By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Trade Representative
Ron Kirk has not yet delivered on a promise made five months
ago to give Colombia a detailed plan for resolving issues
blocking approval of a long-stalled free trade agreement, U.S.
trade officials acknowledged Thursday.
The delay raises questions about how hard President Barack
Obama is prepared to fight for the pact, which is fiercely
opposed by the AFL-CIO labor federation, an important
Democratic party constituent.
Although Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco met
Thursday with Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro,
that was just a "courtesy call" ahead of Barco's return to
Colombia next month, said Ngenke Harmon, a spokeswoman for the
The meeting came just a few days after Colombia's new
president, Jose Manuel Santos, took office, an event that some
see as a chance for the two countries to make a fresh start at
resolving labor concerns blocking U.S. congressional approval
of the four-year-old trade deal.
But Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of
Americas, a business group that strongly supports the
agreement, said he feared Congress might not vote on it until
after the 2012 presidential election.
Obama has already made a high-profile pledge to win
approval of a stalled free trade deal with South Korea over the
opposition of many in his party.
He may not have the political capital to make another big
push on behalf of Colombia, Farnsworth said.
Still, the departure of former Colombian President Alvaro
Uribe could remove one obstacle, since many U.S. opponents of
the agreement deeply disliked the close ally of former U.S.
President George W. Bush, he said.
Also, Santos is "more pragmatic" and "less ideologically
bound than Uribe," so it may be easier for him to work with
the Obama administration, Farnsworth said.
Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO, said the
issue was more complex than who is Colombia's president.
"The best things Santos can do are to take labor law reform
seriously and work on making the judiciary branch more
effective," Lee said.
$2.94 BILLION AND RISING
The United States and Colombia signed the trade pact in
November 2006, the same month Democrats won control of the
Senate and the House of Representatives and a few months after
Barco came to Washington as Colombia's ambassador.
When Barco returns home next month, she will be replaced by
Gabriel Silva, a former Colombia minister of defense.
The pact would eliminate tariffs on U.S. exports to
Colombia and require that country to make a number of other
reforms favorable to U.S. businesses.
Colombia already has duty-free access to the United States
under a U.S. trade preference program. But approval of the
trade deal would help it attract more U.S. investment.
The Latin American Trade Coalition estimates that failure
to approve the pact has cost U.S. exporters $2.94 billion in
tariffs on Colombia goods over past 1,360 days.
Kirk told the Senate Finance Committee on March 3 that he
hoped in "the next several months" to give Colombia "a finite
list of what we'd like see get done" to resolve U.S. concerns
about anti-labor violence in Colombia.
"I think in fairness to Colombia we ought to give them a
workable list of legislative and other issues that we can
manage through, rather than just deal with the raw emotion of
those who say we would never do the agreement," Kirk said.
He said his office was crafting a set of legislative
proposals and judicial reforms that it would like Colombia to
enact to guarantee the rights of workers to organize and
maintain unions without the threat of violence.
Five months later, USTR is still "working with Congress and
stake-holders" on those proposals, Harmon said.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue,
a Washington-based think tank focused on Latin American
affairs, said there was a real risk that Colombia could lose
interest in the pact as it looks for greener pastures in Europe
and elsewhere in Latin America.
"For all of Santos' knowledge of Washington, his foreign
policy seems to lie elsewhere. Colombians are tired of
often-futile visits to Washington aimed at convincing U.S.
lawmakers they should back the trade deal," Shifter said in an
op-ed piece in the Washington Post.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Walsh)