Hostage rescue may not free U.S.-Colombia trade deal
3 July 2008
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Colombia’s dramatic rescue of hostages held for years by a rebel group probably won’t lead to quick approval of a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement that has been snagged for months in the U.S. Congress.
"Politically, it’s just not in the cards," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank focused on Western Hemisphere affairs.
Colombia soldiers posing as aid workers tricked the4-decade-old FARC guerrilla group into releasing Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and 11 other hostages on Wednesday.
The rescue raised White House hopes that House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi might reconsider her opposition to the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement and schedule a vote soon on the pact.
"One of the concerns that she said she’s had has been security in Colombia," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We maintain that President (Alvaro) Uribe, since elected — since he was elected — has done a tremendous job of improving security there in Colombia."
Although Pelosi applauds the rescue, it doesn’t reduce longstanding concerns she has had about violence facing union workers in Colombia, Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.
Also, she still believes Congress and the Bush administration must do more to boost the U.S. economy before turning to the Colombia trade pact, Elshami said.
The rescue is a "wonderful thing obviously," said Thea Lee, policy director for the AFL-CIO labor federation, which has strongly fought the U.S. Colombia free trade deal.
"It doesn’t change the critique that we had of the challenges facing Colombia workers — the ongoing violence, death threats and impunity," Lee said.
There have been 31 trade unionists murdered in Colombia this year, compared to 39 in all of 2007, she said.
The Bush administration argues killings have dropped dramatically since Uribe took office in 2002 and that delaying a vote on the Colombia deal mainly hurts U.S. exporters.
"What gets lost in this whole debate" is that Colombia already has duty-free access to the U.S. market under a 17-year-old trade preference program, said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.
Blocking a vote only denies U.S. exporters from getting the same treatment in Colombia market, Spicer said.
The rescue "shows how diminished the FARC is, how successful the Uribe strategy has been," Hakim said. "But this is a trade issue."
The next president will probably have to reopen negotiations on labor issues with Colombia to win approval of the free trade agreement, he said.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)