U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law the free trade agreement with Colombia Friday, marking the end of seven years of legislative effort.
The president also signed similar trade agreements with Panama and South Korea. The U.S. Congress sent the trade bills to Obama after ratifying the agreements October 12.
Obama will meet with business people, workers, and unionists after the signing, but will not speak to media.
U.S. ambassador Michael McKinley has recently said that although Obama would sign the bill soon, “there are issues like the protection of intellectual property, customs, arbitration” that could delay the trade pact between seven and 18 months to take effect.
Also, “the concern remains for the rights of unionists,” McKinley said.
When presenting the trade deal before U.S. Congress, Obama warned that Colombia must first comply with “key elements” of a deal providing protection to Colombian workers and improving the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes committed against unionists.
Colombia’s ambassador to Washington, Gabriel Silva, told economic newspaper Portafolio that domestic legislative processes will delay the implementation of the FTA, including the approval of pre-requisite laws, decrees, and resolutions.
According to the newspaper’s editorial, “there is still a long road ahead which includes the making adequate of rules of both countries that was approved in the text of the deal, and logically, that the businesses can prepare themselves to make use of the advantages free trade offers.”
The newspaper estimates that the FTA needs at least a year to take effect.
Although the implementation of the agreement may be delayed, Colombian Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo has called on sectors of the Colombian economy to begin preparations.
“There are sub-sectors that face challenges and threats, like rice and dairy production, we have to work intensely to prepare ourselves to re-engineer these sectors in such a way that they are ready to compete,” Restrepo said.
The minister added that certain government sectors also had to prepare to meet new standards, such as sanitary and customs requirements.
Negotiations between the U.S. and Colombia over the trade deal, known in the U.S. as the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CPTA), began in 2004. Former U.S. President George Bush and then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe signed the pact in November 2006.
The bill was sent to the Colombian Congress in late 2006 and passed in July 2007. Colombia’s Constitutional Court completed a review and approved the agreement in 2008.
However, despite efforts from ex-President Bush to push the bill through the U.S. Congress before the end of his term, Bush’s Democratic opponents blocked the bill, citing concerns over Colombia’s human rights record.
Since assuming power in 2009, President Obama said he would push for approval of the CPTA as long as Colombia offered concrete proof of improvements in its human rights and labor record.
Earlier this year, the U.S. and Colombia agreed to a Labor Action Plan to address concerns over assassinations, violence and intimidation against unionists and abuse of workers.
The plan has received criticism from unions and human rights groups for failing to effectively alter the situation on the ground.
The CPTA was also delayed by partisan political squabbling in the U.S., most recently over the inclusion of a controversial retraining program for workers displaced by trade, called the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA).
The agreement will eliminate trade barriers and tariffs, opening up access between U.S. and Colombian markets for both goods and services.
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and former President Uribe have both energetically pursued approval of the deal, seeing it as a keystone economic policy and a symbol of the strength of their administrations’ relationship with the U.S.