Free trade has been receiving a bad rap lately. Barack Obama’s campaign has come out in full force against free trade. In addition to clumsily saying he would unilaterally renegotiate NAFTA (much to the chagrin of Canada and Mexico), during the third presidential debate Obama voiced opposition to the Colombian free trade agreement under the guise of “human rights.”

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe at the White House, Sept. 20, 2008

Yet according to a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, labor union members, the contingent against whom human rights abuses have been aggressively exercised, are now much safer under Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president, whose approval ratings hover around 80%. From 2002 to 2007, the years in which Uribe has held office, the number of murders of union members has plummeted 87%. Is this not impressive progress worth encouraging with a trade agreement? Moreover, as John McCain pointed out, the United States already allows imports from Colombia. The agreement would open even more markets during strenuous economic times.

In addition to snubbing the most staunch U.S. ally in the region, Obama asserted “there have not been prosecutions” of the murders of labor union members in 2006. Does Obama not know Uribe created a special investigative unit inside the attorney general’s office to handle union murders and that some 855 cases have open investigations, 179 security preventive detention measures have been issued, 61 cases are ready to be referred to court for trial, and 115 suspects have been convicted in 75 sentences? Clearly, he is either badly informed about the facts or pandering to the protectionist wing of his party.

Many Latin American nations have begun implementing effective economic reforms and they should be encouraged with free trade agreements, not undercut by protectionist policies. One of the most significant ways in which to promote freer trade is to lower some of the world’s highest tariffs, especially those between developing countries — and most of Latin America fits that category. For the United States, the economic and political costs of reneging on trade agreements and renegotiating existing agreements are very high. To shortchange Colombia, our strongest ally in the region, would be to give credence to the antagonists in Latin America who assert that America cannot be trusted and would be a golden opportunity lost for increased investment and prosperity.

Reopening NAFTA invites all kinds of additional costs detrimental to the economies to all parties involved; each would demand many changes and the costs would invariably increase for everyone. But would it create new jobs and bring manufacturers back to the U.S.? And what would it do to Mexico’s development and future prosperity?

It is time that uncritical opposition to free trade ends. The economic bene­fits of free trade derive in part from the fact that trading partners have different competitive advantages. Free trade is fair when countries with those different advantages are able to trade with minimal restrictions and capitalize on those differences. Labor and environmental measures are hidden forms of protectionism and will inevitably have their costs for business, investors and the U.S. consumer.