Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Heroes of the Free Trade Votes

Reading Time: 5 minutes

On Wednesday, October 12, just in time for the October 13 State Visit of South Korean leader Lee, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.  The agreements were too long delayed, but the overwhelming margin of victory for all agreements in both chambers gives credibility to the argument that the Administration frequently made: to build sustainability for the trade agenda, broad-based political support was required, and political support had to be developed over time, with careful and methodical coalition building.  In the end, Panama received 300 votes in favor of the agreement in the House, passing by 171 votes.  The most controversial agreement, Colombia, received 262 votes and passed by 95 votes.  Compare that to the passage of the trade agreement with Central America in 2004, which won approval by exactly two votes.  This new margin of victory lays the groundwork for renewal of a politically sustainable trade agenda, and is a bright spot for those of us who believe trade remains one of the best tools that the United States has to support our security and economic interests abroad.  

The agreements still need to be signed by the President and there will be a period of time before implementation actually occurs.  But the biggest battle has been won.  As a result—this being Washington—claims of credit abound.  Indeed, there is much credit to go around.  But some are more equal than others in this department, and deserve to be singled out for special praise.

The first, of course, is President Obama himself.  At a yet-to-be-determined political cost, and little potential direct political benefit, the President defied the roots of the Democratic party to advance the agreements as part of his “doubling exports in five years” initiative.  Unquestionably, his views on trade have evolved since the 2008 campaign, and by moving the deals forward, he has effectively neutralized trade as a potential wedge issue for the 2012 presidential campaign, which, importantly, will provide greater political flexibility to the President on these issues after January 2013.  He got the deals done and moved them forward.  He won’t get appropriate credit for it, but that does not mean he does not deserve it. 

Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who renegotiated the agreements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who publicly set a deadline when she told the foreign minister of Colombia in June that the deals would be done by the end of 2011, and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley did much of the political heavy lifting to lay the groundwork for submission to Congress.  They are all on the heroes list.

The Republican Congressional leadership played a critical role at an important time.  Prior to the 2010 mid-term elections, it was evident that the Administration, egged on by misguided elements of the business community, was moving forward on a “Korea first” strategy, whereby the agreement with Korea would be completed and then, if possible, the two Latin America agreements would be consummated.  After Republicans took control of the House, they made clear, along with their colleagues in the Senate who also linked progress on Colombia and Panama with the commerce secretary nomination, that all three deals would need to move forward together, or none would move at all.  There are no two ways about it: this strategy saved the Colombia agreement, which arguably would have otherwise had to wait until 2013 at the earliest, by providing political cover and momentum for the agreement and saving it from being considered sequentially on its own, providing a tempting, isolated target for opponents.

Republicans Dave Camp and Kevin Brady continued a relentless drum beat for action on the trade agenda, while Democrats Greg Meeks and Sam Farr proved to be real champions within their caucus, particularly on the Colombia agreement.  It was a lonely place to be at times, but leadership is not always easy or popular.  In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Republicans Orrin Hatch and Mitch McConnell marshaled their respective caucuses effectively. 

Colombian Ambassadors Luis Alberto Moreno, Andres Pastrana, Carolina Barco, and
Gabriel Silva kept the faith in Washington, responding to every item that came to them (some legitimate, some inaccurate, some certifiably nutty) with patience and good humor, and kept Bogotá focused on what needed to occur to get the job done. 

U.S. Ambassadors in Bogota—both present and past. This includes: Mike McKinley, who also went through the FTA process as Ambassador to Peru, Bill Brownfield who now provides leadership on hemispheric policy as Assistant Secretary, and Bill Wood. Each fought their own bureaucracies, among others, to be a constant and active presence, making the case for Colombia in Washington, and encouraged Colombians to take steps which would create the political conditions on the ground for passage of the agreement.

President Santos, who has made dramatic progress in his first year in office on the issues of most concern to the U.S. Congress, and President Uribe before him who positioned Colombia to have the opportunity for an FTA with the United States in the first place.

Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan—that’s right, Mexico’s Ambassador is one of the true heroes of the debate.  As a strategic thinker about the Western Hemisphere, something rare in Washington, Sarukhan frequently called publicly for the United States to conclude the pending trade agreements on the grounds that doing so would solidify the values that the United States and Mexico jointly promote, values that are in active competition with others across the hemisphere.  This is not the traditional posture for a Latin American ambassador to take in Washington, with little expectation of gain or benefit, and one can be sure that it raised eyebrows elsewhere in the Latin American diplomatic corps.  But this is what the often over-used term of “partnership” is all about. 

Canadian Prime Minister Harper and the Canadian legislature
promoted and passed a bilateral trade agreement with Colombia that finally showed Washington policy makers in concrete terms what the United States had to lose by sitting on the trade sidelines.  As we saw under similar circumstances with Chile, nothing motivates Washington like competition, and the entry into force of the Canadian agreement last summer was a compelling action motivator.

As with any story, there are not just heroes but also anti-heroes.  A number of human rights watchers and NGOs simply refused to acknowledge Colombia’s dramatic transformation, argued that Colombia and Panama shouldn’t have expanded trade but offered no realistic alternative development vision, and, suddenly, when there was nothing else, became deeply concerned with Panama’s banking system as a means to complicate that particular agreement.  Separately, Panama’s legislature put into leadership the alleged killer of U.S. soldier Zak Hernandez and thus further delayed consideration of that agreement until he stepped down (a circumstance that, ironically, elicited little comment from the NGO community).  Colombian negotiators also misplayed the timing, pressing too hard on several points during the negotiations and thereby losing their place in the queue to Peru which concluded its agreement almost four years ago.  In Washington, U.S. congressional leaders arbitrarily suspended the fast track rules of the game by which everyone else was playing in good faith.  After the 2008 elections, incredibly, U.S. officials overseeing policy in the region repeatedly suggested, even as the United States lost market share and influence, that trade should not be a top priority and that there was no particular urgency to passing the agreements. 

It’s amazing—and gratifying for those of us who worked so hard on the agreements—that the final vote tallies proved to be as robust as they were.  But, with the leadership of the trade vote heroes, they were.  Now the question arises: what comes next?  Much can be considered.  The momentum exists, let’s continue to move ahead.

Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.


Reading Time: 5 minutes

Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington, DC. 

Follow Eric Farnsworth:   X/Twitter

Tags: Arturo Sarukhan, Barack Obama, Canada, Colombia, Free Trade, Hillary Clinton, Juan Manuel Santos, Mexico, Panama, Stephen Harper, U.S. Congress
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