I vividly remember arriving at Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport in the mid- 1990s,
clearing immigration, and then heading towards the city. My mind swirled with edginess and
fear knowing I had reached a city with one of the highest homicide rates and kidnapping
incidences in the world. For an American businessman it was a notoriously dangerous place to
For decades a pervasive tension permeated the thin Andean air as a result of the violence that
has relentlessly rocked Colombia. Nearly every Colombian family has been tragically touched
by terror, murder and kidnapping. It leaves haunting memories.
During those decades, Colombia was the nexus of ruthless drug lords with unfathomable
financial resources controlled by a relentless Marxist-Leninist group known as FARC
(Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or in Spanish from which it gets its acronym Fuerzas
Armadas Revolutionaries de Colombia), which has been long designated an international
terrorist organization. Their leaders have ordered the taking of the lives of tens of thousands
of innocent civilians.
One of FARC’s victims was the father of current Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, who was
killed during a kidnap attempt in 1983. President Uribe took office in 2002 and was re-elected
to a second term in 2006. Since Uribe took office the homicide rate in Bogotá is down 71%; at
a level below that of Chicago, Detroit, Washington D.C., Caracas, Mexico City and Sao Paolo.
During this same period FARC has been seriously weakened, down from 16,000 guerillas in
2001 to 8,000 in 2008. Even for the cynics and demagogues in Washington, this is impressive
progress. It is progress you can sense when visiting Bogotá today.
However, it will take a long time for Colombians to rid themselves of their deeply felt fear.
Wealthy businessmen drive to five-star restaurants barely lit from the outside in older
Japanese cars to not draw attention. Their offices rarely have signs or fancy storefronts. From
the outside you see run-down warehouses; inside are sophisticated businesses that are some
of the best managed in Latin America. Bogotá is not a city of glitz and glamour but of quiet
resolve and determination.
It is a determination that Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in Congress, with few exceptions,
despise. The progress you see in Bogotá is something they hate and will do anything to
During a recent trip up to Capitol Hill to advocate on behalf of the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade
Agreement, I visited the offices of Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY). Congressman Meeks
represents New York’s Sixth Congressional District covering southeast Queens and includes at
its heart John F. Kennedy International Airport. He is a member of the Congressional Black
Caucus (CBC) and the Democrat Leadership Council (DLC).
Unlike most of his colleagues, Congressman Meeks supports our pending free-trade
agreements. He understands increased trade and travel is extremely important to his district.
More trade means more jobs for his constituents at JFK International Airport. He impressed
me with his knowledge of complex trade issues and his genuine support for what is right for
our country versus kowtowing to his party.
I questioned him on his party being so adamantly opposed to the Colombian agreement. It is
one thing for his party not to understand trade; which can be remedied by having us work
harder educating them. But to misunderstand the political ramifications of rejection for a
partner like President Uribe is to misunderstand that such rejection hands Hugo Chavez an
incredible “political gift” next door in Venezuela. This is unforgivable.
I proposed that comparing Alvaro Uribe and Colombia to Hugo Chavez and Venezuela, is the
most glaring illustration of good versus evil in the world today. To destabilize President Uribe
and risk another leftist government in Latin America is unthinkable.
Congressman Meeks not only agreed, but suggested that many people in his party do not see
it that way. Chavez is perceived not necessarily wrong in what he does, while Uribe can be
seen as the evil doer with his perceived treatment of union leaders. The way to win this
argument, he proposed, is to recast it as one of poverty reduction. There is factual evidence
that Uribe’s policies have reduced poverty whereas under Chavez, despite all his oil wealth,
poverty in Venezuela has actually increased.
He went on to recount that many in the Democrat Party do not view Chavez as the problem!
I never thought this hallowed chamber could be so short sighted, but some members are
actually blind to the realities of Colombia. This leads us to the Mistress of the Misfits, House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
President Bush submitted the Colombian agreement to the Congress on April 8th for an up or
down vote, after it was signed by both governments more than sixteen months ago. It was to
be voted on in 90 legislative days, as required by the “fast-track” authority under which the
deal was negotiated. Since 1974, every Administration has had their trade agreements voted
on per the “fast track” authority explicitly granted to the President by Congress.
