Seal the deal on Colombian trade pact

The Colombia Free Trade Agreement is once again a political football in Washington. Almost as soon as Barack Obama won the election, it came into play. Now it is being punted, fumbled, spiked and maybe even hurled in a desperate Hail Mary pass to Congress as its chief supporter, President Bush, prepares to leave office.

Resistance to the pact by labor unions and human rights organizations, both here and in Colombia, remains stiff. And with an incoming Democratic administration, the deal faces significant new obstacles. But the gamesmanship between Democrats and Republicans, unions and rights groups should not obscure one fact: The agreement is good for Colombia and good for the United States.

The pact would balance and normalize a trade relationship that is now one-way. Colombia has almost unfettered access to U.S. markets -- 91% of its goods enter duty free -- but U.S. products face tariffs of up to 35%. Each Caterpillar truck sold in Colombia, for example, is taxed more than $200,000. This is a hindrance to prosperity for both countries. Currently, about 9,000 U.S. businesses export to Colombia, and were this deal passed, that number would skyrocket.

For Colombia, our closest ally in South America, the agreement not only has clear economic benefits but also powerful political ramifications. President Alvaro Uribe enjoys enormous popular approval at home for his successful offensive against drug-trafficking rebels. But he has staked a measure of his political capital on his relationship with the United States, which is viewed with distrust and even animosity in parts of the Andean region. Ratifying the pact would demonstrate to neighboring countries that alliance with the U.S. means more than just carrying out U.S. drug policy.

Democrats have held up the agreement on the grounds that Colombia is an extraordinarily dangerous place for union organizers. They say that encouraging trade in a country where workers have few protections and organizers are routinely threatened and killed would be a disastrous setback to labor rights. This is a valid concern, and Colombia has taken it seriously, strengthening protections for organizers and stepping up prosecution of their attackers.

Colombia remains a violent country where left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and even the military and national police commit human rights abuses and atrocities, but its progress is undeniable. It’s time to stop playing games with a trade pact whose economic and political benefits are good for both nations.