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Pass Colombian trade pact

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The following editorial appeared recently in the New York Times:

We don't say it all that often, but President Bush is right: Congress should pass the Colombian free-trade agreement now.

Bush signed the deal two years ago. The Democratic majority in Congress has refused to approve it out of a legitimate concern over the state of human rights in Colombia and less legitimate desires to pander to organized labor or deny Bush a foreign policy win.

We believe that the trade pact would be good for America's economy and workers. Rejecting it would send a dismal message to allies the world over that the United States is an unreliable partner and, despite all that it preaches, does not really believe in opening markets to trade. There is no more time to waste. If the lame-duck Congress does not approve the trade pact this year, prospects would dim considerably since it would lose the cover of the rule (formerly known as fast track) that provides for an up-or-down, no-amendment vote.

Because of trade preferences granted as part of the war on drugs, most Colombian exports already are exempt from U.S. tariffs. The new agreement would benefit American companies that now have to pay high tariffs on exports to Colombia.

It also would strengthen bonds with an important ally in a volatile corner of South America that also is the main source of cocaine shipped into this country and where the United States has very few friends these days.

In neighboring Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez spouts fierce anti-American rhetoric to distract attention from his autocratic policies. Last month, Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador and accused Drug Enforcement Administration agents of conspiring against his government. Ecuador has refused to renew a lease on an airbase used by American counternarcotics flights in the coastal city of Manta.

We, too, have strong concerns about human-rights violations committed by the government of President Alvaro Uribe. But Democrats opposing the trade pact on these grounds are ignoring undeniable improvements. Violence has abated considerably during the Uribe administration as it has taken on the left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and right-wing paramilitaries. The number of trade unionists killed, a major Democratic concern, is still too high but has dropped sharply.

Washington must keep pressing Bogota to reduce abuses by Colombia's army, ensure the prosecution of paramilitary thugs and further rein in violence against union members. It has a powerful tool to do that: $600 million a year in mostly military and anti-narcotics aid.

Failing to approve this trade agreement would do nothing to improve Colombia's human-rights record. Walking away from it now would alienate many people in Colombia and undermine Washington's credibility.