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Nancy Hearts Hugo By: Matthew Continetti
The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, April 23, 2008


A war-torn country with a democratically elected government, plagued by militias, terrorists, and drugs--but one that is steadily making progress against all these evils--wants to strengthen its ties to the United States. The Bush administration acts to help this ally. What does the Democratic Congress do? It changes the rules so that the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA), negotiated in good faith between the two governments and inked in 2006, can't come to a vote.

Memo to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez: Send flowers to the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It is Chávez who profits most from the CFTA's demise. For years now, he's been locked in a struggle with Colombian president lvaro Uribe over the future of South America. Chávez wants that future to be socialist, authoritarian, friendly to other dictators, and belligerent toward the United States. Uribe wants it to be market-oriented, democratic, and integrated into an international system friendly to freedom and organized and led by the United States. The two visions could not be more different.

Venezuela and Colombia almost went to war in March, when Colombia struck a terrorist camp run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) inside neighboring Ecuador. The FARC has terrorized Colombians for years, murdering, taking hostages, trafficking in drugs. But Uribe has forced it into retreat. The March strike was a success. It killed FARC number two Raúl Reyes and led to the capture of his laptop, which contained files suggesting cooperation between the FARC and Venezuelan military intelligence. Chávez's response? He massed troops on the Venezuelan-Colombia border and threatened war.

The crisis abated, but there will be another. Thus this moment of relative tranquility was the perfect time for the United States to demonstrate just which side we are on, with passage of the CFTA. Instead we have turned our back on Uribe and the Latin American future he represents, supporting Chávez's claims that the "hegemon" is untrustworthy. Free trade agreements are not simply about trade. They are also about geopolitics: helping friends, strengthening alliances, shaping the future of, in this case, our hemisphere.

The arguments against the CFTA are laughably weak. Congressional Democrats say the deal would hurt U.S. workers. But more than 90 percent of Colombian imports already enter this country duty-free. So the main economic effect of the agreement would be the elimination of tariffs on U.S. exports to Colombia--thus helping U.S. workers. The agreement would "level the playing field" to our advantage. One estimate says the U.S. farm sector alone would reap an additional $690 million per year. Hence the balance of trade isn't the issue. If trade were the issue, then the Democratic Congress wouldn't have ratified the Peru Free Trade Agreement in December 2007.

Democrats claim that the White House didn't go out of its way to cooperate with Congress on the CFTA. That's simply false. The administration reports it held "more than 400 consultations, meetings, and calls"; sponsored "trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress"; and worked closely with congressional leaders from both parties. It even agreed to support a "trade adjustment assistance" package in exchange for votes on the trade deal. What more could the White House have done? Placed mints on the Democrats' pillows?

Democrats like California representative Howard Berman say that "Colombia's troubling history of labor activist assassinations and human-rights violations" requires that the deal be held up. Since 2002, however, the murder of trade unionists has fallen by close to 80 percent. Homicides, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks are down. Colombia's human rights record is improving. It used to be that Colombia was so dangerous mayors had to live outside the cities they governed. Not any more. Today all of them live and work in the cities they govern. This is called progress. The trade agreement rewarded progress.

Why did Pelosi move to let the Colombia deal die? Politics. It's an election year. The Democrats need union money, and the unions oppose free trade. Democratic presidential candidates go from coast to coast telling audiences that free trade has devastated our economy. This is nonsense. But it wouldn't look too good if the Democratic Congress belied this irresponsible, hostile-to-foreigners, belligerent--one might say, unilateralist--rhetoric.

There's another reason, too: President Bush. Congress has now rejected the White House's two legislative priorities in 2008: a reform in the eavesdropping law that includes immunity for telecommunications firms and the CFTA. Congress's top priority is to make sure voters perceive the Bush presidency as a failure. They may think they are well on their way to achieving this goal. That in both of these matters the Democrats' hatred of Bush will redound to the benefit of enemies of the United States seems not to concern them in the least.



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