Obama's bets on free trade: Inside the deals behind the deals

By Heather Berkman and Sean West  

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the House Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 9 that the Obama administration is serious about progress on the South Korea, Panama, and Colombia free trade agreements. He wouldn't commit to a timeline, but we think Congress will pass all three deals this year -- though not without a round of serious political deal making.

Obama campaigned on the need to extract additional concessions from South Korea, Colombia and Panama before any of these deals, all of which were negotiated and signed by President George W. Bush, deserved ratification. For example, automakers and the United Auto Workers complained that the South Korea deal opened the U.S. auto market to Korean imports without securing reciprocal liberalization.

The United States took two years to tell South Korea exactly what it wanted changed, but the two sides have finally negotiated a side deal in which the Koreans made additional concessions. With the new agreement providing political cover, Obama now officially endorses the deal and will send it to Capitol Hill for ratification soon.

The path forward for the Panama and Colombia FTAs is a bit murkier. The Panama deal -- which, frankly, will have negligible economic impact on either country -- was first held up because Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, who later became leader of the Panamanian National Assembly, was indicted by a U.S. grand jury on charges he shot and killed a U.S. serviceman in 1992. When Gonzalez left government in 2009, U.S. trade skeptics shifted their criticism to Panama's alleged role as a tax haven, forcing the Ricardo Martinelli administration to reluctantly sign a Tax Information Exchange Agreement with the Treasury Department.   

The Colombia deal faces a more difficult battle. U.S. labor unions loudly oppose the pact because so many Colombian trade unionists and labor leaders have been murdered by paramilitary organizations. The number of murders has fallen in recent years, and though Colombia probably still has the highest murder rate of union members in the western hemisphere, it probably also has the highest rate of murders of priests, schoolchildren, and bus drivers. In short, despite significant government progress in cracking down on armed groups and reducing the homicide rate, Colombia remains an intensely violent place -- for labor leaders and many others. There's no way to solve that problem in the context of a trade negotiation.

By pushing these trade deals forward, the Obama administration is making a political bet. The White House knows the left has a long list of gripes with the president, and that pushing hard on trade deals will add fuel to the fire. But presidents benefit from the economic boosts provided by trade -- and Obama views the deals as a way to reach out to the independent and moderate voters he'll need in 2012.

Aware that Washington can't expect much more from these countries, the Obama administration will court reluctant Democratic lawmakers by extracting relatively minor concessions -- like a pledge from the Panamanian government to ratify a tax treaty or from the Colombian government to put more of those who kill union leaders on trial.

What will Democratic lawmakers want in return? They may well call on the White House to work much harder to enforce existing agreements before moving forward with new ones. That means moving forward with antidumping and countervailing duty cases against China -- both at the World Trade Organization and through domestic remedy. 

With so little expected from a divided Congress, the White House will trumpet these deals as important accomplishments. But it will have been the U.S. political context that changed -- not the content of the deals.

Heather Berkman is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice. Sean West is a U.S. political risk analyst with the firm.