Colombia works to escape its past

For Colombian exporters such as Valencia, a delay in approving the deal would subject their products to duties of 16% to 22%, effectively pricing them out of the American market. Just the uncertainty about future tariffs has led some U.S. companies to trim orders here. A local jeans manufacturer recently laid off 400 workers after a major U.S. customer switched to a supplier in another country, Valencia says. U.S. imports of Colombian apparel in July totaled $34.7 million, down more than 28% from July 2006.

In the company's factory here, rows of young women wearing khaki smocks churn out men's and boys' suits by the thousands. If Congress OKs the trade deal, Valencia envisions boosting daily output to 3,000 suits, 50% above current levels, and hiring 500 more workers. He frets that U.S. concerns about anti-union violence will derail those plans. "The business community has nothing to do with that violence," he says.

Economists such as Alejandro Gaviria of the Universidad de los Andes say the economy will do fine without the trade deal. Sergio Fajardo, the popular U.S.-educated mayor of Medellin, agrees. He says the deal's fate ultimately will say more about Colombia's ability to depend upon the U.S. to help repair its fractured society than about its future commercial prosperity.

"If we don't sign the free-trade deal, we are not going to die. (But) the problem gets worse for sure," he says. "And what do we have friends for? To make the problems worse? Our friends should help us to make things better. … We need you to help us solve the problems."

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