The Miami Herald
Septembre 09, 2007
Wow! All of a sudden, it looks like the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress will approve pending free-trade agreements with Peru, Panama and -- who knows -- perhaps even Colombia.
If you ask me, Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist leader Hugo Chávez deserves the biggest credit for the congressional U-turn.
Judging from what I heard in a telephone interview with powerful House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and an e-mail from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday evening, growing numbers of Democrats who opposed these treaties are now ready to vote for the ones with Peru and Panama.
Democrats say both countries have agreed to include in their respective trade deals stronger labor and environmental standards that the Democrats were demanding. The Senate Finance Committee is to begin hearings on the Peru treaty on Tuesday.
''We anticipate progress on the Peru and Panama free-trade agreements this fall,'' Pelosi said. She was less enthusiastic about Colombia: ``In light of the brutal violence against unionists in Colombia, the free-trade agreement with Colombia has dim prospects in Congress until we see measurable and sustained progress.''
Rangel sounded even more upbeat on Peru and Panama, and did not rule out a vote in support of Colombia. Peru has been ''very cooperative working with the Democrats,'' Rangel said. ''And now, we are making certain that nothing derails the wonderful relationship and agreement that we have,'' he added.
On Panama, Rangel said that ''we are very satisfied with the progress'' in the negotiations on labor and environmental issues.
He conceded that last week's election as head of Panama's National Assembly of a man wanted in the United States on charges of involvement in the 1992 murder of a U.S. soldier may raise objections in Congress, but added that ``the question over this gentleman has not so far been raised by the State Department to his Committee, so we are moving forward.''
On Colombia, Rangel said most Democrats in Congress are still doubtful that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a close ally of President Bush, has taken enough measures to prevent killings of leftist trade union leaders, journalists and political activists. ''Colombia is not dead, we just don't have the votes,'' Rangel told me.
Asked whether he feels that Colombia is making progress, Rangel said, ``All I do is count the votes, and I don't have them.''
But he added that ``there are no problems that can't be overcome.''
Earlier in the week, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying at a conference that Uribe's government has ''done tremendous work'' to answer human rights concerns raised by Democrats.
The latest statements by Pelosi, Rangel and Becerra give reason for hope, because all three voted against the 2005 U.S. free-trade deal with Central America and the Dominican Republic. Rangel even voted against the 1994 trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.
Like many Democrats -- including most Democratic presidential hopefuls -- they are supported by the AFL-CIO and other labor unions, which often demand unrealistic labor and environmental standards from developing countries as a ruse to protect members from foreign competition. Most economists agree that protectionist measures only hurt U.S. consumers.
Furthermore, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez will lead a three-day, bipartisan delegation to Panama, Peru and Colombia on Wednesday, which may help persuade more Democrats to vote for the pending free-trade deals.
INFLUENCE OF CASH
Rangel and a top aide to Pelosi denied that Chávez's massive giveaway of petrodollars in the region has influenced the Democrats' change of mind. They told me that more Democrats are supporting the pending trade agreements thanks to an agreement struck this year between the Bush administration and Rangel's committee to strengthen labor and environmental provisions in pending and future free-trade deals.
My opinion: Maybe so. But new reports about Chávez's petro-dollar diplomacy -- more than $8 billion in pledges to the region so far this year -- is probably just as big a factor, as it should. At a time when Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua are openly building an anti-American bloc with outside allies such as Iran, many in Washington are no longer looking the other way. Thanks, Hugo!