Reuters | 24 May 2007
Colombia says will work with US Democrats on deal
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, May 24 (Reuters) — Colombia accepts proposed U.S. changes to a free trade agreement and is ready to take additional steps to address concerns of Democrats in Congress, the country’s vice president said on Thursday.
Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said "we will work hand-in-hand" with U.S. Democrats over concerns about a paramilitary scandal and violence against trade union members.
Colombia has "no problem whatsoever" accepting proposed labor, environmental and other changes to the agreement as a result of a deal reached earlier this month between the Bush administration and congressional Democrats, Santos said.
That deal satisfies a long-time Democratic party demand that labor and environmental provisions be enforced through the same mechanisms as commercial terms of the pact.
It binds the United States and free trade partners to abide by core international labor standards — such as freedom of association and the right to strike — as embodied in a 1998 International Labor Organization declaration.
The proposed "template" applies to pending trade deals with Colombia, Peru, Panama and South Korea.
However, senior Democrats have said Colombia must take additional steps to address concerns about a paramilitary scandal that has ensnared members of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s party and the country’s history of deadly violence against trade unionists with few prosecutions.
"Our message here is we will engage with the Democrats, certainly with the administration, to resolve the problem that they think needs to be resolved so they’ll have the political coverage to vote for this free trade agreement," Santos told reporters after a discussion at the Council of Americas, a Western Hemisphere business group.
But Santos also argued Colombia was already making progress on Democratic party concerns.
The paramilitary scandal, which has led to the jailing of members of Uribe’s party, is the result of a "truth process" underway in Colombia to unveil past crimes, Santos said.
"Nobody is above the law," Santos said, adding he has told Colombia’s attorney general to fully investigate allegations about his own links to paramilitary groups.
"I have no doubt there’s going to be a renovation of the political class in Colombia" after all the truth about past paramilitary activities emerges, Santos said.
He urged the U.S. Congress to consider the free trade agreement on its own merits. It’s rejection would tarnish the United States’ reputation in South America and be a blow for liberal democracy in the "huge battle for the political soul of the continent," Santos said.