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Why Colombia deserves U.S. help

A trade pact is the best way to lower human rights abuses.

By Nancy Birdsall, Susan Segal / April 14, 2008

Washington and New York

Between the recent trade pact that cost Mark Penn his slot as a top adviser to the Clinton campaign and the partisan wrangling going on with the Bush administration and Democrats, Americans are getting only the bad news about Colombia.

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There is good news, too, and in light of that good news, good reason for Democrats as well as Republicans to approve the United States-Colombia free trade agreement that the House speaker has threatened to block.

True, Colombia is a violent place. For over a generation, Colombians have faced a grisly cocktail of illegality and lawlessness, fostered by a vicious guerrilla insurgency at least tacitly – and in some cases directly – supported by it's neighbors. The country has also faced the corrosive impact of the illegal narcotics trade fueled by insatiable global demand. Less than a decade ago, at the end of the last century, Colombia seemed on the brink of failure as a democracy.

But in the face of pending disaster something extraordinary happened. The people of Colombia rallied and, with help from the US, decided they would not give in to the crisis enveloping their nation.

Under a new government, democratically elected, Colombians taxed themselves more to raise resources to establish a state presence across Colombia, the first time this had ever been done. They professionalized their military and police, winning back large swaths of the country once outside government control.

They cracked down on corruption and delegitimized right-wing paramilitaries, dramatically cutting homicides, kidnappings, and guerrilla and paramilitary attacks on innocents including union organizers. At the request of the US they began aggressively extraditing narcoterrorists. They took steps to strengthen their economy and improve global competitiveness. And they stood up to President Chávez of Venezuela, defending open- market democracies and broadly based prosperity rather than the broken-down populism that is stalling the fight against poverty in Venezuela and other Andean nations.

Despite immense odds, the people of Colombia are succeeding, helped by bipartisan financing of successive US administrations and Congress. But they still need support to complete the good work that has begun.

For over 15 years, the US has been almost completely open to imports from Colombia. This was done to give Colombians economic options beyond the narcotics trade and has led to impressive economic gains and the creation of entire industries, such as cut flowers, that help women and single heads of households gain a leg up in the formal economy.