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Free Trade And Bailing Out The Auto Industry

In their meeting today at the White House, President-elect Obama and President Bush discussed bailing out the auto industry. The President-elect was for it. The President wasn’t but indicated that he might agree if Congress helped pass free trade agreements between the United States and countries like Colombia. The President-elect countered that this linkage was unacceptable because “human rights abuses against unionists.”

This excuse for rejecting the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade deal is nonsensical:

The anti-FTA case in the U.S. has been built on two pillars of propaganda. The first is that under Mr. Uribe’s leadership, labor unions have suffered disproportionately as a target of assassins. This is false. Murders of labor activists have been reduced sharply under Mr. Uribe, from 196 the year he took office to 26 last year.

Why were unionists getting murdered at such a high rate prior to Mr. Uribe’s presidency? In part it had to do with the historical ties between some of the dominant public-sector unions and Colombia’s hard left. These organizations have their roots in an anti-American, antidemocratic, antimarket ideology shared with the country’s Castro-backed insurgents. Tragically, this has put the dominant unions on the left side of Colombia’s violent politics for decades. Those who took up weapons to fight guerrilla aggression have been on the other side of the conflict.

Thousands of civilians, not just left-wing labor activists, have been killed in Colombian violence over several decades and it is not over. One of the union leaders I met with last week is new to his job. His predecessor, who was pro-FTA, was murdered in November.

Even so, things are better than they have been in a long time, thanks to Mr. Uribe. He’s restored the state’s law-enforcement role, and increased the budget in the attorney general’s office to prosecute political crimes. He’s also created a special security detail for union activists. No Colombian president has done so much to protect organized labor.

It is only when free trade agreements are in the offing that quasi-protectionists like Barack Obama–and some protectionists that don’t have anything “quasi” about them–express concern for labor rights, environmental standards and domestic violence in other countries. When there are no trade agreements under discussion, such considerations disappear from the agenda of the protectionist side. In the meantime, protectionists work to sabotage American economic growth by denying free trade agreements; it should be noted anew that Colombia already has access to our markets. The purpose of the free trade agreement is to get access to Colombian markets so that we can sell our products, make money for American companies and help get the economy out of the doldrums.

Evidently, the incoming Administration is against these noble goals. Why else would they be pursuing a trade strategy whose distinguishing feature is that it is positively suicidal?

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