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NAFTA, Free Trade Benefit Maine, United States

September 26, 2008

Trade union spokesmen and their political allies are flat wrong when they say the North American Free Trade Agreement and free trade deals like the pending agreements with Colombia, Korea and Panama harm the United States.

Contrary to Wendell Rafford’s complaints about Sen. Susan Collins’ reluctance to speak out against the Colombia pact “Where is Sen. Collins on free trade with Colombia?” (BDN, Sept. 19), Collins should stand with her party’s leaders and enlightened Democrats and push for ratification by Congress. It is past time that she did so.

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, half of Maine’s GDP growth comes from increased exports — mostly to Canada, thanks to NAFTA. Around 21,000 jobs in Maine depend on trade in sectors such as computers and parts ($914 million in 2007), paper ($557 million) and transportation ($186 million).

How Maine workers or the 1,257 exporting firms who employ them would benefit from gutting NAFTA is baffling. Of those firms, 85 percent are small businesses, the backbone of our exports.

Thanks to NAFTA, Maine has been able to diversify from an overwhelming concentration on paper and wood products. On the import side of the equation, free trade is a win-win for Maine. Imports of fuel and related products from Canada have helped Portland become a leading petroleum transporting port; and all the food used in Maine’s burgeoning aquaculture comes from our next-door neighbor.

We have benefited from heavy Canadian investment in our state. An example is the investment of $70 million by a Canadian firm in a potato processing plant in Aroostook County, which helped transform Maine’s potato industry.

Certainly there are some problems with NAFTA that need to be ironed out, but on balance it has been a boon both to our state and for national economic growth and job creation.

As for the Colombia free trade agreement, it’s a real no-brainer. Right now, most Colombian goods enter the U.S. market duty-free, thanks to a preferential arrangement earlier granted to the Andean region of South America. What this new agreement will do is level the playing field for U.S. exports, giving them equal duty-free access to Colombia’s own expanding market.

If the U.S. cannot sell its goods abroad, the result is loss of jobs at home. Conversely, increased exports — made possible by knocking down other countries’ trade barriers so that our produce can be sold competitively — generate job growth.

This simple equation is something organized labor and the politicians it finances keep trying to deny. They might as well deny the law of gravity.

An even more specious argument advanced by critics of the Colombia deal is that “Colombia murders trade union leaders …”

For the past 30 years Colombia has been beset by Marxist insurgents and narcoterrorists, now united in trying to overthrow Colombian democracy, the most durable and venerable in Latin America.

Among those targeted by rebel elements have been politicians, businesspeople, judges, security forces and labor leaders, in addition to countless innocent civilian bystanders. But it is important to keep in mind the murder and mayhem is the result of the insurgency, not the fault of the government.

With the advent of the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, who instituted new tactics and strategies to deal with the insurgents — with strong economic and technical support from the U.S. — the Colombian government since 2003 seems at last to have gotten the upper hand. The rebels are on the run and the murder rate is plummeting.

To reject a full and equal trade partnership with democratic Colombia, our closest ally in combating drug trafficking, on spurious grounds as advanced by the likes of Mr. Rafford — especially with Hugo Chavez next door in Venezuela openly backing the narcoterrorist remnant in Colombia — would be self-destructive to U.S. interests.

That should be the message to Sen. Collins — and her mistakenly protectionist opponent, too. Let’s hope they see the light, and soon.

Everett Ellis Briggs is a retired diplomat and past president of the Council of the Americas.