The Wall Street Journal
May 4, 2007;PageA14
A popular theme among Democrats running for President is their pledge to make America better liked around the world. Hillary Clinton says she'll even dispatch her husband as a kind of ambassador to the world. Well, he might start in Latin America, where our allies are getting stiffed by Democrats in Congress on trade and security.
We're referring in particular to Colombian President lvaro Uribe, who has been in Washington this week, making his case for the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement and for continued U.S. help against terrorism. Colombia, Peru and Panama have all negotiated trade accords with the U.S. that, pending Congressional approval, would raise living standards and expand American influence.
A defeat for any of the three would do great harm to the Andean region, where democrats are battling Hugo Chavez's neo-socialist populism. Mr. Uribe, Peruvian President lan Garcia and Panamanian President Martin Torrijos have all bet their futures on opening their economies to the U.S. If they're rebuffed, the local disciples of Mr. Chavez will say they were right not to trust the capitalist Yankees. The consequences won't look good on Nancy Pelosi's resume.
On economic grounds alone, the U.S. has everything to gain by approving these trade deals. Most Peruvian and Colombian exports already have duty-free access to the U.S. market through the Andean Trade Preferences Act. But U.S. manufacturing and farm exports heading south still face high tariff and non-tariff barriers. The regional financial center of Panama is especially attractive for U.S. services but is likewise a protected market.
The larger goal is spurring development and improving the investment climate in all three countries. While Colombia and Peru have duty-free access to U.S. markets, that privilege must be renewed every few years. The FTAs end this uncertainty. Even if Latin producers lose some protection, new access to imports means they can use help from abroad to innovate and grow more competitive. This is how Chile became an export powerhouse and reduced poverty. Maybe that's why Chile's Socialist President Michelle Bachelet has endorsed the deals.
None of this matters to some Democrats, whose loyalty to the AFL-CIO trumps their concern for the poor. Having won assurances that our Latin trading partners would enforce their labor and environmental laws at home, such Democrats as Michigan's Sander Levin are now asking for more. They're threatening to block the Latin FTAs unless the U.S. accepts language that would force U.S. companies to adhere to International Labor Organization "core principles." These "principles" have never passed Congress, in part because they'd put "right-to-work" states in legal jeopardy. Republicans won't support a trade pact with such a provision, which suggests that Mr. Levin intends it as a poison pill.
All of this is taking place while Venezuela's Mr. Chavez is working to reduce American influence in the Western Hemisphere. He's doing energy deals with China while confiscating U.S. oil assets. And he's pressing to supplant the U.S. goal of hemispheric free trade with a high-tariff South American customs union that he would run. Bolivia and Ecuador have already been captured by versions of chavismo, though Peru and Colombia have so far escaped thanks to their political leadership.
Colombia is especially vulnerable, as Mr. Chavez provides aid and comfort to that country's narco-trafficking guerrillas. This is why Mr. Uribe is also asking for continued U.S. assistance to fight organized crime. The State Department has certified that Colombia has held up its commitment to human rights under this "Plan Colombia" agreement.
But now that they control Congress again, Democrats are putting this policy in doubt. Mr. Levin says the Colombia FTA should be blocked on human rights grounds, claiming that Mr. Uribe's impressive record of reducing murder, kidnapping and terrorism isn't good enough. Vermont Senator Pat Leahy has put a hold on $55 million in new Plan Colombia funding because of false human rights charges coming from Mr. Uribe's political enemies in Bogota Mr. Leahy's grandstanding is all the more embarrassing because U.S. demand for cocaine is the largest source of financing for the criminal networks that have killed so many innocent Colombians.
If Democrats want to make more enemies in Latin America, this is the way to do it. The twice-elected Mr. Uribe is the most far-sighted leader Colombia has had in decades, and his FTA is an attempt to align his country's future firmly with the hemisphere's free-market democracies. Peru, Panama and Colombia are saying they want to be America's political and economic partners. Do Democrats in Congress want to drive them into the arms of Mr. Chavez ?