Colombia trade pact may fall prey to November elections

Bush sends the free-trade agreement to Congress, but stiff opposition could derail it.

If President Bush was looking for an opportunity to stir up a hornet's nest, he found it when he submitted the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress this week.

By sending Congress the free-trade agreement (FTA) that he negotiated with Colombia in 2006, Mr. Bush forces a vote on the controversial accord sometime over the next few months – just as members of Congress enter an election season with an electorate that is increasingly skeptical of free-trade policies and is also dealing with mounting job losses.

During his presidency, Bush has expanded free-trade agreements in the Western Hemisphere to Central America and into South America to Peru. Bush hopes to cap this expansion with the addition of Colombia by the end of his term, but the pact is in serious risk of falling prey to the politics of the November elections.

The two Democratic presidential candidates oppose the deal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already told Bush that the accord faces stiff opposition over human rights concerns in Colombia, and some prominent Republican senators are also announcing they'll oppose the pact.

In announcing Monday he was submitting the pact for congressional approval, Bush took a high-stakes tone, citing national-security interests and warning of the damaging impact on US relations with its southern neighbors if the accord were rejected. "The need for this agreement is too urgent – the stakes for our national security are too high – to allow this year to end without a vote," he said.

In New Orleans later this month, Bush plans to hold a summit of leaders representing countries in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – the United States, Canada, and Mexico. He'd like to show his guests and the rest of the hemisphere that the US is not turning its back on its southern neighbors.

The US has invested billions of dollars in Colombia over the past decade to help in its fight with drug mafias and with leftist rebels. More recently, Colombia has faced an increasingly antagonistic relationship with next-door neighbor Venezuela.

But congressional leaders are looking elsewhere in opposing the accord: namely, to Colombia's human rights record, as well as to US job losses.

"I will not support the FTA with Colombia due to ongoing concerns about Bogotá's failure to prosecute individuals, including some close to its government and military, who have murdered and otherwise oppressed union leaders in that country," said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio said, "Middle class families in Ohio and throughout the country are struggling. Our economy is in a state of crisis [and] this is another job-killing trade agreement that betrays our middle class."

Underscoring the accord's dark prospects are warnings from some of its supporters that the administration will have to do a better job of selling the agreement if it is to achieve congressional approval.

The Colombian government has already contracted with several Washington lobbying firms to help make its case. One such lobbying firm is headed by Mark Penn, former chief strategist for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who opposes the Colombia deal. Mr. Penn's abrupt departure from the Clinton campaign helm last week highlighted the high political stakes behind the accord.

But the agreement's critics say that no number of lobbyists or White House arm-twisting sessions will change what they say are the continuing harrowing conditions for Colombia's trade union leaders.

"Colombia is ... the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, and it simply has not earned having a free-trade agreement with the US," says Mark Levinson, chief economist for Unite Here, a textile and service workers union in New York. "There are other economic and trade issues, but with Colombia it's a basic moral issue."

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