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Here’s How We Can Move Forward Quickly on the Pending Trade Agreements

In my AQ article discussing the hemispheric agenda from the Washington perspective, I noted that expanded trade with the United States continues to be a critical driver of hemispheric development, even more so in a period of global economic stress.  Latin American nations enjoying FTA’s with the United States have put them to very good effect.  It’s my hope that the Colombia and Panama agreements would be taken up and passed shortly by Congress so that those two critical allies will also be able to build their economies more effectively during difficult economic times. 

A vote on both agreements in the lame-duck, though perhaps unlikely, has always seemed to me to be the appropriate way to move them in a manner consistent with the political realities that I refer to in my AQ piece.  Panama is non-controversial and could probably move in any event, but if this window is missed for Colombia, there aren’t too many realistic scenarios that would achieve a vote early in the next Administration, particularly as a stand alone bill.  Alternatively, it’s conceivable that the new Administration could ask for additional fixes from Colombia before submitting the agreement to Congress for a vote.  This would take some months to conclude, assuming Colombia goes for it, and would push back potential ratification further.  But we also have to remember that that has already been done once, and Colombia already adopted changes in good faith that were made at the behest of the Congressional majority. 

Here’s my suggestion for the many Democrats and Republicans who are looking for a plausible path forward: vote in the lame duck, pass it, and make entry into force contingent on various measures that the Government of Colombia would agree to take on—transparency, human rights, and other matters as appropriate, along with the routine commercial issues that are always addressed prior to entry into force of agreements. 

In fact, this strategy is exactly what has been done with the Peru FTA which was signed in December 2007 but which has yet to go into force. 

Many opponents of a Colombia FTA have argued that Colombia doesn’t “deserve” an FTA, and that “more must be done.”  But the reality is that many of the opponents really don’t want an agreement with Colombia at all; many refused to support FTA’s even with the likes of Singapore and Chile.  Here’s the point in fact: few opponents will articulate what specifically would constitute enough progress to allow for approval, and they airily dismiss the strategic dimension that turns the dynamic from one of Colombia’s worthiness for an agreement to one of promoting US economic and security interests abroad.  It’s easy to keep throwing up roadblocks to an agreement and demanding more, undefined “progress” when you don’t want an agreement to get done in the first place.   

The virtue of the approach suggested above would be to move the agreement forward to build an important strategic relationship for the United States in Latin America, without asking Colombia to ratify a revised text a third time or to continue negotiating against itself.  Nonetheless, it still acknowledges the political realities that would otherwise make passage much more difficult if not impossible.  Defining what Colombia would need to do after ratification but prior to implementation of the agreement would be an enormous step in the right direction, allowing all sides to claim victory in a bitter, divisive issue with a key Latin American ally that should be put to bed before the next Administration takes office.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Colombia, Panama, Free Trade

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