Sat, Jan 26, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Colombia needs FTA with US, Rice says

NOT A PRIORITY Colombian union leaders who oppose the free-trade deal claimed that violence against unionized workers is still too high, with 25 killed last year alone

AP , MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday that Colombia's problems could get worse unless the US Congress approves a free-trade deal with the world's most dangerous country for labor organizing.

Rice arrived in Colombia along with nine US Democratic lawmakers in a bid to revive the trade pact, which was first signed in 2006 but has not yet been passed by the US Congress.

"[I'm here] to say very strongly that whatever the challenges facing Colombia, they are not going to be easier if this free-trade deal does not pass," Rice said in the Andean nation's second-largest city, Medellin. "In fact they will be harder."

Rice and the US legislators met late on Thursday in Medellin with union leaders who oppose the deal to hear complaints that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has failed to stamp out violence, including murder, against their members.

"There's not a country in the world where the list of martyrs is as long as it is in Colombia," said Carlos Gutierrez, head of the CUT labor umbrella organization which represents Colombia's 530,000 unionized workers.

More than 700 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 2001, according to the government. The number murdered annually has fallen sharply since Uribe took office in 2002, but the 25 killed last year was still more than in any other country in the world. Only a small fraction of the killings have been solved.

Rice acknowledged that Colombia is still wracked by violence stemming from its half-century civil conflict, but said as a staunch ally and caretaker in the war on drugs, the country deserves continued US support.

"The Bush Administration's support for the free-trade deal is not because we believe that the Colombian story is perfect or complete, but because we believe that in the context of the growth and economic activity that the free-trade agreement will produce, Colombia will be better able to meet its problems," Rice said.

Rice said the deal would send "an important message not just for Colombia but for this whole region," many of whose leaders, cheered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, have grown weary of the sort of pro-market reforms favored by Washington.

The delegation was scheduled to meet yesterday with unions that support the trade deal and tour a flower farm that stands to benefit from permanent duty-free access to the US market. They'll also meet with Uribe before returning to Washington.

Rice's is the latest, highest-profile visit in a coordinated campaign by Colombia and the White House to win over skeptical Democrats. Nearly 70 other US congressmen have traveled to Colombia on similar fact-finding missions since last summer, led by high-ranking Bush administration officials like Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

Despite the full-court press, there's no indication a trade deal is imminent.

A Democratic staffer who follows the issue closely but spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly said "no vote on Colombia is planned."

US labor unions, major contributors to the Democratic presidential campaigns, have also vowed to fight the charm offensive.

"If you want to help Colombia, there's a lot better ways than sending Secretary Rice," Jeff Vogt, global economic policy specialist for the AFL-CIO, said. "The Democrats seem united over deep-rooted concerns about continuing violence and impunity in the country."

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