Finally, mulling trade, Colombia


WASHINGTON -- It would be an ironic twist of history, but U.S. alarm over the explosion of drug production in Colombia could do what legions of free trade lobbyists have failed to do -- persuade Congress to expand trade preferences to Latin American countries.

A soon-to-be-released bipartisan study on U.S. policy toward Colombia by the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential foreign policy interest group, concludes among other things that the U.S. government should "expand trade preferences to help Colombia's economy recover" from its current recession.

The study, headed by former Bush administration national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, is likely to propose that the United States extend to Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador the same trade preferences that are being considered for Caribbean Basin countries under a bill that was passed by the Senate in November, and has a 50-50 chance of being passed by the House of Representatives next month.

Senate majority leader Trent Lott is said to support the idea of extending Caribbean Basin preferences to Colombia, although others are skittish about giving new U.S. trade benefits to any country.

But drugs, not trade, is the issue of the day in Washington, as Congress debates a $1.6 billion anti-drug package for Colombia amid official reports of an "explosion" of Colombia's cocaine production.

After years of unsuccessful efforts to pass legislation to speed up new free trade agreements with Latin America, the current drug debate is driving many lawmakers to consider trade preferences to help drug-exporting countries move away from cocaine production.

"If you want to get a whole lot of campesinos to stop growing coca, it makes sense to give them an alternative source of income," one congressional staffer told me. "Flower or apparel exports can do that."

Among the ideas expected to be included in the Council on Foreign Relations report:

Giving Colombia's apparel industry special preferences. Colombia claims that up to 100,000 jobs linked to the apparel industry would be endangered if Caribbean Basin countries obtain new apparel trade preferences under the bill pending in the U.S. Congress.

Early renewal of the Andean Trade Preferences Act, a 1991 law benefiting Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador, which expires in 2001. The ATPA has allowed Andean countries to export cut flowers and other goods under preferential tariffs to the U.S. market. Beneficiary countries want a 10-year extension.

Will it happen? It might be pie in the sky. But then, we all know that Washington in the past would only launch economic programs for Latin America when it perceived a communist threat. Perhaps, today's drug threat will have a similar impact.

For all its cool, majestic appearance, this city acts more often out of panic than following any logic.

Post script: U.S. officials are worried about unconfirmed reports that Colombia's peace talks might produce a deal between President Andres Pastrana's Conservative Party and Marxist guerrillas to ensure the ruling party's victory in the 2002 elections. If true, Colombia's democracy would be more endangered than is commonly thought, analysts say.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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