Debates about free trade mostly revolve around economics, for obvious reasons. And certainly the fact that passing the Columbian Free Trade Agreement will create more jobs here and give Americans access to a broader array of goods at lower prices is reason for policymakers to support the bill. But it is often overlooked that trade agreements also have an important role to play in public diplomacy. Trade agreements build better relations and are a kind of reward to our allies since they also gain access to American consumers. This is especially true for Columbia an imnportant ally in a region increasingly dominated by American-hating Hugo Chavez.

Robert Novak writes today about how labor is derailing the agreement and that American labor unions are effectively being influenced by the Chavez regime itself:

Colombia has fought a long, successful battle against leftist guerillas supported and financed by Chavez. As a faithful U.S. ally, Uribe has been astounded by the fate of the trade agreement. Since it was signed in November 2006, not one congressional hearing has been held. To please Democrats, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab has gone back to Bogota and won changes on labor and environmental issues. Even now, she is willing to add trade adjustment subsidies for displaced workers in quest of a bipartisan deal. But nothing budges labor.

Schwab’s pleas to Democrats are about bread and butter. The agreement removes a $200,000 tariff on Caterpillar off-road tractors going into Colombia, producing thousands of jobs for Americans. Under the Andean Trade Preference Act recently extended by Congress, Colombia has nearly total duty-free access into the United States, but the AFL-CIO insists it cannot approve the agreement because of the way Colombian unions are persecuted.

A rare insight into what the Uribe regime really thinks is going on was provided me by Vice President Francisco Santos on one of the many trips to Washington by senior Colombian officials to court congressional support. Santos told me Chavez’s controlled labor unions in Venezuela are in close touch with Colombia’s leftist unions, who in turn influence the AFL-CIO. Thus, the labor intransigence in Washington can be traced to Caracas.

The turn away from free trade is alarming. A huge step backward for our economy and for our ability to positively influence the rest of the world. Liberal–especially students on college campus who tend to thoughtlessly jump on the anti-trade bandwagon–should consider what message this sends to the rest of the world.