Congressional Democrats put on their spectacles for a review of free trade initiatives. Well, lookee here.  The Bush Administration’s trade agenda for the Americas is failing again.  Democrats want to inject some fairness, improvements for workers and the environment.

    The Andean Trade Preference Act (preferences for Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru) expires at the close of 2006.  Hence, the Bush administration has been negotiating individual free trade agreements such as the pact signed by the U.S. and Colombia this week.  Both the Colombian deal and the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, signed months ago, must pass muster in the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. It looks as if they both will be voted on next year, when the Democrats are in control.

  Private-sector sources are reported to have said that getting Congress to approve the Colombia [free trade agreement] would be more difficult than securing approval of a US-Peru trade agreement because Colombia has a history of blocking union organizers.

    Colombia’s president Uribe, fearing the Democrats will shoot the deal to pieces next year failed this month to convince legislators in Washington to pass the new agreement forthwith.  Rep. Gregory Meeks told the AP that he doubted it would be approved in its present form.  

  Meeks, one of only 15 House Democrats to vote in favor last year of the CAFTA trade agreement with six Central American nations and the Dominican Republic, said approval hinged on “additional assurances” from the Uribe government that it would improve a “troublesome” labor, human rights and environmental record.

   The International Labor Organization has called Colombia the world’s deadliest country for labor organizers and have denounced more than 1,200 cases of murder in recent years.

    Peru had sent noted economist Hernando de Soto to lobby for passage of the Peruvian agreement.  He announced yesterday that the the vote on Congressional ratification has been delayed a year.

   Currently the deal allows for preferences for Peruvian-made products, with rules following NAFTA, CAFTA, and other bilateral treaties in granting private investor protections.  The see-saw:  corporate profits increase as governments are restricted from ensuring the investment benefits the general public, according to a think tank report — Sarah Anderson and Sara Grusky, “Republicans Plan Lame-Duck Peru Trade Vote,” (Silver City, NM & Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, November 3, 2006).

 As a result, countries that sign on can expect more pressure on workers to accept poorer working conditions, more damaging natural resource exploitation, more small farmers displaced by competition with agribusiness giants, and more power for pharmaceutical companies to limit access to generic drugs.

    Democrats led by Rep. Charles Rangel, expected to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, sent a letter to the U. S. Trade Representative Schwab.  They urge renegotiating the deals to strengthen labor standards.

    The Republican response is a thin-smiled pretense at all-inclusiveness.  “My hand is outstretched to any and all members of Congress,” USTR Schwab told Chamber of Commerce invitees.  She whisked past last year’s hostilities over Central American free trade (CAFTA) faster than I inhale platanos topped with sour cream and brown sugar.  Instead, she stressed bipartisan cooperation on trade during periods of divided government.  It’s what her audience wanted to hear.

   Referring to China’s unfair employment practices which translate into bigger profits for China, and a bigger trade deficit for us, Rep. Rangel warned against rubber-stamping free trade agreements.

 We have to enforce international law, and we have to make certain that America has some minimum standards on how we expect foreigners to treat their workers and how we expect them to protect our exports.

     Realistically, our agreements can’t be economic balancing miracles.  Still, it’s nice to see the changes coming.

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