SAN FRANCISCO - Long-time critics of corporate-friendly free trade agreements are applauding House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for effectively putting the brakes on a deal with the South American nation of Colombia.
"By reasserting congressional authority over trade by removing Fast Track treatment from the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, Pelosi has effectively killed it for the year," said Todd Tucker of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. "It could now take two to three years for Congress to look at this legislation and give human rights and labor rights groups a chance to make their case: that this agreement would be a disaster for human rights, labor rights, and the environment."
In a speech on the floor of the House, Pelosi said she was removing the Colombia trade deal's Fast Track treatment "so we can focus on restoring America's economic strength."
"All of our energies must be focused today and in the days ahead on alleviating the real economic hardship families are feeling and taking tangible steps to get our economy back on track," she said. "All of the evidence points to the economic downturn becoming more serious....So we will put this agreement to the side today so that we can continue to work to address the needs of American families."
Groups like Public Citizen have argued that the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) included the most egregious provisions of the increasingly unpopular North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was negotiated under the tenure of President Bill Clinton over a decade ago.
NAFTA removed all tariffs between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Public Citizen has argued that both the Colombia FTA and NAFTA promote the off-shoring of U.S. jobs and expose domestic health and environmental laws to attack in foreign tribunals.
The Colombia FTA would also put in place agriculture rules that would devastate hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers in Colombia, Public Citizen said, making them poorer and undermining U.S. security interests in the region.
The San Francisco-based fair-trade advocacy group Global Exchange agrees. "There is concern about what will happen to Colombian small farmers who lose their farms," the group wrote in a letter its supporters have been sending to their lawmakers. "Rather than migrating to cities or the United States to find employment, those farmers may be pressured to go into coca cultivation or join the guerrillas or paramilitaries in order to survive."
Global Exchange also has warned that the lack of labor and environmental protections in the agreement puts regular Colombians at risk.
Both major Democratic candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, oppose the Colombia FTA. In an interview with CNN last week, Clinton noted more trade unionists were killed last year in Colombia than in any other country in the world.
"The Colombia free trade deal, in my view, is not appropriate because of the history of suppression and targeted killings of labor organizers in Colombia. There is an argument that there has been some improvement and change by the Colombian government but it is not enough for me," she said.
The issue has been a particularly sticky one for Clinton, whose husband, former President Bill Clinton, is an ardent supporter of the pact. Senator Hillary Clinton also fired one of her top campaign strategists, Mark Penn, who had been hired by the Colombian government to help secure passage of the bilateral treaty.
"One good thing about the long, drawn out primary campaign is that in each stop the candidates have to make even more specific promises about what they would do if elected," said Public Citizen's Todd Tucker, "and right now free trade is very unpopular."
Many Republicans continue to support free trade. The deal was negotiated by President George W. Bush. The presumptive Republican nominee for president, John McCain, lashed out at Pelosi after her speech, arguing passage of the agreement is key to preventing the spread of movements in Latin America that oppose U.S. economic and political influence in the region.
That movement is currently centered in Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, has clashed repeatedly with the United States.
"I am profoundly dismayed by events in Congress that prevent an up or down vote on the Colombian Free Trade Agreement," McCain said in a statement. "It is critical that the United States meet its obligations and support an important ally in the battle against international narco-terrorism and a bulwark of democracy in Latin America."
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