Carolyn Petri is a fall 2008 Prospect editorial intern.
Last night, John McCain tried to make Barack Obama's opposition to a possible free trade agreement with Colombia look stupid. He told Obama, "Free trade with Colombia is something that's a no-brainer." It isn't, and McCain probably lost votes by bringing it up.
More Americans see free trade as a bad thing than a good thing, which is a relatively new but substantial trend. Every year over the past four years, Americans have been switching from pro- to anti-free trade, because they believe it costs jobs and lowers wages. McCain came off as somewhat extreme on the issue, while Obama took a more nuanced approach, saying he believes in free trade but:
I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement.... We've got to have a president who is going to be advocating on behalf of American business and American workers and I make no apology for that.
After siding with American workers, Obama criticized human rights abuses in Colombia:
The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions.... The trade agreement itself does have labor and environmental protections, but we have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights, which is why, for example, I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement which was a well-structured agreement. But I think that the important point is we've got to have a president who understands the benefits of free trade but also is going to enforce unfair trade agreements and is going to stand up to other countries.
Even Colombian President Álvaro Uribe agrees with this. "No matter how much effort we've made [on the economy, human rights] we need to do more," said Uribe at a Brookings open meeting last month during his trip to Washington and New York for the U.N. General Assembly. On his tour, he carried with him a laminated idea map of Colombia's goals, with "confidence" at the top, propped up by "security," "investment," and "social cohesiveness." These are all things that Colombia has to work on, he said over and over again. He explained that "We have work," given 30 union homicides in Colombia just this year (and 11,400 overall).
Americans will certainly pay if the next president passes a free trade agreement with Colombia before Uribe gets human rights abuses under control. The last thing we need on the international stage--especially in Latin America--is to show ourselves off as oblivious to ethics, but obsessed with the market.