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March 14, 2008

The Colombia trap

There's been a lot of surprising developments in recent days on the Colombia FTA, most recently with Dem leadership seeming to be suggesting that there could be a vote on the Colombia FTA if there is more trade adjustment assistance. (As we've argued before, it's hard to get all worked up for TAA, because it is highly inadequate to the scope of the problem, but that's for another time.) It's unclear whether this means whether leadership will allow a vote and support the deal, or allow a vote but whip against it. It's also unclear if Bush goes around leadership (as he's threatened to do) whether they would cancel Fast Track's application to the deal.

Without commenting directly on these latest developments, here are the things I've been thinking over the last few weeks on this matter. American politics are classist enough that one can't assume that mere moral outrage will carry the day on labor's agenda. It would simply never happen in this day and age that civil rights or abortion rights would be negotiated away in exchange for legislative favors. There's simply not a strategic argument that could be made that would erase the moral outrage that our society rightfully feels whenever racist or sexist undertones surface in public. (Think Geraldine Ferraro.)

There's simply no equivalent to these kind of widespread norms when it comes to class politics. It is profoundly insulting to working people that a trade deal with Colombia - where workers are systematically targeted for assassination - is even being considered. To not oppose this deal is simply to be a classist. Unfortunately, no politician in America today loses an election or is asked for an apology because they make classist remarks or advocate classist positions.

In 2008, backwards-thinking individuals don't justify opposition to civil rights legislation on the basis that people shouldn't have protected civil rights. But anti-labor legislation is openly supported, and labor has to come up with supplementary arguments as to why it should not be passed. This was why we argued so strongly last year that Bush's Peru NAFTA expansion had to be opposed on the basis that it was bad policy, and would be for ANY country. To not have made this argument last year equals unilateral disarmament. Trying to rally opposition to the Colombia FTA now means that you're relying that our elected officials would not be so classist as to allow it to come up for a vote. This is a HUUUGE gamble, as the heart attacks some of us have experienced over the last few weeks show.

There is another way that an argument could be made against the Colombia FTA, but I don't think that it's really breaking through in the media coverage. That's through the application of readiness criteria. Under a new president, one hopes that trade deals wouldn't even be considered if a country had major social problems (say Colombia, Burma, Sudan, etc.). Much more like the European Union, accession to a common market wouldn't even be contemplated unless the country were broadly similar to the U.S.

But there's two challenges to this. First, it's simply not yet a part of political culture in the U.S. to think broadly about the level of social development of a trading partner country when contemplating market access. This must change. Secondly, such readiness criteria should also play a role when extending measures short of an FTA, such as trade preference programs. Colombia FTA critics are finding it difficult to justify FTA opposition solely on class- or readiness-type arguments if they didn't oppose preference benefits for Colombia as well. Admittedly, in the short term, having preferences for Colombia takes away the argument that one can make in certain quarters about ensuring market access "for a key U.S. ally." This notion of who is our ally in the region needs to be disputed, but, much like the class politics issues, they are more of a medium- to long-term political culture shift that is needed, and it ain't gonna happen overnight.

All that said, at this point, I would still be pretty surprised if the Colombia FTA came up for a vote this year. But the ground is shifting rapidly, and we like you are trying to stay on top of it.

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