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Uribe, back in Washington, lobbies for trade accord

Uribe, Back in Washington, Lobbies for Trade Accord (Update1)

By Helen Murphy

7 June 2007

(Bloomberg) — Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will press reluctant U.S. lawmakers today for a free-trade accord as concern mounts at home that without a treaty, the country may see resurgent rebel violence and drug trafficking.

Uribe, on his second trip to the U.S. in a month, will seek to persuade the Democratic-led Congress in Washington to affirm an agreement that may add $1.5 billion to $16 billion of annual trade between the U.S. and Colombia. To win approval for the deal, Uribe must allay concerns of some U.S. lawmakers that he has failed to stop death-squad killings of union organizers.

Growth spurred by the accord will divert farmers from raising coca, the base product for cocaine, and curb drug trafficking, Uribe says. Failure to get a deal will trim investment, shrinking the job market and pushing under-employed rural workers to join guerrilla and paramilitary rebels, said Rafael Mejia, president of Colombia’s farming association.

``Economically, this free-trade agreement is meaningless for the U.S. but very important for Colombia,’’ Uribe, 54, said in an interview at his office in the presidential palace this week. ``Politically, it’s very important for the U.S. because Colombia is a good brother of the Latin countries and a loyal ally of the U.S.’’

Some Democrats, such as Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts, say Colombia first must improve its human-rights record and solve hundreds of murders of trade union workers.

``Uribe has come back to Washington too soon. Come back next year and let’s see what they have done,’’ Janice Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said.

Clinton Award

Uribe will meet Democratic representatives Charles Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade measures, and Sander Levin, head of the panel’s trade subcommittee, as well as Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican congressmen Frank Wolf and Roy Blunt.

Tomorrow, Uribe will present former President Bill Clinton with an award in New York at an event titled ``Colombia Is Passion.’’

The George W. Bush administration and Democratic leadership in Congress agreed last month to tighten provisions on labor, the environment and patent rights in the four free-trade deals pending in Congress. The changes should win approval for the Peru and Panama deals, and may get the Colombian and South Korean treaties considered.

Colombia expects to ratify the accord signed with the U.S. in November by June 20.

Should it fail, Colombia is likely to get an extension of its Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act, Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata said.

’Dangerous Place’

Since Uribe took office in 2002, only seven convictions have resulted from the murders of 400 trade union workers, according to Thea Lee, director of policy at the AFL-CIO, the biggest labor federation in the U.S.

``Colombia is still the most dangerous place in the world to be a union member,’’ McGovern said in a telephone interview from Washington. ``Uribe’s words aren’t enough, action is what’s needed.’’

Uribe also will probably face questions about how paramilitary leaders infiltrated Colombia’s Congress and had an agreement by which lawmakers supported fighters in return for votes.

Uribe, who visited Washington in May, says he’s taking a hard line against right-wing paramilitary forces and left-wing guerillas and cracking down on drug cartels.

``With regard to Colombia, the administration and Congress share concern about violence — as does the government of Colombia, which has done so much in recent years to address it,’’ U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said this week.

Union Killings

Lee, of the AFL-CIO, said more labor leaders are killed in Colombia each year than in the rest of the world combined.

``Our country has no business starting a free-trade agreement with Colombia,’’ she said in an interview. ``This is not a political football. It’s a serious issue, and there are just too many dead bodies.’’

Nine union workers have been killed this year, said Apecides Alviz Fernandez, president of the Confederation of Colombian Workers.

``President Uribe, President Bush, and some members of congress want to reward Colombia with a free trade agreement,’’ said Democratic Congressman Philip Hare today. ``Let me say-with an obvious dose of irony; over my dead body.’’

For Mejia and his farm groups, failure to ratify the accord would be a missed opportunity. Even organizations such as the National Federation of Colombian Poultry Farmers, which opposes the agreement’s terms because it fears imports, say it’s needed.

’Infinite Sales’

``Rejection would damage international investment totally,’’ federation President Jorge Bedoya said in an interview.

Gustavo Catano, a partner at Defrescura, which grows and sells pre-packaged vegetables, said his sales would be ``infinite’’ with a trade agreement.

Defrescura, with about $6 million in annual sales, expects to boost U.S. exports to 25 percent of total sales next year from 15 percent. A free-trade accord would be ``a massive window of opportunity,’’ Catano said in an interview from his packing plant in Bogota.

Should Congress reject the agreement, ``the Colombian people would likely say that Uribe bowed to the U.S., and it turned its back on him,’’ Mejia said. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ``will certainly try and fill the gap,’’ he added.