A free trade agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and Colombia will take effect May 15, Presidents Barack Obama and Juan Manuel Santos confirmed Sunday.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk had earlier announced that according to the U.S. government Colombia had complied with labor conditions clearing the way for the FTA to come into force.
“This means millions of jobs” for the U.S. and Colombia, Santos said at a joint press conference held after a meeting with Obama.
The U.S. President said that those who will most benefit from the free trade agreement are the people of both countries.
President Barack Obama and Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos were expected to hail the agreement at the news conference. For Obama, it amounted to a chance to shift some focus back to his original mission in Latin America — creating jobs back home — amid the distraction of a Secret Service scandal involving prostitutes that unfolded before Obama arrived.
The news of the trade-deal implementation came as Obama huddled with about three dozen regional leaders in hot and steamy Cartagena as the Summit of the Americas drew to a close. Throughout his trip, Obama has touted Latin America as a growth region for U.S. businesses in an election-year economic appeal aimed at voters back home.
U.S. unions have opposed the trade deal, saying Colombia still has an abysmal record of violence against labor leaders. Union workers are a core Obama constituency, but have opposed some of his efforts to expand free trade deals, which they believe take jobs away from U.S. companies.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the announcement was “deeply disappointing and troubling” and accused the administration of placing “commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions.” Dan Kovalik, a lawyer with the United Steelworkers, said the announcement was “premature in light of the continued violence against unionists and human rights defenders in Colombia.”
Under the terms of the trade pact, more than 80 percent of industrial and manufactured products exported from the U.S. and Colombia will immediately become duty free, making it cheaper for American businesses to sell their goods to the South American country. More than half of U.S. agriculture exports to Colombia will also become duty free.
In a conference call with reporters, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Colombia has taken a number of important steps to implement the “labor action plan” that was a prerequisite for putting the trade deal into place. The plan included enforcing laws recognizing the rights of workers to organize and prosecuting past cases of violence against labor leaders.
“We believe this is an historic step in the development of our relationship with Colombia,” Kirk said
Colombian labor activists complain the Labor Action Plan has been a fig leaf that has not done enough to protect trade unionists in the world’s most dangerous country for labor organizing. At least 30 trade unionists were killed in Colombia last year and four so far this year, according to Viviana Colorado of Colombia’s National Union School, which tracks the figures.
That is down from 51 killed in 2010.
In October, on the eve of U.S. congressional approval of the trade pact, Human Rights Watch released a study refuting claims by the Obama administration that Colombia is making important strides in bringing to justice killers of labor activists. The study found “virtually no progress” in getting convictions for killings that have occurred in the past four and a half years.