1 November 2004
U.S.-Andean talks even worse than feared
By JANA SILVERMAN / Colombia Week
When U.S.-Andean trade negotiations began May 18 in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, President Alvaro Uribe Vélez assured his country that opening the Colombian market to the world’s economic goliath would generate “growth, better jobs [and] income.” After five rounds of talks, including one last week in the Ecuadoran city of Guayaquil, his promise seems not only deceitful but plain ridiculous. Barring major turns, any deal emerging from the talks will be a disaster for most Colombians.
Setting the stage for the Guayaquil round-a five-day session that began October 25-the United States backed away from a September pledge by chief U.S. negotiator Regina Vargo, who told the Andean countries their current U.S. trade preferences would form a baseline for the new accord. The Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), for example, gives more than 6,500 Colombian products-including flowers, petroleum and garments-tariff-free access to the U.S. market in return for Bogotá’s drug-war cooperation.
Now U.S. officials are warning Andean countries they can’t assume the new pact will include ATPDEA protections, set to expire at the end of 2006. “There will be no gifts,” said Frank Fernández, the U.S. Embassy’s top economic officer, quoted October 22 by the Bogotá daily El Tiempo.
This drew huffing and puffing three days later from Colombian Trade, Industry and Tourism Minister Jorge Humberto Botero Angulo, who described the ATPDEA benefits as “the minimum reciprocity that the country that’s the Number 1 consumer of drugs can give the country that has made the most extensive effort to fight the drug scourge.”
Another embarrassment for the Uribe administration is U.S. insistence on expanding “intellectual property rights.” Washington’s negotiating team is pressing Colombia to extend current patents for more than 20 years and allow the patenting of living beings, medical procedures and second uses of patented products. Among other damaging effects, Colombians would lose affordable access to many medicines. The price of generic drugs averages 25 percent of brand-name versions, notes the Research and Popular Education Center (Cinep).
In another blow to Colombia, the U.S. negotiating team has refused to make substantive concessions on farm subsidies that keep prices of many U.S. agricultural goods artificially low, giving them an advantage on the world market. Former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, quoted October 21 by El Tiempo, advised Colombia to maintain price controls on staples such as rice and corn or watch U.S. imports wipe out those legal crops and convince thousands more Colombian farmers to grow coca and opium poppy instead.
Some 3,000 rice growers in the southwestern provinces of Tolima and Huila marched on October 20 to protest their doom under a U.S. accord. Such pressure led to a promise by Agriculture Minister Carlos Gustavo Cano Sanz that the government would continue price controls if Washington didn’t cede on the subsidies.
Farmers aren’t alone in opposing the negotiations. On October 12, more than 1 million Colombians participated in a general strike against the talks and other components of Uribe’s economic agenda. On October 23, protesters led by United Workers Central (CUT), the country’s largest union federation, gathered at the International Trade Ministry in Bogotá to assail the talks.
In Peru and Ecuador, meanwhile, campaigns to hold referenda were launched by unions, indigenous groups and small business associations. The referenda would give voters the last word on whether their countries ratified the U.S.-Andean deal.
But despite the protests and Washington’s shenanigans, the negotiations are headed for a sixth round November 30-December 4 in Tucson, Arizona. “We’ve already reached the point of no return,” chief Ecuadoran negotiator Cristian Espinosa claimed.
Uribe, who inaugurated the talks with rose colored glasses, has a lot of explaining to do.
Jana Silverman is a Bogotá-based consultant for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center.