Colombia scandals cloud trade deal - US senator
By Doug Palmer
3 May 2007
WASHINGTON, May 3 (Reuters) - Colombia must resolve U.S. concerns about a paramilitary scandal and the unsolved murders of trade unionists if it wants Congress to approve a free trade agreement, a spokesman for the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday.
"Until those issues are resolved, we’re not going to get into whether the FTA is going to be approved or not. Those are two areas of concern for us and for other members of Congress," Federico de Jesus, a spokesman for Reid, told Reuters.
Reid and several other senators met on Wednesday with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who has been in Washington to push for approval of the free trade deal and more U.S military and counter-narcotics aid under the Plan Colombia program.
Uribe met on Thursday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, who issued a statement expressing concern about the paramilitary scandal without making a direct reference to the fate of the free trade agreement.
"Many of us expressed our growing concerns about the serious allegations of connections between illegal paramilitary forces and a number of high-ranking Colombian officials," Pelosi said.
"It is essential that the Colombian government investigate and prosecute such officials, including those at high levels."
Uribe has used billions of dollars in U.S. aid to reduce violence by taking on drug-trafficking rebels and negotiating a peace deal to disarm thousands of paramilitaries who fought them.
At the same time, eight pro-Uribe lawmakers have been arrested for colluding with paramilitaries responsible for some of the worst massacres during Colombia’s decades-old conflict.
U.S. labor and human rights groups object to the free trade pact with Colombia.
The AFL-CIO labor federation says more than 400 unionists have been murdered since Uribe took office in 2002, with only seven convictions. Of the 236 murdered from 2004 to 2006, there has been only one conviction, the AFL-CIO said.
Reid and other lawmakers want an end to impunity for the murderers of trade unionists and strong steps to prevent further killings, de Jesus said.
Uribe has defended his government’s efforts to rein in paramilitary groups and reduce murders of union members but said Colombia was willing to do even more to persuade the Democratic-led U.S. Congress to pass the trade agreement.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat whose panel oversees trade, said he saw some hope for approval of the agreement.
"It is possible we can work out something" so that Congress could keep close tabs on whether Colombia was addressing the concerns of U.S. lawmakers, Rangel said.