Latin jitters over Obama's free-trade policies

Business elites and conservative governments worry about his opposition to free-trade deals.

By , Correspondent , Staff writer

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    Resisting: Indigenous Colombians protested against the free-trade deal with the US in Calí, Colombia, last week.
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As a "citizen of the world," Munir Rodriguez says he was thrilled to see Barack Obama win the US presidency. But as a consultant for Colombia's fresh-cut-flower industry, which has been counting on the approval of a free-trade deal between the two counties, the election outcome means uncertainty for the future of his clients.

"With Obama, everything is up in the air," says Mr. Rodriguez.

Throughout his campaign – which received significant support from US organized labor – Mr. Obama said he would oppose a free-trade deal with Colombia negotiated by the Bush administration, and suggested he may seek to renegotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico.

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His campaign statements have raised concerns among Latin America's business elites and conservative governments of a more closed, protectionist America under Obama. But many hold out hope that, as president, Obama will take a different view from candidate Obama.

"We have a strategy to seek approval of the free-trade agreement by working with the Democratic majority in Congress and President Obama," Carolina Barco, Colombian ambassador to the US told local media.

Colombian officials were hoping that the free-trade agreement would be voted on during this week's congressional session, but that now seems unlikely.

Obama's support for free trade

Despite concerns among Latin American free-traders, analysts note that Obama is not against the idea. He supported a trade deal with Peru once labor and environmental protections were attached to the text, although he was absent the day the deal was voted in late 2007. And he said he would support a similar deal with Panama once the president of the national legislature in that country – who is wanted on murder charges in the US – stepped down in August.

And Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, noted that despite a firm labor backing, Obama's closest advisers are firmly in the pro-free-trade camp. Rahm Emmanuel, appointed chief of staff, was a key player in gaining congressional approval of the 1993 NAFTA agreement.

But Colombian exporters know that there will be more conditions attached to their trade deal now. "Clearly Obama is going to demand more from Colombia on human rights," says Rodriguez, the flower industry consultant.

Colombia: a dangerous place for unions

Colombia has long been considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a trade unionist. More than 2,500 union members have been killed since 1986, when records began to be kept, according to the Unionized National School (ENS), a labor rights think tank based in Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín. About 98 percent of those cases remain unresolved despite recent progress in the number of convictions.

And the killings continue. According to the ENS, 41 union members have been killed so far this year, up from 39 for all of 2007. There have been 157 documented death threats against labor organizers and four forced disappearances.

"Today, trade unions still cannot exercise their rights without fear," says Maria McFarland, a Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

In the third presidential debate against Republican presidential candidate John McCain, when they discussed the Colombia trade pact, Obama said: "We have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights."

Just days before the US election, Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, summarily fired 20 Army officers – including three generals – following revelations that government troops killed civilians and presented them as combat deaths to inflate the body count in their fight against leftist rebels. "The latest developments in Colombia don't help the FTA," says Shifter.

But he says that once Obama settles in office his position on Colombia and NAFTA is likely to shift. "He'll want to show that that America is not going to turn inward," Shifter says. "He won't want to send the message that the US is going to become protectionist."

During the campaign, Obama also signaled he would seek to renegotiate NAFTA to include more comprehensive labor and environmental protections.

But if the trade deal were to be reexamined, it could lead to endless political bickering in Mexico, the US, and Canada, says Salvador Kalifa, an economic consultant based in Monterrey, Mexico.

"What we would be looking at is a standstill," says Mr. Kalifa. "If [Obama] really pushes for a renegotiation of NAFTA, it will be the worst for [Mexico]. For us, it will mean going backward. We can't afford to go backward anymore. For me he is a big question mark."

But Obama has since backtracked on the issue.

In an interview with Fortune magazine in June, when pressed on his views on unilaterally reopening NAFTA, Obama chalked up his earlier statements on the issue to "overheated and amplified" campaign rhetoric.

Business leaders and the governments of the United States' most important trade partners in Latin America, including Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, are banking on that rhetoric giving way to pro-trade policies.

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