009 would give Colombia’s justice system more time to reach verdicts in dozens – we would prefer hundreds – of cases against union-members’ murderers. A year to take a big piece out of the impunity that labor leaders’ killers have traditionally enjoyed. If that progress takes place, one of the Democrats’ main objections to the FTA would be weakened, and even a President Obama or a President Clinton might argue that their expectations for change in Colombia have been met.
2. Will the agreement have to be re-negotiated?
Even if Colombia locks up dozens of unionist killers by next year, however, the agreement will still be very controversial. The U.S. labor community will continue to oppose the FTA as another example of an objectionable “model” or “template” that dates back to NAFTA and CAFTA. Others will remain concerned about other aspects of the treaty like its effect on smallholding agriculture in Colombia or the impact of higher intellectual property standards.
If the agreement is to come up again, the next administration and congressional leaders will have to decide whether progress against unionist killings (if there is any) is enough – or whether the entire agreement must go back to the drawing board.
3. What is the congressional Democrats’ message to Colombia and Latin America?
Either way, right now the congressional Democrats do have a public-relations problem in Colombia, and to some extent elsewhere in Latin America.
House Republicans sounded silly Thursday when they called the fast-track rule change “The Hugo ChÃ¡vez Rule” because, in their view, the United States was abandoning Colombia and conceding more regional influence to the Venezuelan leader. But it is now common to read or hear pundits in Colombia’s media saying that things go better for Colombia with Republicans in office than with Democrats.
It is important to make clear that opposing policies that are too militarized and too skewed toward Latin America’s wealthiest is not the same as “abandoning” the region. But it is incumbent on the Democrats to say clearly how they would engage differently with Colombia and the rest of the region. They can’t be seen just to be obstinately saying “no” to proposals like Plan Colombia and the FTA – but that caricature is proliferating in the region.
Opponents of the reigning policies need to keep articulating what they would do differently. Where aid to Colombia is concerned, the changes that Congress made to the 2008 aid bill make clear the outlines of what a new approach should look like. Now it is time to be clearer about sort of trade deal the FTA’s opponents would say “yes” to.
With yesterday’s vote, the agreement’s opponents now have an opportunity to create a new model for trade engagement, one based on consultations with a far broader sample of both countries’ societies. Congressional Democrats and other constituencies that opposed this FTA should spend the next year engaging publicly and constructively with Colombians who did not have a seat at the table when the agreement was first negotiated.
They must seize this opportunity. It is time to be creative. The alternative is to be caricatured, however unfairly, as the segment of U.S. opinion that simply wants to “walk away” from Colombia and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.