US Congress ratifies Colombia FTA

The United States Congress ratified the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement Wednesday after both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted in favor of the bill, ending five years of legislative deadlock.

The U.S. Senate approved the free trade agreement with Colombia, with 66 senators voting in favor of the bill and 33 against, meeting the simple majority required to pass the trade deal.

The bill, S.1641, was sponsored by the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT). “Colombia was a failed state, a failed country about ten years ago,” Baucus said, expressing how impressed he was with the improvements Colombia has made in the last decade.

Many of the senators who supported the legislation argued that it will create jobs in U.S. by increasing exports to Colombia. Advocates also asserted that the U.S. has lost valuable trade opportunities by delaying the passage of the bill.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) joined his Republican colleagues by voting in favor of the FTA. McCain pointed out that while the U.S. waited years to pass the agreements, Colombia has signed trade agreements with other countries such as Canada.

“Several years ago, 40% of the agricultural imports into Colombia were from the United States, today only 20% of their agricultural imports are from the United States,” McCain explained.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) also voted in favor of the agreement. “With regard to Colombia… we have reason to believe that they will be a good trading partner,” argued the Republican senator. “They are prospering, they have elections, [the Colombian] Congress is doing a good job… We have every reason to believe that we can have a positive relationship with Colombia.”

Senators who voted against the FTA contend that while exports may increase with a trade agreement, the net effect would be an overall loss of American jobs.

Critics of the agreement, such as Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) argued that the U.S. lost jobs on previous trade deals such as NAFTA and the PNTR (China). Sanders pointed out the the U.S. lost 2.8 million jobs in the last year alone as a result of NAFTA.

“The net is always lost jobs,” Senator Brown asserted. “The American public doesn’t like these trade agreements… We lose jobs every single time [the U.S. passes a trade agreement].”

In addition to U.S. workers losing jobs to cheap labor in Colombia, opponents also explained that the trade deal could wipe out small and medium scale Colombian farmers who are unable to compete with cheap, subsidized American agriculture.

Senator Sanders also lamented the human rights abuses against trade unionists in Colombia, which has been a main topic of controversy in passing the bill.

“Since 1986, some 2,800 trade unionists have been assassinated… Last year alone, more than 50 trade unionists were murdered, up 9% from 2009,” Sanders said. He added that if 50 CEOs were murdered instead, the U.S. government would be staunchly against the trade deal.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved the free trade agreement earlier Wednesday, voting 262 in favor and 167 against. Thirty-one favorable roll call votes came from Democratic representatives, despite the party’s general opposition to the FTA.

A chief proponent of the trade pact, Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means Dave Camp (R-MI), argued that the U.S. could not afford to wait any longer to pass the FTA.

“Our exporters paid on average 11% in tariffs, $4 billion in unnecessary tariffs. This is a major economic opportunity. It is high time we took this up. We owe it to U.S. workers and we owe it to our exporters,” Camp said.

Negotiations between the U.S. and Colombia over the trade deal, known in the U.S. as the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CPTA), began in 2004. Former U.S. President George Bush and then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe signed the pact in November 2006.

The bill was sent to the Colombian Congress in late 2006 and passed in July 2007. Colombia’s Constitutional Court completed a review and approved the agreement in 2008.

However, despite efforts from ex-President Bush to push the bill through the U.S. Congress before the end of his term, Bush’s Democratic opponents blocked the bill, citing concerns over Colombia’s human rights record.

Since assuming power in 2009, President Obama said he would push for approval of the CPTA as long as Colombia offered concrete proof of improvements in its human rights and labor record.

Earlier this year, the U.S. and Colombia agreed to a Labor Action Plan to address concerns over assassinations, violence and intimidation against unionists and abuse of workers.

The plan has received criticism from unions and human rights groups for failing to effectively alter the situation on the ground.

The CPTA was also delayed by partisan political squabbling in the U.S., most recently over the inclusion of a controversial retraining program for workers displaced by trade, called the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA).

American media have been speculating that Obama held off on sending the report to Congress in recent months until he was sure it would pass smoothly, without the bitter conflicts of recent congressional debates.

The agreement will eliminate trade barriers and tariffs, opening up access between U.S. and Colombian markets for both goods and services.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and former President Uribe have both energetically pursued approval of the deal, seeing it as a keystone economic policy and a symbol of the strength of their administrations’ relationship with the U.S.

“[The U.S.-Colombia FTA] represents a historic development in our relations with Colombia,” said President Obama. “Colombia is a steadfast strategic partner of the United States and a leader in the region. The Agreement reflects the commitment of the United States to supporting democracy and economic growth in Colombia. It will also help Colombia battle production of illegal crops by creating alternative economic opportunities.”