Colombia President Alvaro Uribe pressed on Friday for the U.S. Congress
to quickly approve a bilateral free-trade agreement that was sidelined
in April by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“The sooner we get approval, the sooner we are going to get
much more investment in Colombia,” Uribe said in a speech at
the National Press Club on the first of a two-day personal
lobbying campaign to boost chances for the deal.
“Growing investment is the best alternative to illegal
drugs, and never forget: illegal drugs are the nutrition of
terrorists in our country,” Uribe said, referring to Colombia’s
decades-old guerrilla insurgency.
Uribe said he spoke by telephone Thursday with
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has been
opposed to the Colombia pact.
“It was a constructive telephone conversation,” Uribe said,
adding it would not be prudent for him to say whether Obama
said he would be open to a vote on the pact this year.
Obama, like many other Democrats, has insisted Colombia
must do more to reduce murders and other violence against trade
unionists before Congress votes on the pact.
An Obama campaign spokesman did not respond immediately to
a request for comment on the phone call.
Around a hundred union and human rights activists were
outside the press club to protest Uribe’s speech. They carried
signs and chanted “Human rights, yes. FTA, no.”
Republican presidential candidate John McCain visited
Colombia in July in a show of support for the free-trade
agreement and for Uribe, a staunch U.S. ally.
The deal was signed in November 2006, over the protests of
many Democrats who just a few weeks before had won an election
that would give them control of the House and the Senate.
President Bush submitted the agreement to
Congress in April, but Pelosi responded by pushing through a
vote to indefinitely delay action on the pact.
However, Colombia still hopes Congress will approve the
agreement in a possible “lame duck” session after the Nov. 4
congressional and presidential elections.
Pelosi has said Congress can only vote on the agreement
after it passes a second economic stimulus package and
legislation to reform and expand a federal assistance program
for workers who have lost their job because of import
competition or factories moving overseas.
Uribe’s schedule on Friday included a meeting with three
American contractors who were rescued by Colombian soldiers
along with French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt in
July after years in leftist rebel captivity.
Uribe will meet with Bush at the White House Saturday,
giving them another chance to urge congressional action.
Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said Thursday
there was no chance the Colombia agreement or two other free
trade pacts with South Korea and Panama would be approved
before a new U.S. president is in office next year.
Uribe defended his administration’s record in reducing
murders, kidnappings and other violence, but said the country
still had much more work to do to solve those problems.
He urged Congress to temporarily extend unilateral trade
benefits for Colombia that expire at the end of the year, but
said that was not a good substitute for passing the pact.
Uribe, who will be in New York next week for the U.N.
General Assembly meeting, scolded Wall Street rating agencies
for not recognizing what he said is the progress Colombia has
made in tackling economic problems.
“I don’t understand why the international rating agencies
haven’t returned to Colombia the investment grade,” Uribe said. (Reuters)