For U.S. pork producers, the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement would open a new market for their products and put more money in their pockets. For Colombia, a trade deal with the United States would help keep the country from returning to the brink of political and economic disaster.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Colombia was beleaguered by Marxist guerilla groups and the paramilitary forces that formed to combat them. Both were funded mostly from Colombia’s cocaine trade, and both practiced indiscriminate violence that, by 1999, had the country on the verge of collapse. That year Colombia experienced its first recession since 1929’s Great Depression.

President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, and since then, the country has undergone a remarkable transformation, reducing the illegal drug trade and violence and energizing its economy. Now, Colombia is ripe for foreign trade and investment. Its economy is booming, with annual growth exceeding 6.5 percent. The country’s estimated 2007 Gross Domestic Product was nearly $132 billion, as it is a world leader in producing textiles, coffee, petroleum and flowers.

But Colombia’s political and economic stability remains tenuous. The Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) still rules vast parts of the country and continues to use violence and kidnappings to advance its causes. The illegal drug trade remains significant; anti-U.S. strongman and Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, allegedly has fomented unrest in Colombia; and complicating the issue is an unemployment rate around 10 percent.

One bright spot is the passage of a Colombia free-trade agreement. It will help stabilize the country. (The Colombian Senate voted and the House voted 85 to 10 to approve it. It’s awaiting action in the U.S. Congress.)

A trade deal with Colombia offers significant benefits to U.S. businesses and agriculture. More than 80 percent of U.S. exports involving consumer and industrial goods will enter the country duty-free if a deal is finalized. The agreement will provide substantial opportunities for U.S. agricultural exports and resolve sanitary and phytosanitary issues. It also will remove barriers to U.S. services, provide a secure and predictable legal framework for investors and strengthen protection for intellectual property, workers and the environment.

For U.S. pork producers, tariffs on some pork and pork products will be eliminated immediately, while others will be phased out over a five-year period. The price you receive for each hog marketed will increase by $1.63, according to IowaStateUniversity economists.

Overall, U.S. exports to Colombia may increase by $1.1 billion, noted the U.S. International Trade Commission, and America’s GDP could rise by $2.5 billion. American Farm Bureau Federation officials say the total increase in U.S. farm exports to Colombia under an FTA could exceed $690 million annually, and more than 9,000 U.S. agricultural jobs could be created. (USDA estimates that for every $1 million gain in agricultural exports 13.4 jobs are created.)

There is another reason why the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement should be approved — trade parity. Currently, 90 percent of Colombia’s exports to the United States, including coffee, petroleum and flowers, enter the United States duty-free under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Early last year, Congress extended that U.S. program to Dec. 31, 2008. It offers trade benefits to help Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru develop and strengthen legitimate industries and undercut the illegal drug trade.

Unfortunately, U.S. products heading into Colombia, including pork, don’t receive the same treatment. According to the National Pork Producers Council, passing the Colombia free-trade agreement will level the playing field for U.S. goods and services reaching Latin America’s second-largest market. Meanwhile, an FTA will provide Colombia permanent and stable access to the U.S. market — rather than having to rely on Congress to periodically renew the Andean trade promotion law.

The power to create that level playing field for U.S. exports and to boost a strong U.S. ally in Latin America— or allow it to slide back into calamity and chaos — now rests with the U.S. Congress. On April 7, President Bush sent legislation to implement the Colombia agreement on to congressional lawmakers, giving them a 90-day deadline to act.

“This agreement will advance America’s national security interests in a critical region. It will strengthen a courageous ally in our hemisphere. It will help America’s economy and America’s workers at a vital time,” Bush said. “It deserves bipartisan support from the United States Congress.”

Under trade promotion authority granted to the president by Congress, the chief executive can negotiate trade agreements that lawmakers must approve without amendments or reject within 90 days of implementing legislation being sent to Congress.

Unfortunately, the U.S. House voted April 10 to reject the 90-day timetable, putting the Colombia agreement — and future trade deals — in jeapordy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) have said they want a new, expanded Trade Adjustment Assistance Act approved before they will move on any FTA. The TAA is designed to compensate U.S. manufacturing workers who are displaced by trade actions. It includes financial support for re-education and training, a healthcare credit and wage insurance.

Still other lawmakers have expressed outright opposition to a trade deal with Colombia. They claim the country’s government hasn’t done enough to quell violence against trade unionists (paramilitary groups were targeting labor leaders, who were seen as being allied with the Marxist groups) or to address environmental concerns.

But President Uribe has addressed those issues by demobilizing 32,000 paramilitary fighters and by increasing funding for prosecutions to protect labor activists. He also responded to concerns about labor and environmental standards by revising the FTA to include some of the most rigorous protections in history.

The free-trade agreement with Colombia, like the one with Peru, would not be the United States’ largest nor most significant deal, but Congress’ failure to approve it will financially harm U.S. exporters, hurt prospects for future free-trade agreements and have significant consequences for Colombia’s economic and political stability.

Editor’s note: Sam Carney owns and operates Carney Farms in Adair, Iowa.