Reuters | Mon Feb 23, 2009
INTERVIEW: IADB chief urges Obama act on Colombia deal
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Feb 23 (Reuters) — President Barack Obama should signal his support for open trade at the Summit of the Americas meeting in April by laying out a plan for Congress to approve a free trade pact with Colombia, the head of the Inter-American Development Bank said on Monday.
"It would be a great thing to come to that meeting with that issue resolved, or at least a path towards how to resolve it," Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, said in an interview.
The United States and Colombia signed a free trade deal in November 2006, but U.S. Democratic Party concerns about a long history of unsolved murders of trade unionists in Colombia has blocked approval of the agreement.
Moreno was Colombia’s ambassador to the United States when the two countries began talks on the free trade pact in May 2004. He has headed the IADB since July 2005.
Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaime Bermudez, Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos and other Colombian officials will be in Washington this week to lobby the Obama administration and Congress for the trade deal as well as continued U.S. military aid.
The agreement is also expected to be on the minds of many regional leaders when Obama travels to Trinidad in April for the Summit of the Americas meeting.
President George W. Bush’s administration bowed to pressure from congressional Democrats and renegotiated the Colombian trade agreement in mid-2007 to include stronger labor and environmental provisions.
But Obama and many other Democrats continued to oppose the pact on the grounds that Colombia had not done enough to reduce violence against labor leaders or to solve thousands of murders of trade unionists over the past two decades
Colombian officials say they have made great progress in reducing all types of violence since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002 and have also been one of the United States’ strongest allies in the region.
"I think everybody understands the complexity of what’s going on politically in the U.S. in dealing with this challenge. But it’s also very important for the U.S. to show that you can have an agreement and comply with them and move forward," Moreno said.
U.S. approval of the trade deal with Colombia, and a second one with Panama, would send a positive message to the region at a time when the world economic crisis has created a "huge fear" that countries will turn protectionist, Moreno said.
Obama is "not perceived as a free trader" in Latin America because of statements he made during last year’s campaign, Moreno said. But "I think President Obama has demonstrated he’s a very pragmatic man. ... He understands that trade is a very important part of the world economy," Moreno said. (Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton)