by Morgan Smith
Santa Fe resident Morgan Smith is a former commissioner of agriculture from Colorado and director of the Colorado International Trade Office. He writes frequently for La Voz on issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border.
"In 2008, 46.5 percent of Colombia's imports of agricultural products came from the United States. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 20.8 percent," Gabriel Silva Luján, the Ambassador from Colombia to the United States told the Council on International Relations here in Santa Fe on Aug. 20.
This was a stunning comment. Colombia is a country of about 45 million people that imports a high percentage of its food products — roughly 97 percent of its wheat, for example, an important crop here in the Western United States. At a time of record high unemployment in the United States, how could we have let an important agricultural market quietly slip away?
Colombia approved an agreement with us five years ago, but because of union pressure on Democrats in Congress, we have failed to respond. As a result, Colombia has negotiated agreements with the Latin American Mercosur countries, the European Union and, most recently, Canada. This has given these countries a huge market advantage over our farmers who face tariffs that average 30 percent.
As a result, Argentina's share of Colombia's agricultural imports, for example, has gone from 13.8 percent in 2008 to 28.2 percent in 2010. This bad news for American farmers will soon get much worse because the Colombia-Canada agreement went into effect in August. Canadian farmers will soon take more market share from us.
Colombia has made some extraordinary changes that deserve recognition.
First, unlike the United States where tax increases are totally "off the table," Colombia has funded much of its war against the drug cartels through a special "wealth tax" on richer Colombians. (Our aid only amounts to about 4 percent of the cost of this war.) One result has been a huge reduction in violence. In 2002, there were 40,000 kidnappings. Last year, there were only 20, according to the ambassador.
Second, recognizing the enormous human cost of the drug war, Colombia has just enacted a law providing compensation of up to $20,000 to victims.
Another law passed in the most recent legislative session will return land to farmers from whom it was stolen during the war. The amount of land involved is 16 million acres, an area equal to the state of West Virginia.
Lastly, Colombia has enacted an extremely tough anti-corruption law.
And, in addition to its own struggle against the drug business, Colombia is training some 11,000 Mexican law-enforcement officials.
President Juan Manuel Santos is not only attempting to heal the wounds of this longstanding war but he has also reduced Colombia's dependence on the United States. In addition to these other free-trade agreements, he has attempted to smooth out relationships with Venezuela, his largest and most important neighbor.
One downside, however, was his decision last spring to extradite Walid "The Turk" Makled to Venezuela instead of the United States. Arrested in Colombia last year on a U.S. warrant, Makled is alleged to have been smuggling ten tons of cocaine a month from Venezuela to the United States and to have many ties with top Venezuelan officials. U.S. officials desperately wanted him extradited to the United States so that they could question him. Would Santos have done this if we had been more responsive regarding the trade agreement?
On April 19, 2008, I wrote an article for The New Mexican, urging support for the agreement but for mostly political reasons. I believed that we should support a country that had stood up for us, particularly in regard to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's virulently anti-American president. Now our failure to act is costing us jobs as well. Isn't it time for us to act? If the European Union and Canada are satisfied with Colombia's record on the environment, human rights and trade union issues, what is holding us back?