President Bush said Wednesday that if Congress fails to approve a free trade agreement with Colombia, it will embolden U.S. adversaries like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and send a signal to Latin America that the U.S. cannot be trusted to stand by its allies.
Bush said his administration will work hard to get lawmakers to pass the agreement with Colombia, then push them to pass free trade pacts with Panama and South Korea as well. The Colombia deal is thought to be the only free trade pact with any chance of clearing Congress this year.
“Time is running out and we must not let delay turn into inaction,” Bush said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s legislative conference.
Bush said free trade with Colombia would help advance U.S. economic and national security interests. He said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe should be rewarded for his efforts to promote democracy and fight violence and drug trafficking.
“The agreement would signal to the region that America’s commitment to free markets and free people is unshakable,” Bush said.
The president used the speech to accuse Chavez of provocative behavior.
“The regime claims to promote social justice,” he said. “In truth, its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power. It has squandered its oil wealth in an effort to promote its hostile, anti-American vision. It has left its own citizens to face food shortages while it threatens its neighbors.”
Bush acknowledged lawmakers’ concerns about violence in Colombia, attacks on trade unionists and a need for labor and environmental standards. The president said Uribe has demobilized tens of thousands of paramilitary fighters, stepped up funding for prosecutions, created a special program to protect union activists and revised the trade agreement to include labor and environmental protections.
“If this isn’t enough to earn America’s support, then what is?” Bush asked.
“If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, it would validate antagonists in Latin America who would say that America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends,” he said.
Bush quoted Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as saying: “If the U.S. turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin American dictator can hope to achieve.”
The president also targeted those who have been critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement, an apparent shot at the two Democratic presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Both of them say they would use the threat of pulling out of NAFTA to persuade Canada and Mexico to negotiate more protections for workers and the environment in the agreement.
“There are a lot of special interest groups that are willing to spend a lot of money to make somebody’s life miserable when it comes to supporting free trade agreements,” Bush said. “But I believe leadership requires people rising above this empty, hollow political rhetoric. If you’re committed to multilateral diplomacy, you cannot support unilateral withdrawal from trade agreements.”