During the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, the Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia was at the core of the candidates’ discussion on the economy.
McCain, a longtime supporter of the Free Trade Agreement who also visited Colombia last July, aggressively accused Obama of not truly understanding the agreement, and suggested his opponent ought to visit Colombia to fully comprehend the Colombian reality.
“Senator Obama, who has never been south of our border, opposes a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. The same country that is helping us to stop the drugs coming into our country and killing our children,” McCain said.
“The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions,” Obama responded.
There have been thorough debates surrounding the effects of implementing the treaty as it currently stands. Critics have often argued that the treaty would have devastating effects on working class families both in the United States and Colombia, and that Colombia does not have the necessary institutions to support a comprehensive implementation of the treaty. More so, with the American economy suffering from great volatility, Colombia’s neoliberal pro-American approach may not seem truly strategic at the moment.
While these matters are of great importance, and should be considered thoroughly, I am personally less concerned with the economic effects of the treaty’s implementation, and more intrigued by the political and international implications of its approval or lack thereof.
As Latin America has shifted towards the political left, and the region has become less concerned about the state of its relations with the United States, and more interested in establishing ties with other emerging international powers, Colombia has remained the most loyal and vocal ally of the United States in the region.
The Free Trade Agreement is strongly supported by President Uribe, who enjoys outstanding ratings of favorability during his second term. President Uribe and members of his cabinet have lobbied heavily for the agreement both in the United States and Colombia with American senators from the two major political parties, labor unions, and members of the Bush administration.
Furthermore, President Uribe has had to walk the very fine line between being an American supporter, while being an ally to other nations in the region whose efforts are mainly focused on diminishing the region’s dependency on the United States. For it, Uribe has been called a “pawn of the empire” by Hugo Chávez, and has had to handle tense relations with other Latin American nations such as Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Yet, Uribe has managed to not alienate Colombia in the regional context, even while continuously collaborating with the United States in the war against drugs, and in military efforts, supported by Plan Colombia, against the FARC. Those efforts most notably aided in the operation that resulted in the liberation of Ingrid Betancur, several Colombian citizens, and three Americans last July.
Nonetheless, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has suggested she is not willing to bring the trade agreement up for vote, and more so, has stated clearly that she would not vote in favor of the agreement’s approval.
In a contended presidential race, in which the economy has dominated the public discourse and will remain to do so until election day, free trade agreements have been presented by most Democrats, including Barack Obama, as detrimental for the American economy, and in particular, negative for employment rates.
While it is understandable that Obama would strongly oppose free trade agreements at a time of such economic distress, and specially when he is running as the candidate from a party that has highly benefited from the support of labor unions, the tone and the implication of his rhetoric – which suggest he is not even willing to consider potential collaborations with the Colombian government to work on an agreement that he would support – are very worrisome in terms of the message being sent to Latin America about the way in which the United States would treat its allies under an Obama administration.
As the election seems most determinedly tilted in Senator Obama’s favor, and while polls also suggest Democrats are in the road for big wins in terms of legislative seats, it is crucial to consider the way in which an Obama administration would deal with Latin America, after the region has been so significantly ignored during the Bush administration, and when Latin American nations are looking elsewhere for economic, political, military, and cultural alliances.
Colombia ought to be regarded as an essential part of Obama’s strategy to reengage Latin America. In that sense,the most important elements for rebuilding relations with the region will inherently connect to the legitimacy of the support that the American government offers its allies.
A refusal to approve, or even consider the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, whether in its current version or a different one, will have deep negative connotations in a region that is far into the process of losing trust about the benefits of alliances with the United States.
A potential President Obama, and the Democratic congress by his side, must quickly find channels in which they can further the collaboration with President Uribe and show a genuine willingness to support Colombian efforts and the advancement of the Colombian population. The stakes are too high not to do so.
Author Felipe Estefan is Colombian and studies media and international relations at Syracuse University in New York.