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Latin trade crucial

A former Costa Rican ambassador is trying to make Congress understand that the United States has an obligation to help improve the lives of millions in Latin America and the best way is through free-trade agreements.

“This is a promise the U.S. cannot afford to abandon or circumvent, particularly in Colombia, without incurring costly negative consequences,”Jaime Daremblumsaid ata hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Daremblum, ambassador here from 1998 to 2004, also urged Congress to approve trade agreements for Peru and Panama.

Democratic control of both the House and Senate has jeopardized the deal with Colombia, with some Democrats accusing the government of President Alvaro Uribe of failing to prevent the killings of several union leaders and to control paramilitary groups.

President Bush praised Mr. Uribe as a “true democrat, strong leader and a friend” of the United States, when they held talks in May at the White House. Mr. Bush also urged Congress to pass the free-trade pact.

Mr. Daremblum noted that Mr. Uribe's government is addressing the “mistakes and abuses committed” in Colombia’s long-running war against communist rebels and drug traffickers.

He also cited figures to show that 18 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean “were able to escape from the poorest ranks of society” over the past three years, partially because of free-trade agreements.

Mr. Daremblum argued that more trade with the United States will help democratic forces regain ground where they have lost to authoritarian leaders, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. He also warned of the dangers of Mr. Chavez creating stronger ties with Iran.

“President Hugo Chavez does not fool many anymore as to the true nature of his ideas and practices,” he said. “What is not widely known is Chavez’s current role in aiding and abetting Iran to expand its presence in Latin American and the Caribbean.”

Mr. Daremblum said the Bush administration wisely decided to change tactics in dealing with Mr. Chavez by avoiding “rhetorical confrontations” with him.

“The truth of the matter is that Chavez craves and seeks to provoke confrontations because it enhances his image among some sectors of Venezuela and other nations,” he said.

Mr. Daremblum, now director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, warned the House Foreign Affairs Committee that democracy in Latin America remains vulnerable and that free trade can help those who support human rights and the rule of law.

“Let us not lose track of the fact that there is indeed a battle going on in Latin America, a battle for democratic rule, for fundamental human rights, a battle of hearts and minds of the young and many others,” he said.

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