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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Carlos Gutierrez
Secretary of Commerce

March 13, 2008

Carlos Gutierrez
Thank you for your joining me today to discuss the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia and the Administration’s continued unwavering commitment to the freedom of the Cuban people.

The Colombia FTA is good for the American economy and will do more to strengthen their democracy and stability than perhaps anything else we can do today. The United States and the entire hemisphere have a stake in Colombia’s success—a national security, social justice and economic interest.

Colombians, under their democratically elected leadership, have seen social justice spread throughout their country as crime, poverty and violence have been dramatically reduced. The U.S. has been Colombia’s partner in this effort. The events of the last several weeks have shown that the Colombia FTA is more than just a free trade agreement; it is way to ensure security in our hemisphere.

From an economic perspective a Colombia FTA is in the best interest of both countries. It eliminates tariffs and strengthens the rights of American exporters while giving Colombians predictability in their relationship with us, their largest trading partner.

On my visits to Colombia, most recently last month, I have seen all that has been achieved—and all that is at stake for them, our hemisphere and the United States.

What we need to do now is to quickly pass this critical agreement.

I’d be happy to answer a few of your questions.

Michael, from NYC writes:
The FTA was inked between the Bush and Uribe administrations in November 2006. Both houses of Colombias Congress very narrowly approved the FTA in mid June (85 of 164 representativs and 55 of 102 senators voting yes, with many of the rest boycotting the vote.) On June 29, Congressional leaders announced they would not sign an agreement until progress was shown on human and labor rights, and in demobilizing far-right narco-paramilitary fighters. On your fact-finding missions to Colombia, how many opponents did you and our Congressional representaitves meet with?

Carlos Gutierrez
When we’ve gone to Colombia we’ve met with both proponents and opponents of the agreement. On the four Congressional delegations I’ve led to Colombia over the past year, we’ve taken 32 members of Congress. They’ve been members of both parties and there were members who were in favor of the agreement and not. When we’ve visited with labor leaders we’ve made a point of meeting those who do not want this agreement as well as those who do. It is important leaders hear from a wide variety of voices as they make their decisions. Colombia has made remarkable progress on reducing violence, reducing poverty, improving the well-being of Colombian citizens, strengthening labor rights, and approx 35,000 paramilitary fighters have been demobilized-they have turned in their weapons and have been reincorporated into society through a government program.

John, from Texas writes:
When I visited Columbia a few years ago, a time when things seemed to be calming down so there weren't as many tourist warnings, I read that Columbia still has problems with labor organizers being beaten and killed. In our trade agreements do we try to make sure that workers have the right to earn a decent living?

Carlos Gutierrez
You are absolutely right John, there has been a dramatic transformation in Colombia. I was there two weeks ago and I witnessed a continuation of the trends you saw on your visit a few years ago.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the stories I heard, both of the sacrifices Colombians have made and of the amazing turnaround that has taken place as they have sought prosperity, peace and social justice.

As Colombians under their democratically elected leaders have fought terrorism and drug traffickers they have also remained true to democracy and stability has increased throughout the country.

This has made a big difference in the quality of life of Colombians and in their economy. One measure is the number of international visitors to Colombia, like you, which increased from 567,000 in 2002 to 1.3 million last year. At the same time, the economy has grown by 5.2 percent on average each year, unemployment is now at its lowest level in a decade and there has been a steep decline in poverty.

You also make an interesting point about labor organizers. It is hard to imagine the violence that all Colombians, including labor leaders have suffered. Few countries have paid as high of a price as Colombia.

Tremendous progress has been made in protecting labor leaders, the spread of the rule of law throughout the country and in reducing dramatically the number of trade unionists killed. The groundbreaking labor chapter in the FTA with Colombia will go further to incorporate labor protections into a trade agreement than any agreement we’ve signed. Since 2002, homicides of trade unionists have fallen by between 79 and 86 percent (different organizations count who is a union or labor leader in different ways). At the same time, overall violence has also significantly decreased with kidnappings down by 83 percent, terror attacks 76 percent and homicides 40 percent.

The FTA with Colombia will reinforce the gains made as Colombia fights violence against all Colombians.

Tommye, from El Paso writes:
How will this trade ageement benefit the United States? Please be specific and what are the disadvantages?

Carlos Gutierrez
Tommy, thank you. Colombian exporters have been given duty-free access by our Congress to the U.S. market for 16 years. This agreement would give our exporters the same duty-free access to the Colombian market—it simply creates an even playing field. From an economic perspective it permanently lowers tariffs on Colombian exports to the U.S., access that Colombian exporters have been given by our Congress for 16 years. This agreement simply creates an even playing field—a two way street, if you will—for U.S. businesses, farmers and workers who now pay hundreds of millions of dollars in duties on their exports to Colombia each year—duties that will be eliminated with the FTA. This agreement also increases investor rights, strengthens the rule of law and reinforces Colombia’s democracy and stability—and that benefits all of us.

trista, from san diego writes:
How will the Colombian Free Trade Agreement help the US? It seems like it wouldn't make much of a difference from what I've heard.

