A year later, U.S. trade with Colombia grows while anxiety mounts

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 23, 2013 

— At the Colombian Embassy in Washington, Ambassador Carlos Urrutia says there’s no doubt that his country’s trade deal with the U.S. has paid off: Colombian businesses are sending more socks and cosmetics to California, beet sugar to New York and glass to Florida to help with hurricane repairs.

U.S. officials are equally excited, saying U.S. businesses have improved their sales to the South American country by 20 percent. Manufacturers are exporting more transportation equipment, petroleum and coal products, processed foods and a long list of farm products, including soybeans, pork, wheat, grapes and dairy goods.

But a year after the agreement took effect, the growth in trade is producing mounting anxiety in some quarters.

In California, for example, progress has come with a price for the once-dominant flower industry: Colombian imports have jumped 7 percent in the past year. Less than 3 percent of the Valentine’s Day roses sold in this country were grown here. On New Year’s Day, just two of the 41 floats in the popular Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., featured flowers grown in the Golden State.

“People don’t think about where their flowers come from, like they do their food,” said Kasey Cronquist, the CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission.

The unhappiness extends well beyond flowers. Opponents note that the balance of trade between the countries remains out of whack: The United States imported nearly $25 billion in goods from Colombia last year, while it exported only $16 billion.

In Washington, the trade agreement is under increased attack from critics who want President Barack Obama to do more to reverse the violence that persists in Colombia, where at least 20 unionists were assassinated last year.

Despite the complaints, Urrutia said the agreement was clearly benefiting U.S. consumers by giving them more products from which to choose.

Overall, he said, two-way trade between the countries is up by 5 percent, and Colombian companies have sent 187 new products to the United States in the past year, including photographic equipment, anti-inflammatory drugs, tropical fruit juices with sugar, and electrical transformers. He said 775 Colombian companies had shipped products to the United States for the first time in the past year, with 23 states getting at least one new Colombian product.

While the Colombian government doesn’t track how many new jobs have been produced as a result of the trade pact, he estimated them to be in the thousands, adding that the unemployment rate in the country is declining. It stood at 10 percent in March, after averaging more than 12 percent for the last dozen years.

“We’ve been looking at the figures. What we see is encouraging. We’re quite satisfied,” Urrutia said.

To mark the one-year anniversary, Obama and his team have been busy touting the deal, too.

In an opinion piece published two weeks ago in The Miami Herald, which is owned by McClatchy, the president called the deal “a moment of great promise for our hemisphere,” saying it had created new markets for U.S. businesses while the fast-growing economies of Latin America have helped people escape poverty.

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank took a delegation of 20 U.S. companies on a trade mission to Colombia last week. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, are expected to arrive in Colombia on Sunday as part of a weeklong trip that also will take them to Trinidad, Tobago and Brazil.

In a speech in Bogota last week, Blank said trade missions between Colombia and the U.S. had become increasingly common. In 2007, she said, there were none, but there have been 13 in the past year.

“Tractors from a company in Texas now enter Colombia duty-free, a bath and body products maker in Florida made her first export sale to Colombia in January and Colombians can now more easily buy an iconic American product – a Harley-Davidson motorcycle – because the 15 percent tariff has been dropped,” Blank said.

Colombia’s human-rights record, which emerged as an issue on Capitol Hill before Congress approved the trade pact in 2011, remains a sore spot.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a nonprofit consumer group based in Washington, said Colombia remained the deadliest country for union members, with 471 unionists receiving death threats since the trade agreement took effect and at least 20 unionists reported assassinated.

Lori Wallach, the group’s director, said many opponents were shocked that Obama had pushed the Colombian deal given the country’s widespread record of violence.

“Now that the Obama administration is responsible for passing this agreement, the question is what will it do to reverse this horrible trend,” she said.

Urrutia said the issue had the attention of the Colombian government “at the highest level” and that plans were in place to provide union leaders with armored vehicles, bodyguards and police protection.

“The facts are that Colombia has made a lot of progress,” he said. “We still have problems. Any attack against a labor leader, a union leader, is one attack too many.”

He acknowledged the situation that U.S. flower growers face while offering little sympathy.

“They’re very unhappy; I can imagine,” he said. “But you know, the problem is this is global trade. I think protectionism is no longer acceptable anywhere you go, including Colombia. . . . This is good for American consumers because they get first-quality flowers at cheaper prices.”

Moreover, he said: “If Colombia were not involved, the U.S. market would be absorbing fresh-cut flowers being exported from Holland and Ecuador. We’re not to blame.”

Cronquist said there was no way U.S. producers could compete with the planeloads of flowers that entered the U.S. from Colombia each day through Miami.

He’s convinced that more people would buy American-grown flowers if all blooms had country-of-origin labels.

“There’s a lot of good buzz about buying local,” he said. “It’s not as much an issue about protectionism at all. It’s more of an issue about patriotism and supporting our own farmers here at home.”

Email: rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HotakainenRob

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