U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has not yet delivered on a promise made five months ago to give Colombia a detailed plan for resolving issues blocking approval of a long-stalled free agreement, U.S. trade officials acknowledged Thursday.
The delay raises questions about how hard President Barack Obama is prepared to fight for the pact, which is fiercely opposed by the AFL-CIO labor federation, an important Democratic Party constituent.
Although outgoing Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco met Thursday with Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro, that was just a “courtesy call” ahead of Barco’s return to Colombia next month, said Ngenke Harmon, a spokeswoman for the USTR’s office.
The meeting came just a few days after Colombia’s new president, Jose Manuel Santos, took office, an event that some see as a chance for the two countries to make a fresh start at resolving labor concerns blocking U.S. congressional approval of the four-year-old trade deal.
But Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of Americas, a business group that strongly supports the agreement, said he feared Congress might not vote on it until after the 2012 presidential election.
Obama has already made a high-profile pledge to win approval of a stalled deal with South Korea over the opposition of many in his party.
He may not have the political capital to make another big push on behalf of Colombia, Farnsworth said.
Still, the departure of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe could remove one obstacle, since many U.S. opponents of the agreement deeply disliked the close ally of former U.S. President George W. Bush, he said.
Also, Santos is “more pragmatic” and “less ideologically bound than Uribe,” so it may be easier for him to work with the Obama administration, Farnsworth said.
Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO, said the issue was more complex than who is Colombia’s president.
“The best things Santos can do are to take labor law reform seriously and work on making the judiciary branch more effective,” Lee said.
The United States and Colombia signed the trade pact in November 2006, the same month Democrats won control of the Senate and the House of Representatives and a few months after Barco came to Washington as Colombia’s ambassador.
When Barco returns home next month, she will be replaced by Gabriel Silva, a former Colombia minister of defense.
The pact would eliminate tariffs on U.S. exports to Colombia and require that country to make a number of other reforms favorable to U.S. businesses.
Colombia already has duty-free access to the United States under a U.S. trade preference program. But approval of the trade deal would help it attract more U.S. investment.
The Latin American Trade Coalition estimates that failure to approve the pact has cost U.S. exporters $2.94 billion in tariffs on Colombia goods over past 1,360 days.
Kirk told the Senate Finance Committee on March 3 that he hoped in “the next several months” to give Colombia “a finite list of what we’d like see get done” to resolve U.S. concerns about anti-labor violence in Colombia.
“I think in fairness to Colombia we ought to give them a workable list of legislative and other issues that we can manage through, rather than just deal with the raw emotion of those who say we would never do the agreement,” Kirk said.
He said his office was crafting a set of legislative proposals and judicial reforms that it would like Colombia to enact to guarantee the rights of workers to organize and maintain unions without the threat of violence.
Five months later, USTR is still “working with Congress and stake-holders” on those proposals, Harmon said.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank focused on Latin American affairs, said there was a real risk that Colombia could lose interest in the pact as it looks for greener pastures in Europe and elsewhere in Latin America.
“For all of Santos’ knowledge of Washington, his foreign policy seems to lie elsewhere. Colombians are tired of often-futile visits to Washington aimed at convincing U.S. lawmakers they should back the trade deal,” Shifter said in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post.
(Doug Palmer / Reuters)