US, Colombia set free trade deal

White House hails protections for unions, workers

By Julie Pace
Associated Press / April 7, 2011

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WASHINGTON — After weeks of intense negotiations, the United States and Colombia have reached a deal on a free trade pact that the White House says is a vital part of President Obama’s economic agenda.

The administration said the agreement came together after the Colombians agreed to offer greater protections for workers and union leaders, an area of key concern for the United States. It estimates the pact will boost US exports to Colombia by more than $1 billion per year and could support thousands of American jobs.

The deal has bipartisan support in Congress, which must approve the agreement before it can be implemented. Republican lawmakers have used the pact as a political bargaining chip, threatening to block the confirmation of a new commerce secretary and hold up final passage of another trade deal with South Korea if the administration did not finalize a pact with Colombia, as well as another pending agreement with Panama.

Completing the Colombia deal could increase pressure on the Panamanian government to address outstanding issues that remain in those negotiations, administration officials said. US concerns are focused on the transparency of tax laws there, though officials say Panama will probably pass a tax-information exchange agreement that could end the stalemate this month.

Under the agreement with Colombia, 80 percent of consumer and industrial products the US exports to Colombia will become duty-free, with the remaining tariffs phased out over the next 10 years. More than half of US agriculture exports to Colombia would also become duty-free, with almost all tariffs eliminated within 15 years.

Colombia is the third largest economy in Central and South America and was set to implement trade pacts with Canada and the European Union. The administration said finalizing the deal now was crucial to helping the United States keep an economic foothold in the country.

The White House said Obama would meet with Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, today in Washington to formally approve the agreement.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, welcomed the breakthrough with the Colombians but said the deal did nothing to change his party’s insistence that the administration finalize all three outstanding trade agreements before Congress approves any of the pacts.

“All three agreements need to be sent up together,’’ Hatch said. “We need to begin implementing work on all three agreements immediately.’’

The United States signed the three pacts in 2007 under President George W. Bush. But the then-Democratic-led Congress never brought the agreements up for vote, giving the Obama administration time to renegotiate areas it found objectionable.

The key concerns in the negotiations focused on high rates of violence against Colombian labor leaders and insufficient protections for workers’ rights. Under the new deal, the Colombian government will phase in an action plan throughout the year aimed at increasing protections for labor, enacting tougher measures that criminalize actions that limit workers’ rights, including the right to organize.

Many US labor organizations have opposed the deal on the basis of Colombia’s treatment of unions, and yesterday a lawyer for the United Steelworkers called news of the amended Colombia pact “devastating.’’