November 13, 2008


Free trade with Colombia is high on Bush's agenda: The president wants to help a key U.S. ally, and getting a proposed deal through Congress is important to his legacy, analysts say. (Chris Kraul, November 13, 2008, LA Times)

Reporting from Bogota, Colombia — That President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama discussed a Colombian free-trade agreement in their first postelection meeting indicates its importance to Bush's legacy and his concern for a nation that believes it gets little respect for its role as a key U.S. ally.

Representatives for Bush and Obama acknowledged that the two men discussed the proposed free-trade deal during their two-hour White House transition session Monday and whether the pact should come up for a vote during the lame-duck congressional session opening early next week.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino denied reports that Bush conditioned his support for a Democratic fiscal stimulus package, including help for the U.S. auto industry, on approval of the trade bill with Colombia.

But the fact that the topic came up at all, amid a welter of other pressing economic and geopolitical issues facing the incoming president, reflects the priority Bush attaches to the agreement in the waning weeks of his administration.

"The Bush administration has virtually no legacy in Latin America," said Sebastian Edwards, a UCLA professor and a former top Latin America economist with the World Bank. "Also, he had made a commitment to Colombia and wants to live up to his word."

Bush has contended that a deal with Colombia would shore up a key pro-U.S. regime in a region where leftist, anti-U.S. politicians are on the rise. The pact would also keep an administration promise and provide an economic boost to Colombia as a multibillion-dollar, U.S.-funded anti-drug aid package may start to wind down.

The free-trade pact has languished in Congress for two years, its path blocked largely by objections from Democratic lawmakers and labor unions over Colombia's poor human rights record. Last month, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe fired 20 army officers in connection with the military's slaying of innocent civilians who were falsely identified as guerrillas killed in combat to inflate body counts.

The bill being pushed by Bush would make permanent the temporary trade breaks Colombia has enjoyed since 1991 under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act in exchange for cooperation in drug-fighting efforts. That relationship has intensified in recent years under Plan Colombia, the U.S. anti-drug and anti-terrorism program that has channeled $5.5 billion in mostly military aid since 2000.

Colombia's trade breaks have helped boost its U.S. exports to $9 billion annually, including oil, coal, coffee and bananas, most of which enter duty-free. U.S. exports to Colombia total about $6 billion. Ecuador and Peru also receive the breaks, but Bolivia was excluded last month after leftist President Evo Morales kicked out the U.S. ambassador.

Plan Colombia has enabled Uribe to beef up his military, seizing the initiative from leftist rebel groups and improving security.

Besides the refurbished alliance with Colombia and new ones with Mexico and Brazil, W also has CAFTA to his credit and a free trade agreement with Chile, has been the most vocal advocate of immigration in our history, and regime-changed Haiti. The Colombia agreement would make a nice gilding.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 13, 2008 8:00 AM
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