US Congress approves Colombia and Panama FTAs

Just as opposition to neoliberal economic policies was generating new protests around the world, on Oct. 12 the US Congress passed long-delayed neoliberal free trade agreements (FTAs, or TLCs in Spanish) with Colombia, South Korea and Panama. The three agreements were negotiated by the administration of former US president George W. Bush (2001-2009); the Colombia FTA was signed in 2006, and the Korea and Panama FTAs were signed in 2007. But approval by Congress was delayed because of partisan maneuvering and the unpopularity of previous agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Many Democrats and US labor leaders opposed the Colombia pact because of continuing murders of unionists in the South American country.

Despite this opposition, the FTAs passed Congress with large majorities. The vote in the House of Representative was 262-167 for the Colombia agreement, 278-151 for Korea and 300-129 for Panama; the Senate voted 66-33 for the Colombia FTA, 83-15 for Korea and 77-22 for Panama. The agreements will eliminate or reduce tariffs restricting imports from the US, improve protection for what US companies consider their intellectual property rights, and give freer access for US investors. The US International Trade Commission (USTR) projects that the three FTAs will boost US national exports by about $13 billion a year, some 0.1% of the US gross domestic product (GDP). (Jurist, Oct. 13)

“More jobs will be created in both countries” through the Colombia-US FTA, Ricardo Tribín, former president of the Colombia Chamber of Commerce, told the Miami radio station WQBA after the pact was approved. “[I]n the case of Florida it was almost necessary to approve it, because of the problem of unemployment,” he said. “Now it just needs to be implemented.” (EFE, Oct. 13) US president Barack Obama and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos made similar claims. Obama said the pact would stimulate the stagnant US economy, while Santos promised a permanent 1% increase in Colombia’s growth rate, the creation of 250,000 new jobs and a 6% rise in exports.

But Mauricio Cabrera Galvis, a columnist for the daily Vanguardia in the northern department of Santander, wrote that the Colombian government hadn’t explained how it arrived at such high figures for job growth. The USTR only projected 7,000 new jobs for the US, with exports to Colombia growing by $1.1 billion a year and Colombia’s exports growing by much less—just $487 million. Moreover, some Colombian business people are worried that labor protection clauses in the FTA will raise wages and reduce their competitive edge, Cabrera wrote. (Vanguardia, Oct. 16)

Colombian labor leaders didn’t share this concern about increased wages. The unionists, who have repeatedly demonstrated against the FTA and related neoliberal policies, expect that the FTA “will bring a great loss of jobs and the destruction of the agricultural sector, which isn’t prepared for the competition” with US agribusiness, in the words of Tarcisio Mora, who heads the Unitary Workers Central (CUT), Colombia’s main labor federation. (TeleSUR, Oct. 13, via Adital, Brazil) Colombian economist Mario Alejandro Valencia went further. Noting that the US Congress passed the FTA on Oct. 12, when Latin Americans commemorate the beginning of the European invasion and colonization of the region, Valencia charged that the pact “legally decrees the recolonization of Colombia, this time at the hands of the US multinationals, the most powerful that have ever existed.” (Prensa Rural, Colombia, Oct. 14)

Union leaders in Panama had the same concerns. “With this treaty Panamanian agriculture and employment will obviously be affected,” Samuel Rivera, from the National Council of Organized Workers (Conato), told the French wire service AFP. “This is a fight between a heavyweight and a flyweight… [W]ith the [government] subsidies that US products get, there is no human way our country can compete.” (AFP, Oct. 13)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 16.