A trade deal snub to Latin America

The appointment of Bill Daley, who led the Clinton administration’s successful campaign to ratify NAFTA, puts an unabashed advocate of free trade with Latin America in the position of White House chief of staff. Unfortunately, it is not clear that the Obama administration also has one in the Oval Office.

President Obama professed to be such an advocate in last year’s State of the Union address. «If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores,» he declared. Promising to double U.S. exports by 2015 through a «National Export Initiative,» Obama pledged that «we will strengthen our trade relations . . . with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.»

That promise raised hopes in Latin America. But last month, when the administration announced it would seek ratification of the newly revised free-trade agreement with South Korea, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs backtracked on the president’s commitment to also ratify the long-pending agreements with Colombia and Panama, saying it doesn’t «have the votes.» There is, unfortunately, no indication that the administration spent any political capital to gain the votes before throwing in the towel.

If the Obama administration was forced to choose between ratifying the free-trade pact with South Korea or the two Latin American pacts, it could defend its priorities. South Korea’s gross domestic product is three times larger than that of Colombia and Panama combined. And with North Korea launching military strikes, a strong signal of U.S. support for Seoul is a security imperative.

The question the administration doesn’t want to answer is: Why does it have to choose?

The new leaders in the House, unlike their predecessors, support ratification of the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama and count significantly more free-traders among their ranks. A White House push to ratify the three agreements as a package offers an opportunity for the kind of bipartisan cooperation with Congress the administration says it seeks. Moreover, as Washington dawdled the past two years, Brazil, Argentina and Canada negotiated new trade agreements with Colombia, and the U.S. share of agricultural exports to Colombia has been cut in half. This cannot be a message a «pro-export» administration wants to send to farmers as it enters an election year.

The most likely explanation for the administration’s choice is this: The president disappointed his liberal, trade union and net-roots supporters by extending the Bush tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers and accepting cuts in the estate tax. As the Obama team gears up for reelection, it doesn’t want to again poke important parts of its base in the eye, this time by ratifying free-trade pacts with Colombia and Panama.

Unfortunately, this is an old story for Latin America. Many a U.S. president has proclaimed lofty goals for the hemisphere, run into domestic political opposition, and reneged on his promises, usually at the expense of America’s best friends in the region.

At a 2001 summit, the newly elected U.S. president, George W. Bush, and his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, proclaimed a shared vision of comprehensive immigration reform. But a buzz saw of opposition from the Republican right wing forced the Bush administration to shelve the effort, and Fox left office a diminished political figure.

Today, Colombia is America’s most stalwart ally in South America. Colombia chairs the U.N. committee implementing U.S.-backed sanctions against Iran. Colombia has partnered with the United States to provide extensive training and assistance to help the Mexican government defeat violent drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexico border. In Afghanistan, at U.S. request, Colombia has provided counter-narcotics training and assistance to the Karzai government.

The United States signed its free-trade deal with Colombia more than four years ago. Walking away from that commitment now will be seen by Colombians as a slap at their country and to its newly elected, pro-American president, Juan Manuel Santos, by an ungrateful partner.

Nor will the wider message be lost on the rest of the hemisphere. Friends of Hugo Chavez get subsidized Venezuelan oil. Friends of the United States get thrown under the political bus.

Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993.

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