Carlos Gutierrez
You raise an important point Trista, and the answer is that this agreement is tremendously important to our country in many significant ways.

An FTA will level the playing field for our exporters. For example, Colombian flower exporters are sending flowers to the U.S. duty-free, while U.S. exporters are exporting fertilizer to Colombia (to grow those flowers) and paying a tax. It will make them more competitive in the most populous Spanish speaking country in South America by virtually eliminating tariffs on our exports which now average about 15 percent. Although American companies exported nearly $9 billion to Colombia last year and it is now the largest market for American agricultural products in South America, they could be doing even better with this agreement.

Keep in mind, Trista, that economies are always trying to improve their competitive environment—the world is not standing still. While passing the FTA will give our exporters an advantage, without it our companies position in the Colombian market will deteriorate as other countries are negotiating trade agreements with Colombia, including some of our biggest competitors. For example, Colombians are negotiating an FTA with Canada. Without the U.S. FTA they’ll buy their wheat from Canada instead of us.

Standing still means falling behind, and we can’t afford that.

This agreement with Colombia is a bellwether for the direction our country will be going in. We must continue to strengthen our long term competitiveness. Will we continue to be open, leading and engaged? I believe we are at our best when we are, and lowering barriers to trade is key, particularly in a world that is changing quickly and coming closer together each day.

But economics is just one aspect of this agreement. Security and prosperity go hand in hand—we know that. Regional stability demands that we support Colombia as it fights terrorism. Others in the region who have a very different vision for our hemisphere will be looking closely at what we do in Colombia. They don’t share our views on freedom, open markets and trade, and they are watching carefully to see if we turn our backs on an ally at this critical time.

Kyle, from Colorado writes:
Why is Colombia so important to the United States?

Carlos Gutierrez
Kyle, Colombia is a courageous, democratic partner in the fight against terrorism. They are also an important market for American exports and a source of many of the products Americans enjoy, including flowers and coffee.

Colombia is also significant because it is a large country—nearly twice the size of Texas with 44 million people. Although it is already one of our biggest export markets, it has enormous untapped potential as a trading partner.

While Colombia is particularly important to the 750,000 Colombian-Americans, Colombia’s success is critical to the spread of stability, democracy and social justice throughout the hemisphere. With the help of Plan Colombia, a $5.5 billion investment begun under President Clinton, we’ve been able to help promote peace, combat terrorism and the narcotics industry, revive Colombia’s economy, and strengthen their democratic institutions.

The best way to protect our investment, secure gains already made, spread stability and democracy in the region and increase our exports is this free trade agreement.

Hallie, from Cincinatti, OH writes:
Do you think anything will change in Cuba now that Raul Castro is in control?

Carlos Gutierrez
Cuba’s decision to confirm Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul Castro, as his handpicked successor for president of Cuba slams the door to real political change for the Cuban people. It ensures that a key agent of Castro’s legacy of hate, violence, repression, and countless human rights violations will continue in power.

Rather than a transition to democracy, the regime has chosen to embrace a succession, rather than the beginning of a real transformation.

The Cuban people’s desire for change remains hostage to a system focused on maintaining its privilege and power rather than on the needs of its citizens. Cubans deserve the same fundamental rights as their Western Hemisphere neighbors: free elections, a free press, the right of workers to organize, independent political parties, freedom of speech and democratic institutions.

Raul Castro is now on the spot. Incremental economic changes will be insufficient to improve the deplorable human rights situation in Cuba. Raul should immediately free all political prisoners, like Oscar Biscet, who was sentenced to 25 years for simply disagreeing with the regime.

The Cuban people are tired of suffering. Only with real political change will Cuba’s long-suffering population be able to exercise basic fundamental rights.

The United States stands ready to help the people of Cuba in their long-standing quest for freedom.

Remedios, from Miami, Florida 33178 writes:
Under the present circumstances that Colombia is being threatened by Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba and President Uribe is under fire, what can we done individually to help with the approval of the Free Trade Agreement?

Carlos Gutierrez
You are right Remedios. Although Colombia is a staunch ally of the United States and committed to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and free markets-- that’s not true for all of its neighbors.

Some have a distinctly different vision of the hemisphere, one supported by the force of arms rather than market forces, one that is often accompanied by anti-American rhetoric.

While Colombia’s democracy is being undermined by narco-terrorists and anti-American neighbors, it is critical that we, their close ally, support the Colombian people and their democratically elected leadership as they fight terrorism and injustice. The best way to do that is to ask Congress to pass the free trade agreement.

Those who care about Colombia’s future must ensure that their voice is heard.

Carlos Gutierrez
Thank you for participating in today’s Ask the White House interactive discussion.

Clearly, the Colombia FTA has attracted a lot of interest—both on-line, across the nation and around the world. We cannot take our allies in Latin America for granted, nor can we take for granted our economic competitiveness.

Not passing this agreement would be a real missed opportunity with huge ramifications that go beyond our borders.

We need to send a clear signal that America wants to be open, leading and engaged in the world, and the best way to show that commitment is by passing this critical agreement with Colombia now.

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