Rice wants free-trade pact with Colombia

MEDELLIN, Colombia &

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vowed Friday to continue fighting for a free trade agreement with Washington's staunchest ally in the region, despite skepticism from Democratic lawmakers over Colombia's efforts to curb violence against union members.

Rice, who was visiting Colombia with nine Democratic lawmakers in a bid to revive the trade pact, did not say whether the White House would follow through on threats to force a vote on the deal, which was signed by both countries in 2006 but still needs U.S. ratification.

"The legislative agenda we'll work on later," she said at a news conference alongside Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

"The issue now for us is to make available all the arguments for the agreement. To make clear ... that Colombia is doing the right things after many years of conflict," said Rice.

The secretary also dismissed suggestions that a lobbying campaign has anything to do with the Bush administration's differences with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"There's no ideological test for our friends," Rice said when asked whether Washington is pushing the trade deal to counter Chavez's regional influence. "We have many good friends who come from the left side of the political spectrum. What unites this hemisphere is a belief in democracy, security, economic prosperity and social justice."

Moments after Rice boarded a plane to return to Washington, Chavez accused her and the Colombians of plotting "a military aggression" against neighboring, oil-rich Venezuela. He provided no evidence.

In a 24-hour visit to Colombia's second-largest city, Medellin, Rice and the U.S. legislators met with union leaders who complained the Uribe government has not done enough to halt violence, including murder, that discourages labor organizing.

More than 700 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 2001, according to the government.

"There's not a country in the world where the list of martyrs is as long as it is in Colombia," said Carlos Gutierrez, head of the CUT labor umbrella organization, which represents Colombia's 530,000 unionized workers.

The annual number of murdered unionists has fallen sharply since Uribe took office in 2002, but the 25 killed in 2007 was still more than in any other country in the world. Only a small fraction of the killings have been solved.

During her visit Rice acknowledged that Colombia is still wracked by violence stemming from over four decades of armed conflict, but said it deserves continued U.S. support as a staunch ally and caretaker in the war on drugs.

Earlier she said that failing to pass the trade deal would hurt the U.S. image in Latin America, many of whose leaders &

cheered by Chavez &

have grown weary of the pro-market reforms favored by Washington.

"It would be a very big sign ... for the people of Colombia, not to mention the people of the region, that you do difficult things, you work hard, you bring your country back from the brink, and the United States doesn't deliver."

Rice's is the latest, highest-profile, visit in a coordinated campaign by Colombia and the White House to win over skeptical Democrats. Nearly 70 other U.S. congressmen have traveled to Colombia on similar fact-finding missions since last summer, led by high-ranking Bush administration officials like Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

But there's no indication a trade deal is imminent.

A Democratic congressional staffer who follows the issue closely but spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly told The Associated Press that "no vote on Colombia is planned."

U.S. labor unions, which are major contributors to the Democratic presidential campaigns, have also vowed to fight the charm offensive.

Congress ratified a free trade pact with Peru last year, but Vogt noted that it did not get a majority of House Democrats' votes.

The three front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination have come out against eliminating trade barriers for Colombia. The majority Democratic leadership in Congress also opposes the deal.


Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota.

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