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Pass the Colombia free-trade pact

Tribune Media Services

The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Friday, Nov. 21:

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Time is running out on a fast-tracked Colombia free-trade agreement, largely because of pre-election stalling tactics by congressional opponents. The best argument they have mustered is that Colombia still needs to improve its human rights record, particularly regarding attacks on trade unionists.

That's a fair argument in a free-trade debate, since the oppression of organized labor unfairly helps corporations keep production costs low and undercut their U.S. competitors. But in the case of Colombia, it's an argument whose time has passed.

Make no mistake; Colombia still has much room for improvement. But a sustained campaign of U.S. engagement has undeniably transformed that country. A free-trade accord is the surest way to keep Colombia engaged and moving in the right direction.

When the Clinton administration launched the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia aid package a decade ago, the country was at the brink of civil war. Caught in the crosshairs were peasant farmers, politicians, ranchers, oilfield workers and banana growers. Army troops and paramilitary thugs collaborated to kill hundreds of labor activists.

Presidents Clinton and Bush used military aid to force judicial reforms and a wholesale vetting of the Colombian military. Paramilitary groups have disbanded.

Unionists are still being killed, but the rate of about 40 a year is a far cry from previous decades. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe recently purged the army leadership including its staunchly pro-U.S. commander, Gen. Mario Montoya to prove his commitment to human rights.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says free trade must wait until Colombia demonstrates "concrete and sustained results" on human rights. But even its harshest critics acknowledge Colombia's change has been dramatic.

Human Rights Watch credits pressure from Washington for prompting Colombia "to take some steps in the right direction." A specialized group of prosecutors has reopened investigations of unionist killings, leading to more than 40 convictions in 2007, it says.

Congress has a simple choice: Nurture a partnership that already is showing concrete and sustained results, or dump our most productive South American alliance into the deep freeze. The latter, really, is not an option. It's time to pass the Colombia free trade agreement.

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(c) 2008, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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