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US Commerce Secy urges passing of LatAm trade pacts

San Diego Union Tribune, USA

U.S. Commerce Secy urges passing of LatAm trade pacts

By Walter Brandimarte

23 April 2007

Reuters/New York — Failure by the U.S. Congress to approve free trade agreements with Latin American countries will have “huge political consequences” in the region, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez warned Monday.

In a speech to a business group here, Gutierrez said Congress will “create an opportunity for those in the (Western) hemisphere who do not share democratic values” if it rejects pending trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and Peru.

“That would give them a great excuse to point to the fact that people cannot rely on our system and that we are not consistent partners with those countries,” Gutierrez said.

In an apparent reference to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he also criticized regional leaders who follow what he called the “Cuban model.” Gutierrez did not mention Chavez’ name.

U.S. approval of the trade agreements has become uncertain as members of Congress, businesses and labor groups have clashed over a labor provision introduced by Democrats requiring trade partners to “adopt, maintain, and enforce basic international labor standards in their domestic laws and practices.”

Gutierrez said Congress should not “change the essence” of a trade agreement to include labor clauses.

“If we are trying to help workers in Colombia, the best thing we can do for them is to give them a free trade agreement,” he said, arguing that the pact would be a good deal for workers anyway.

Congress should speed up approval of trade agreements, Gutierrez said, because Latin America is at a crossroads and the United States is under pressure to prove that its ”equal-opportunities” system works better than models of ”poverty distribution.”

“Some countries are making a great deal of progress and other countries are frankly stuck in the old model,” he added.