- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is in Washington asking Congress to approve a pending free-trade deal with his country.

The request comes as Congress prepares to end its session, and the United States is distracted by a financial crisis and a presidential election campaign in which free trade is a delicate issue.

“We have hope that at any moment we can have the approval in the United States Congress of our free-trade agreement,” Mr. Uribe said Friday during a speech at the Brookings Institution. Later, speaking at the National Press Club, he said a job-generating free-trade deal with Washington would itself be a partial corrective to Colombia‘s violent drug trade.

“The sooner we get approval, the sooner we get investment,” he said. “And investment is the best alternative to illegal drugs.”

President Bush submitted the agreement to Congress in April, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indefinitely delayed action on the pact over what she said were human rights concerns.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain — historically a free-trade backer — met with Mr. Uribe in Colombia earlier this year. Mr. Uribe told reporters that he recently spoke to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama by phone, but offered few details. He described the talk as a “constructive telephone conversation.”

“I know how difficult it is to talk about politics in times of hot politics,” he said.

Backers say Colombia deserves free trade for standing beside the U.S. in a region that has tilted ideologically away from Washington. They praise Colombia’s role in using U.S. tax dollars to fight coca and cocaine production, and they note that Mr. Uribe this year presided over the dramatic rescue of several hostages, including three American defense contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Bettencourt, who had been held by leftist FARC guerrillas.

On Wednesday, speaking to reporters in Washington, Colombia’s trade minister, Luis Plata, pointed out that his government has reduced violence, increased protections for union leaders, boosted judicial capacity and spurred economic growth by signing several trade deals with Canada and European nations.

“We are often reminded by the U.S. that we are its most important ally in the region,” Mr. Plata, said. “So if other countries like Mexico and Peru can have free-trade deals, why can’t we?”

But free-trade opponents and critics of Mr. Uribe’s government cite killings of Colombian union leaders and allegations that the government has ties to right-wing paramilitary groups that fought leftist FARC guerrillas but are themselves accused of human rights violations and drug trafficking. In recent days, a top Colombian general was indicted for purportedly funneling arms to such groups.

Mr. Uribe, who is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly next week, also threw a barb at Wall Street rating agencies, saying they should recognize his country’s progress in toning down inflation and implementing economic reforms.

“I don’t understand why the international rating agencies haven’t returned to Colombia the investment grade,” he said.

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