- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Obama administration on Wednesday struck a deal with Colombia on a long-stalled free-trade pact, in a move that could shore up a critical U.S. ally in South America and end a stalemate on Capitol Hill over another, much larger trade deal with South Korea.

News of the deal, which Mr. Obama will discuss with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Washington on Thursday, comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-Colombia relations. Mr. Obama avoided the nation on a trip last month to Latin America and, in a blow to the Justice Department, Mr. Santos recently decided to extradite a U.S.-designated drug “kingpin” to Venezuela instead of New York City, where he’s wanted on federal drug charges.

The White House said the two leaders will also complete a side agreement on labor issues that will clear the way for Mr. Obama to submit the deal to Congress. Republicans have been eagerly awaiting the trade deal, saying it could mark a rare area of bipartisan cooperation, while many Democrats have warned the president against the deal.

“At a time when so much legislation in Congress faces a steep hurdle to become law, the idea is to stimulate the economy and do so in a way that doesn’t add to the deficit,” said John Murphy, vice president of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The good news is we seem to have found a consensus here on these trade agreements.”

Regional experts said the deal also cements U.S. ties with one of its most important allies in South America at a critical time when Mr. Santos, who has been in office for about eight months, has been easing strained relations with anti-U.S. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

** FILE ** Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, seen here conferring with President Obama in New York in September, are to meet again in Washington to complete a side agreement on labor issues to a free-trade pact. (Associated Press)
** FILE ** Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, seen here conferring with ... more >

But Mr. Santos’ handling of a reputed drug trafficker could put a strain on ties with Washington. The Colombian leader told Univision this week that he plans to extradite accused drug trafficker Walid Makled Garcia, a Venezuelan citizen arrested in Colombia last summer with the help of U.S. drug agents, to Venezuela instead of the U.S.

Mr. Makled claims to have extensive evidence of high-level corruption throughout the Chavez regime, which has been deepening its ties with other U.S. adversaries, such as Iran.

Joel Hirst, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the timing of the trade breakthrough is a “shame.”

“It comes when President Obama has made an important political concession, which undoubtedly ruffles the feathers of his base, while President Santos is not willing to do the same with his extradition decision” for Mr. Makled, Mr. Hirst said.

Many of Mr. Obama’s liberal and labor union allies said they were disappointed by Wednesday’s news, saying that the added labor protections don’t go far enough.

“This action plan is simply a way for the administration to seek political cover as they push this flawed agreement,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, Maine Democrat.

Colombian officials have long hit back against such criticism, saying violence in the country — including against union leaders — has largely been eradicated.

“That’s part of the past,” Diego Molano Vega, the Colombian minister of information technologies and communication, told The Washington Times in an interview. “That doesn’t mean Colombia had a plan against the unions. We all were victims.”

The White House offered no timeline on approving the Colombia trade agreement. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the administration would like Congress to deal separately with each of the three pending trade deals, with Colombia, South Korea and Panama.

American exports to Colombia topped $12 billion in 2010. Administration officials said the deal, first negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, could expand U.S. exports by more than $1 billion.

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