Peru, Colombia and Panama lobby for US free-trade pacts

Miami Herald | Tue, Apr. 24, 2007

Peru, Colombia and Panama lobby for U.S. free-trade pacts

BY PABLO BACHELET

As crunch time nears, Peru, Colombia and Panama have embarked on a nearly unprecedented lobbying effort to salvage their free-trade agreements with Washington.

On Monday, Peruvian President Alán García started a two-day visit to Washington aimed at charming U.S. lawmakers. Next week, Colombia’s embattled President Alvaro Uribe will make the rounds — his 10th trip to Washington since being elected in 2002. Panama is sending Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis Navarro shortly afterward.

All these delegations will call on the White House and the State Department, as is customary for such senior visitors.

But most of their activities will focus on Capitol Hill, people familiar with the visits say, as negotiations between key Democratic lawmakers and their Republican and administration counterparts enter the home stretch. The outcome could determine not only the fate of the three deals but the hemispheric trade agenda for years.

REGIONAL SUPPORT

The three countries also have hired top-notch lobbyists and pro-trade nations like Chile and Mexico have also offered to help. The pitch: Failure to approve the pacts would weaken U.S. standing in Latin America and hand anti-U.S. populists like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez a propaganda victory.

’’We’re at a critical juncture,’’ Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said during a Washington lobbying run of his own last week. ``We haven’t told the story as well as we should.’’

On Monday García at the White House with President Bush at his side, called passage of the trade pact ``vital.’’

’’It would help us keep and maintain a strong democracy,’’ added García, who narrowly defeated a candidate backed by Chávez.

Free-trade negotiations are typically difficult, protracted affairs, involving years of painstaking negotiations followed by tough votes in Congress. A free-trade pact with six Central American and Caribbean nations known as CAFTA passed by a two-vote margin in the House of Representatives in 2005.

But now Panama, Colombia and Peru must deal with Congress run by Democrats, who have long complained that the agreements negotiated by the Bush administration favor corporate interests and do little to advance labor or environmental rights.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and the head of the panel’s trade subcommittee, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), last month presented what they called a ’’new trade policy for America.’’ Levin said Congress was ``reasserting its constitutional authority to stand up for U.S. businesses, workers and farmers in the global marketplace.’’

Rangel and Levin, the point men on trade for Democrats, unveiled a list of demands that include everything from combatting global warming to appointing a U.S. ’’trade enforcer’’ targetting nations believed to be trading unfairly.

PLAYING POLITICS

Republicans and the Bush administration called the proposal a ’’positive step,’’ and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have been looking for a compromise.

Democrats and the AFL-CIO want all trade deals to include the so-called ’’core’’ standards of the International Labor Organization in the free-trade texts themselves. These include allowing workers to form a trade union and bar child labor. Until now, free-trade pacts negotiated by Bush only obligated nations to enforce their own laws.

Republicans and business interests argue this is a backdoor maneuver to force the United States to change its labor laws. Democrats and their allies say this is an exaggeration.

But pacts with Peru and Colombia have already been negotiated and, in Peru’s case, ratified by its legislature, so both nations have flatly refused to make any changes.

Panama and the United States left the labor chapters blank until an agreement is reached with Democrats. There’s talk of crafting a binding side agreement to placate Democrats.’

Such a side deal may help Peru and Panama, but Colombia faces the steep hurdles, observers say.

Uribe’s standing in Washington has taken a hit because of his political troubles back home. Former Vice President Al Gore, calling allegations in Colombia ’’deeply troubling’’, refused to attend a conference on global warming in Miami Friday when he learned Uribe would also invited to speak.

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source: Miami Herald