Business fights for Colombia deal, labor pushes back

Business is gearing up for a huge fight over the Colombia free-trade agreement (FTA) as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe heads to Washington for the second consecutive month to lobby for the controversial pact.

Caterpillar, Citigroup and Wal-Mart have teamed up to lead business lobbying on the deal. Despite opposition from labor groups and many House Democrats, business executives insist they are confident of success.

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“The bottom-line economics of this deal are such that I think people will realize it’s important to move this year,” Citigroup’s Laura Lane said of the Colombia deal.

Bill Lane, a lobbyist for Caterpillar, said the recent trade agreement between House Democrats, Republicans and the administration has changed the dynamics on trade and increased the possibility of moving the Colombia deal. The heavy mining and construction equipment exporter is one firm that could emerge as a big winner under a free-trade pact.

But for now, Congress has only cleared the way for votes later this year on smaller trade deals with Peru and Panama. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) says more work needed to be done for the Colombia deal to be considered.

The Colombia deal’s prospects have also been hampered by allegations that Colombian government officials are connected to right-wing paramilitary groups that have terrorized the South American nation. After Uribe visited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last month, Pelosi issued a statement calling on Colombia to investigate and prosecute any officials connected to illegal paramilitary forces.

This week, Uribe will lobby members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. He will also meet with Rangel, Ways and Means trade subcommittee Chairman Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and GOP Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), an embassy source said.

Unions oppose a deal with Colombia because of that country’s history of killings of union organizers. They also argue that no changes in the text of the deal can satisfy them.

“We’re looking for a period of time where union leaders aren’t being murdered,” said Thea Lee, a top trade official at the AFL-CIO.

She said Colombia and supporters of the FTA face a “pretty high hurdle” in assuring labor that the situation in Colombia is improving and that deal deserves labor’s support. Such change certainly cannot be provided in the short term, Lee said.

But business-group representatives and Colombian government officials argue the situation in Colombia is improving, and they note a drop in labor murders last year. They also say these killings reflect wider violence in Colombia that is directed at public employees, not just labor, and they argue that rejecting the trade deal will only make matters worse.

Some business-group representatives charge that the AFL-CIO will never waver on the Colombia FTA, and that as a result supporters must simply work to defeat them.

Sara Thorn, a lobbyist for Wal-Mart, notes that labor groups have a history of picking their battles on trade. While labor put up only mild opposition to deals with Chile and Australia, both of which passed with relatively wide margins in Congress, it picked a major fight over the Central American Free Trade Agreement and is now picking its fight with Colombia.

Congressional opponents are also drawing a distinction. Noting the fact that the Peru and Panama trade deals involve relatively small economies, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said his caucus could survive a split on those votes — but the Colombia deal would be different.

Similarly, Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) said Democrats would risk a serious rupture if members attempt to bring the Colombia deal to the floor. “It will be a rude awakening for the Democratic Party,” he said.

The Citigroup, Wal-Mart and Caterpillar officials say they will emphasize the importance to foreign policy of approving the Colombia deal. They note that Colombia has been a strong U.S. ally in Latin America and warn that rejecting the deal could give Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a victory.
The three companies chair the Latin American Trade Coalition, which will brief House staff Thursday on all three Latin American trade deals. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also preparing a campaign to push all three deals forward.

Christopher Wenk, a trade lobbyist at the Chamber, said his group is asking lawmakers who are planning hearings on Peru also to hold a hearing on Colombia in the hope of moving the deal forward. But Wenk acknowledged that so far he could not say whether the request has been well received.