A Hard Sell for a Trade Deal

Posted April 7, 2008 at 6:34pm

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Less than 24 hours before President Bush announced that he would send Congress a politically charged free-trade agreement with Colombia, nine U.S. House Members gathered in this Caribbean port city to hear a pitch for the pact directly from the country’s leader, Álvaro Uribe.

In a 17th-century Spanish colonial fort on the grounds of the country’s Naval Academy — part of a presidential retreat described as the Camp David of Colombia — the Members gathered for a private session with Uribe and his cabinet officials.

The Congressional delegation’s two-day, two-city visit was organized by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative — only the second CODEL USTR ever has sponsored — and is part of an unprecedented, months-long lobbying effort by the Bush administration to convince the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass the trade deal.

The free-trade pact faces intense opposition from U.S. unions, liberal activists and human rights organizations, who argue that despite progress in its criminal justice system and large-scale improvements in Colombia’s economy and crime rates, the country has not yet done enough to curb violence, particularly against union organizers.

Bush will formally deliver legislation on the agreement today, touching off a firestorm from opponents and a full-scale push by supporters. Already, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) have said that the move, which comes without Democratic leaders’ approval, will jeopardize the trade deal’s prospects for passage.

On the other side, House Republicans are mobilizing. Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) on Wednesday is convening a meeting in the Capitol with business groups and K Street lobbyists to gin up support for the agreement.

On board a military C-40 aircraft on the return trip back to Andrews Air Force Base, on the eve of Bush’s announcement, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab described the administration’s undertaking, like the CODEL itself, as “all hands on deck.”

All told, Schwab said, 55 Members as well as their aides have been ferried to Colombia as part of USTR, Office of National Drug Control Policy, State, Agriculture, and Commerce department trips. She said the purpose of such jaunts is to give Members the opportunity to see firsthand what’s really going on in Colombia and to better understand what the implications of the free-trade agreement are.

“Compared to [the Central American Free Trade Agreement] and the other agreements, this is the biggest commitment I have ever seen from the administration,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who supports the Colombian pact and participated in the CODEL.

“I don’t know how the administration turns the volume up farther,” Brady added. “The question is: Is Congress listening with an open mind and are we willing to — despite union opposition — to debate, at least debate, and vote this agreement one way or the other because it just seems un-American not to give us a chance to have a say in this.”

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), one of two Democrats on the CODEL along with Rep. Bob Etheridge (N.C.), said that he found Uribe to be “a good president who is leading Colombia from a period of violence to a period of peace.”

Even so, the trip left his vote on the FTA unchanged at “no.”

The delegation also met with two Colombian labor union leaders in Cartagena who oppose the pact. Johnson said he found those men “most impressive.”

“They spoke with such passion, and apparently their lives are in danger every day because of their union activities,” he said. “And their safety is not guaranteed by the government. It appears that signals are still going out to the paramilitary groups to continue to intimidate the union organizers based on the bogus claims that they are allied with the leftist guerrillas.”

But even Johnson said he sees a Colombia much improved.

After the meeting in the fort, a motorcade of Uribe and the Congressional delegation traveled a short distance but a world away to the neighborhood of Vía Perimetral, a community of brightly colored shacks with narrow dirt alleys for roads juxtaposed by a view of sparkling high-rises in the background.

In a town-hall style meeting under a tent in sweltering heat and humidity, the Members listened as Uribe told the crowd of his meeting with the Americans. He said he told them to look at a glass filled with some water and to see everything: what the country is doing well and has achieved, but also the challenges it still faces including helping people who have been displaced by violence.

Colombians who have participated in Uribe-sponsored social and economic programs spoke of his work, with one woman proclaiming, through a translator, that Uribe “has not been elected by men but placed by God.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get that kind of warm reception from constituents,” said one of the Members on the trip.

Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee who hails from a heavily unionized district, said the trip will help him ultimately reach a decision on the FTA, which will come through his committee.

“The largest concern I’ve had with Colombia, that sets it apart from trade agreements with Peru and Panama, is there has been a real allegation of union violence,” he said. “The question for us is, what is this government doing about this problem and how much of this is a problem in the past, how much of it is a current problem, and to what extent might this trade agreement be part of the solution?”

From what he heard from Uribe and Colombian officials and the citizens he met, it seems to be a problem of the past, English said. “What I want is more objective information from NGOs and human rights groups before I sound off,” he said. “I’m not firmly committed at this point, but a number of issues, I think, have been successfully addressed.”

Before traveling to Cartagena, the delegation visited Medellín, a city once so dangerous and plagued by the drug cartel of Pablo Escobar that American diplomats, let alone Members of Congress, were forbidden from going.

Despite progress in Colombia, and the potential for economic gain in both countries, U.S. trade politics, particularly heated in the Democratic presidential contest, have dominated the debate over the agreement.

In English’s state, which will hold its presidential primary on April 22, the North American Free Trade Agreement is widely viewed as a negative and has led to deep skepticism of trade accords in general, he said.

But English said that’s not necessarily the case with Colombia.

“It potentially creates economic opportunities for us,” English said, adding that a Colombia FTA would open up a market for U.S. goods to a country that already ships products to the United States mostly duty-free under the Andean Trade Preferences Act. “This is not an agreement like NAFTA.”