The Future of America in the Americas: Colombia’s Free Trade Debate

by Richard Basas

With the recent anarchy in the global economic system and Macroeconomics textbooks being reedited worldwide, many experts in the field have gone silent or have admitted their inability to predict the latest collapse and inability to give a definitive answer to the problem. In the midst of this chaos, the traditional debate of American foreign policy is taking place, whether to open trade and whither protectionism in order to increase ties among the US and its allies, or whether to close all trade ties, appoint protectionist leaders into the new Administration and hope that countries which have less than reputable human rights records will not recall their loans in an attempt to soften their own economic issues at home. At the heart of the debate is whether the US, the pioneer of open trade in the Americas, should take Colombia as a free trade partner in the future.

With the announcement today of Canada and Colombia signing a free trade deal, the onus of the debate between trade vs. human rights has fallen on the US to determine in this latest round of trade deals with its strongest ally in Latin America. Colombia is an interesting case study indeed. Just a few shorts months ago the Colombian government was able to seriously assault its local terrorist threat, the FARC, with the capture and killing of many of the FARC’s top leaders, the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, and even were able to deal with threats from Chavez and arrange a cold peace and a handshake in the aftermath, all tasks which were unachievable by any of the partners of the War on Terror since 2000. Despite these achievements by the Colombian government, charges against them regarding assaults, arrests and disappearances of labour leaders in Colombia have become a catalyst for opposition in the US towards a US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Despite close ties between the two countries, the prevalence of trade between the US and many countries which on equal terms would be considered less democratic and human rights oriented, and the need for the US to reassure its allies of America’s distain for protectionism after making it a major campaign issue and a top priority in industry bailout measures at home have become simply forgotten as recent history. The result of the New Economic Order is that Colombia’s inauguration as one of America’s number one partners has been abruptly forgotten and met with neglect. Many see the trade agreement as a continuation of policies leading towards a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas which has been permanently on hold and a reward to Colombia for beating back terrorist threats in its war against the FARC. Moderate supporters of the trade agreement see open trade as a means to supplement Colombia’s illegal exports with legal commodities and give the majority of the country’s rural poor an income to rely on that is not connected with the drug trade. Development activities in the past have seen some success with this open trade strategy, giving Colombia the tools to fight the drug trade through economics and bring down trade barriers from the US and even the EU and open agricultural markets abroad to its products. In the end however none of these issues are important, as Colombia has become an experiment in how to judge economic policy in the future…poor timing indeed!

Among the traditional trade debate, looming issues regarding the financial collapse on the world markets has not merely changed the rules of the game, but has made confident policymaking a thing of the past in many circles. As a reaction to the economic collapse, the traditional closing off of America in times of global war and crisis often leads policymakers to remove America from the rest of the world, push through regrettable policy initiatives without needed moments of clarity and mortgage the future relationships of the US with its allies in order to avoid dealing with issue, which this time around started and will end with the US. The Colombian trade agreement is the first test of America’s ability to form a future with allies who rise and fall with the US and its actions, or the beginning of America’s fall from hegemony if it chooses to neglect Colombia, and its future allies in the name of temporary comfort in a future which it has gambled away in the short 60 year timespan of the American Empire. Choices in the next few months will determine whether the Americas and the rest of the world will continue into a new century with America as a key player, or return us to a world which looks more like the early 20th century, only with slightly different actors and millions more Japanese cars. Elections and economic crisis come and go, but rhetoric during times of trouble never allow the future to forget poor decisions of the past.

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