Ms. Pelosi made an ex post facto change to House rules to avoid the required vote,
withdrawing from the timetable and thus relegating the Colombia deal to a permanent limbo.
Congress until now has never voted down a trade agreement negotiated by either party’s
For good measure, Pelosi’s actions dismantle the only process that allows any Administration
to conduct good-faith negotiations with foreign nations. No one is going to take the U.S. at its
word if Congress is going to change the rules in the middle of game.
The only reason the Democrat leadership can come up with for rejecting the Colombian deal is
that President Uribe has not done enough to protect union leaders. This comes right off the
Colombia has been for decades a violent place for all its citizens. There is absolutely no
evidence that labor leaders experience any more violence than an average citizen. Since Uribe
has come to office violence for everyone including labor leaders has significantly declined. The
AFL-CIO should also realize that some misguided unionists still threaten bodily harm to
business owners and their executives, employees and customers.
For all the talk of repairing the U.S. image abroad, the Democrats don’t really mind harming
that image if it pleases the AFL-CIO. The Colombian agreement is our best to date with the
most comprehensive language ever written into a trade agreement on labor rights,
environmental protections and intellectual property rights. The Democrats, labor unions and
environmentalists got everything they wanted short of riding President Uribe out of town on a
Let’s now consider the purely commercial reasons this deal should have passed with
overwhelming bipartisan support.
Colombia has enjoyed preferential-trade access to the U.S. market for the past seventeen
years as part of the Andean Trade Preferences Act, or ATPA. ATPA was created to provide
farmers and workers alternatives to being swallowed up in the omnipresent narco-industry
throughout the Andean region. As a result 93% of Colombian exports arrive in the United
States duty-free. Colombia wants the free-trade agreement because it would make this
preferential-trade access permanent while solidifying their commitment to democracy and
The last time ATPA came before Congress for renewal in June of 2007 it passed with an
overwhelming majority of 365 votes.
Now for a poke in your eye. Tariffs ranging from 7 to 80 percent currently apply to U.S.
products exported to Colombia putting American exporters at a significant disadvantage.
The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would immediately eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of
our industrial and consumer products exported to Colombia. Eventually, 100 percent of U.S.
exports would enter Colombia’s market of 44 million potential customers duty-free.
The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement levels the playing field by providing much greater
benefits to U.S. exporters, which face high tariffs, than it gives to Colombia, whose products
already arrive in the United States with very few restrictions. A perfect illustration is flowers.
Flowers that Colombia exports to the United States are duty-free whereas the tractors and
fertilizers we send to Colombia to help to grow these flowers pay substantial duties.
So if this agreement simply gives American exporters access to a market that Colombian
exporters already have, even as it protects labor leaders, defends unions, sets safety
standards, protects the environment, secures our intellectual property and instills due
process, why are the Democrats frantically rejecting it? After all Colombian labor leaders will
be less safe without this agreement.
Forget the contrived indignation of the Democrats. This was never about protecting Colombian
labor leaders. What the Democrats fear most is casting their vote. To vote against this
agreement is to clearly reject American interests and morals. To vote for the agreement
exposes their hypocrisy at a time when bashing our trade agreements makes good politics.
One thing is certain: for Pelosi’s contemptible action there will be hell to pay.
Hell to pay for trashing every future Administration’s ability to negotiate trade agreements –
agreements we so desperately need and will create millions of jobs by opening markets where
American exporters are at a significant disadvantage and whose products already arrive in the
United States duty-free.
Hell to pay for the American worker and their families as the rejection of these agreements
directly impacts their pocket books.
And hell to pay for a troubled region that will now be further destabilized to cover up the
flawed rhetoric of Barack Obama, the greed for office that knows no boundary of Hillary
Clinton, and the San Francisco Democrat Anti-Americanism of Nancy Pelosi.
Maybe in November, voters will have the same contempt for Democrats in Congress as those
Democrats have shown America’s best friend and ally in all of South America.
Neal Asbury is president of Greenfield World Trade, exporting American-made products to 137