Outside editorial: Move quickly on trade

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

It’s taken seemingly forever to get Congress and the administration to make a deal over three pending free trade agreements, but now that the political standoff has apparently been resolved, Congress should waste no time in giving them a thumbs-up.

The Obama administration moved to put the finishing touches on the pacts by submitting the measures for congressional approval this week, a move that had been delayed because Republicans in the House balked at agreeing to pass a separate measure that offers benefits to workers who lose jobs to foreign competition. In the end — surprise, surprise — all sides were obliged to compromise in order to lift the political barriers stalling a deal that has the strong support of the GOP’s allies in the business community.

This is a win for Florida, particularly the Port of Miami. Two of the agreements are with Colombia and Panama — both countries have strong economies and business ties with South Florida.

Florida’s two-way trade with Colombia, South America’s third largest economy, totaled $7.6 billion in 2010. South Florida airports and seaports handled the lion’s share of it. Approval of a free trade pact, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, would increase demand for American goods in Colombia by $1.1 billion.

Panama also has a longstanding trade relationship with this community. With an economic growth rate of 6.2 percent last year and similar growth expected to continue, it’s a logical trade partner for South Florida. The agreement with the third country, South Korea, a traditional leader among Asian economies, could boost demand for U.S. goods by nearly $11 billion, according to the trade commission. During a time of economic stagnation, this is not peanuts.

Indeed, the economic argument for these agreements, signed by the Bush administration in 2006 and 2007, has always been powerful. The hang-up has been largely political. To appease its allies in the labor movement, who believe free trade kills jobs, the Obama administration insisted on renegotiating all three of them. Eventually, necessary compromises — there’s that word again — were forged that allowed the administration to claim it had allayed the major concerns.

Yet even now Obama will need Republican help to get this done, particularly in the case of Colombia. Labor supporters say human-rights violations, particularly against their allies in Colombia, are rampant and killers go free. There’s no doubt Colombia has a troubling history involving crimes of this nature, but it’s improving.

A report by Human Rights Watch issued this week says little has changed under President Juan Manuel Santos, but that’s not fair to Santos, who has brought a less combative stance to the presidency than that of predecessor Alvaro Uribe.

The Obama administration used its trade leverage to get an agreement that improves safeguards for union activists and human rights workers, and establishes guideposts for marking progress. Last month, the Colombian courts upheld a 25-year sentence for a former director of the main intelligence agency for crimes against union members. Reports of homicides of union activists are declining.

The record remains far from perfect. The administration must monitor the situation to ensure it gets better. But the best way to strengthen human rights in Colombia is by boosting economic growth.

The U.S.-Colombia free trade pact is a winner for both countries.


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