Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Colombian Sentiment toward a Possible U.S./Colombia Free Trade Agreement

by Cristina Mutchler

A new year, a new president committed to re-engaging the international community, and a new trade deal with Colombia? Not so fast. The Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which was introduced during the Bush Administration awaits Congressional approval. Yet, it hasn’t been the most popular trade deal around.

President Barack Obama opposed the ratification of a U.S./Colombia trade agreement when he was a Democratic Senator from Illinois. He was concerned about Colombia’s human rights record and violence against union leaders. Colombia Reports journalist Garry Leech, who works in some of the most dangerous regions of the country and was previously held captive by the FARC revolutionaries, says the recent reduction in Colombian violence pushed President Obama to change his mind. He says the pact will most likely be approved by the U.S. Congress this year, after human rights and environmental “safeguards” are inserted into the agreement text.
Former President George W. Bush said that one of the biggest disappointments of his second term was not winning approval of trade agreements. Despite past set-backs, Colombia Reports Editor Adriaan Alsema says, “The approval bill came at the wrong time when former President Bush had very little support. My guess is in the end (the president) will think the trade pact or keeping Colombia as an ally serves the U.S.”

On the brink of the economic crisis this past November, some were pushed for the trade pact, emphasizing that it would be positive for both the U.S. economy and its workers. Furthermore, the agreement may enhance U.S. foreign relations and competitive markets, says El Colombiano journalist Diego Gómez. Leech says the principle benefits would be for U.S. companies that want to export manufactured goods and agricultural products. Leech also thinks that the United States may experience some economic growth as a result of the trade agreement, but says, “These gains could be offset by companies that take advantage of that country’s cheaper labor and resources, similar to what has occurred under NAFTA with manufacturing jobs moving to Mexico. In this case, Americans would lose decent-paying manufacturing jobs and Colombians would not benefit as the transplanted jobs would pay poverty-level wages in Colombia.”

According to a recent Reuters report, the FTA can expand market opportunities for small and medium-sized firms and boost the local economy. Ricardo Romero of the Bogotá Cambridge University Press doubts that the pact will help his country as it will the United States. “The free trade pact will mainly benefit the United States, as the infrastructure, competitiveness, and quality assurance in Colombia is not ‘there’ yet,” says Romero. “The agreement could prove economically devastating for rural Colombians as the importation of heavily subsidized U.S. food crops would ruin the livelihoods of many Colombian farmers. The consequences of this will not only be increased poverty levels in Colombia, but also higher numbers of farmers turning to the cultivation of illegal drug crops in order to survive,” Leech says. Union leader Francisco Gómez Cuellar says the impact on his country will be large: “The import of goods to the U.S. will result in a Collapse of the Colombian agricultural industry.”

Cuellar says that the impact on people of both countries will include more unemployment, economic decline, and the loss of industries. Alsema is unsure that the benefits will be plentiful for either of the two countries, and says there may just be benefits for private parties. Romero says that the FTA will impact the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, and that Colombia has the possibility to sell generic medicine, something that has been restricted in the past. He suggests that Colombia should set its sights further than just the U.S. “In my opinion, Colombia should go more for the constant seek of multinational agreements rather than restricting it to the U.S. This would provide us with the possibility to have more and interesting choices for products and services,” Romero says.

Public opinion regarding the pact seems to vary in Colombia, but Romero predicts that the popular vote will be in support of the agreement. He predicts that around 25 % of the population sees the FTA as a threat to Colombia’s autonomy and the general wellbeing of peasants and workers at large. Alsema also finds that some are skeptical of the agreement, and says, “The majority of people I spoke to about it find it difficult to believe that the U.S. as such an economic monster would be giving presents to a developing country like Colombia. It never has in the past, so why would it do so now?” As a Colombian poll last year showed, more citizens were opposed to the free trade agreement than supported it. Another factor to consider is the underrepresentation of the rural population in public opinion polls, a sector that is overwhelmingly opposed to the FTA.

Alsema elaborates on these underrepresented groups, saying that some who are opposed believe the FTA will threaten Colombia’s small farmers and make the cost of health insurance unaffordable for many. “It ignores the rights of indigenous and minorities and threatens Colombia’s wildlife,” he says. Cuellar also says that the gains of the FTA are at the cost of detrimental conditions for the majority of the poor population, and forces the displacement from the farm lands to the city.

Gomez’s own model of thought shows that an increase in income, employment, and social development would all be positive impacts on the people and economies of the United States and Colombia. Activist Cuellar counters this and says that accepting the pact would be “suicide” for the Colombian economy and prolong the U.S. economic recession. The costs and benefits for the people of each country must be weighed by not just those who will be subject to the FTA, but by those who have the power to enforce it, as well.

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