President Obama, who withheld his support for a free-trade agreement with Colombia when he was a senator, recently sounded a more positive note on the issue. At a joint news conference this week with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Obama commended him for the progress his country has made in addressing human rights violations. In particular, he remarked on the more hospitable environment in Colombia today for labor organizers -- one of the sticking points for Obama and other Democrats in Congress.
“We’ve seen improvements when it comes to prosecution of those carrying out these blatant human rights offenses,” Obama said. Furthermore, he added, he has instructed U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to work with his Colombian counterparts to bring the free-trade agreement to fruition. All of which suggested that Colombia has turned a corner since Obama’s election, and that the United States may now be more favorably inclined to free trade with this Andean nation.
Obama is right to see progress, but wrong to assume that it began only recently. The improvements he cited this week were underway long before he became president; indeed, Colombia was moving in the right direction even when Sen. Obama opposed the trade pact that now, as president, strikes him as more appealing.
The concern over the hazards faced by labor organizers is legitimate. Colombia is the world’s most dangerous country for union leaders, who risk their lives to seek working conditions that North Americans have long taken for granted. And until Colombia demonstrated a willingness to equalize the status of employers and employees, it was difficult to accept that free trade would benefit its people generally. Thankfully, Uribe too acknowledged those difficulties and began addressing them more than a year ago. Today, the government provides personal protection for labor leaders and has appointed a special prosecutor whose task is to improve the country’s dismal record of prosecuting those who attack them.
Colombia is not done yet. The lure of the trade agreement has yielded positive results, which Democrats should acknowledge not by continuing to dwell on Colombia’s grim history but rather by approving a pact that is in the interest of both nations. If dating Colombia’s improvements to some point after his inauguration gives Obama the political capital he needs to support the pact, then fine. But it’s historically inaccurate. It is Obama who’s making progress today; Colombia did so long ago.