By Bobby Fraser Contributor December 13, 2010

Few administrations have shown any interest in Latin America in recent years. The Obama Administration is proving only slightly different in this regard, even though there are clear policy choices available to change this record. One such policy, the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), would lower trade barriers between the United States and Colombia. President Obama and his economic team should encourage its passage through Congress. The U.S.-Colombia FTA will bring mutual economic, security, and diplomatic benefits, and could strengthen U.S. relations within the region.

Economically, this FTA would serve the interests of both consumers and producing industries in each nation. For Colombia, American markets are vital and account for 35% of its export products. The main U.S. imports from Colombia include petroleum products, flowers, and coffee at a total of $9.3 billion in 2006. Currently, the United States exports about $8.6 billion in goods and services to Colombia. This relatively low amount of trade could increase greatly. Two-way trade doubled after the implementation of the trade agreements with Peru and Chile. In 2009, the International Monetary Fund predicted that Chile would outpace Mexico as the richest Latin American country, in gross domestic product based on purchasing power parity. This can be attributed to the high levels of investment and commercial activity encouraged by the U.S.-Chile FTA. A similar outcome should be expected if a separate FTA is extended to Colombia.

Colombia is arguably the United States’ staunchest ally in South America. With Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s 2009 agreement to allow seven American bases in Colombia, U.S. ties there are stronger than ever. As anti-American Presidents Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa preside over neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, Colombia is positioned to counter both antagonists. The willingness of Colombia to host an American base receives significant resentment from Venezuela. Because Colombia is faced with a hostile neighbor and suffers from untapped economic potential, the U.S. Congress should pass this trade agreement and include more benefits for Colombia.

Colombia has developed rapidly in the last decade. Its government, under President Uribe, has confirmed its interest in deepening a partnership with the United States. Progress has been achieved, in coordination with the U.S. anti-drug program (Plan Colombia) in an effort to fight in the drug trade. A FTA would recognize and reward Colombia’s progress in numerous areas. A recent study by Cato Institute cited that homicide rates in the major cities, including Bogotá and Medellin, have declined by 40% since 2002, while terrorist attacks and kidnappings have declined by 82% and 77%, respectively. Assassination rates of union leaders and other business figures has dropped 80% since 2001. President Uribe has also succeeded in rolling back the influence and violence of left-wing Marxist guerilla groups on Colombia’s borders, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In the aftermath of the U.S. midterm elections this November, President Obama will need to shift to a more centrist approach. There is no better opportunity to do so than by encouraging the passage of the U.S.-Colombia FTA. The recently elected Republican Congress, which presumably supports a free market trade policy, should work with the President to find common ground to pass the U.S.-Colombia FTA. Working together to approve the agreement would not just be politically beneficial to the Republicans and President Obama, more importantly it would provide the U.S. with a tremendous economic opportunity for export-led growth goals that the President is pushing for. Further, it would strengthen a much-needed partnership in South America. With significant support from the newly elected Congress and recently elected Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, the political setting for passage of the FTA is now at its highest point.

Latin American trade partners will prove immensely beneficial to the United States in strengthening relations within the hemisphere and reinvigorating the American economy. The Obama administration and the new Republican Congress should change the historical path of American disinterest in Latin America. U.S. attention needs to shift towards this developing region and highlight countries that are succeeding in development efforts. Countries like Colombia will understand that they will have the United States’ support when they make such headway. The U.S.-Colombia FTA will recognize a nation that has made tremendous and progressive gains in democracy and security. U.S. interests, not only in Colombia, but also in the entire region, will enjoy a greater potential for success following the passage of a new U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.