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Time to Act: the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement

Sunday marked the three-year anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement (FTA).  The signing provided a tangible signal of U.S. support for the U.S.-Colombia relationship broadly, and, more specifically, for job creation in the United States through export expansion to a large and growing Latin American economy.  On strategic, foreign policy, counter-narcotics, and economic grounds, the deal appeared to be a no-brainer for the United States to conclude.  It still does.  Unfortunately, that’s not how many policy and interest group advocates see it, raising one objection after another in an attempt to derail the agreement.

And derail it they have.  Despite its many advantages, and the fact that our market is already open to Colombian products through unilateral trade preference programs while theirs remains closed to ours, the agreement remains stuck on high center, without any action taken until Colombia reaches some undefined, and perhaps indefinable, level of development and progress.  Such an approach is unjustifiable, given the dramatic, sustained progress that Colombia has already made in virtually every area.  Equally importantly, U.S. actions have been strategically shortsighted, as many across Latin America—friends and foes alike—take note of the way that we continue to treat an erstwhile friend and ally. 

I’ve written and spoken frequently about these issues, in many forums and in many ways, both here in blog posts and also in op-eds, journal articles and in speeches and Congressional testimony.  The arguments for the agreement have not changed; in fact, they’ve become even more relevant given the U.S. and global economic downturn, and also the increasingly reckless behavior of Colombia’s neighbor to the east including support for the FARC and the latest bridge-blowing border incident.  Nonetheless, the atmosphere in Washington for formal trade expansion agreements is perhaps the least favorable since the pre-War (that is, World War II) time period. 

What to do?  Here’s an idea: Colombia should unilaterally implement the provisions of the U.S.-Colombia FTA pertaining to its own economy, right away, and without waiting for the United States.  In fact most of the provisions in the agreement actually open up Colombia anyway, since (it bears repeating and repeating and repeating) the U.S. market is already essentially open to Colombian products.  Once these provisions are implemented, Colombia’s economy would become even more attractive for the U.S. investment that some would say is the real purpose of the agreement anyway.  Sure, some Colombian products would be unable to come into the United States on favorable terms so long as Washington refuses to act, but the broader benefits would accrue.

This is exactly what Chile did, even before the U.S.-Chile FTA, by unilaterally opening its markets and bringing down tariffs well below their neighbors.  Since then, Chile has been on a tear.  Colombia could, too.

Three years is long enough.  The United States needs to act, but even if we don’t—and signs are not promising—there is another path open to Bogota.  Colombia should seize it.

Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in WashingtonDC.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: U.S.-Colombia FTA; Free Trade
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