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Congress Must Ratify the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement

I wish we could say that on Sunday, we celebrated the three-year anniversary of unfettered, two-way, duty-free trade with one of our strongest allies in South America. Instead, American small- and medium-sized businesses still do not have access to some 45 million new consumers who call Colombia home simply because Congress has refused to give the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement the fair and full debate it deserves. [IMGCAP(1)] Three years to wait for this agreement is a long time. In the last 1,095 days, or 26,280 hours, or 1,576,800 minutes, we have seen unprecedented history unfold. China opened its arms to the world and allowed the Olympic spirit to flourish. Americans participated in the peaceful transition of power during a historic presidential inaugural celebration. We saw the U.S. government step up and take swift action to create an environment that would allow American businesses the opportunity to survive through dire economic straits. Sadly, we even bore witness as the country laid our 38th president, Gerald Ford, to rest. This long waiting period is unfortunate because the relationship that Colombia shares with the United States is commercially strong and strategically critical. Since its inception, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement has had two major goals. First, the agreement aimed at leveling the playing field for U.S. workers, consumers, farmers and businesses. The two-way trade between our nations in 2008 totaled more than $24.5 billion, locking in Colombia as the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner in all of South America. These numbers, as good as they are, would be much higher if the trade were balanced and reciprocal. Because Colombia is part of the Andean region of South America, goods produced there are eligible for preferential treatment in the U.S. marketplace. Because Colombia is a beneficiary country of both the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act and the Generalized System of Preferences, almost 90 percent of U.S. imports from Colombia enter our country with no taxes. At the same time, U.S. exports to Colombia face at least a 35 percent tax by the Colombian government. The tax levied on U.S. farm exports is much higher.Ironically, since this agreement has been finalized and ready for Congressional consideration, Congress has voted three times to keep this relationship unbalanced. These missed opportunities hurt American producers looking to tap new consumer groups during this down economy of reduced consumer confidence. It is odd that Congress can find the time to vote three times — and even a fourth as these programs will expire again this year — to renew these programs but cannot schedule a single hearing to learn more about this important agreement. The second, and probably most important, goal of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement has been to bring social stability to a quickly developing friend of the United States. When negotiating a free trade agreement, the United States takes great care to ensure that all stakeholders will be good stewards of human capital. As a byproduct of this agreement, Colombia has seen a drastic decrease in the violence committed against union workers. In part because of the positive work of President Alvaro Uribe to increase protections for government officials and workers, Colombia has demonstrated a clear commitment to stand by its labor force. It is implausible — almost disingenuous — that the United States would require so much from a trade partner and then not follow through on the agreement. To add insult to injury, without this agreement, the United States cannot hold Colombia’s feet to the fire and seek greater improvements in labor conditions. In Colombia, the United States has a strong friend in an otherwise hostile region. As a neighbor to Venezuela and Bolivia, Colombia is well-situated to serve an intermediary role between the United States and Latin America. The potential opportunities that can emerge from this relationship are too great to neglect any longer.Even though the commercial and social benefits of this agreement have been made clear repeatedly over the last three years, Congress has yet to deliver a valid point to continue its stall tactics. In the wake of the most ruinous economic recession in memory, why are we refusing to enter into a commercially strong relationship that would create so many opportunities for U.S. workers, consumers, farmers and businesses? Simply put: America will not be able to compete in the global market if we refuse to participate in it. Businesses here at home, especially U.S. apparel and footwear manufacturers, are eager to spread their global presence because they know they can compete internationally. The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement opens the door to make this happen, but the deadbolt has remained locked for three years. We all understand that the United States is home to just 5 percent of the world’s consumers. If American leaders are serious about growing our economy and creating jobs, the trade debate must be revived. There are millions of consumers we cannot reach because of this silence — a silence American workers can’t afford.Kevin M. Burke is president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

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