BOGOTA (Reuters) - Canada started trade talks with Colombia on Monday and pledged full support for President Alvaro Uribe, who has seen his key bilateral relationship with the United States bog down in a scandal over human rights.
In a thinly veiled slap at U.S. congressional Democrats who oppose a trade deal with Colombia due to rights concerns, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper used a trip to Bogota to present himself as a steadier ally.
"We are not going to say fix all your social, political and human rights problems and only then will we engage in trade relations with you. That's a ridiculous position," Harper said in a media conference with Uribe at his side.
Uribe's international standing has been damaged by a scandal in which some of his closest political allies are in jail awaiting trial for helping paramilitary death squads.
But Harper, in the first state visit by a Canadian leader to Colombia, backed Uribe's efforts at ending the country's decades-old guerrilla war and fostering economic growth.
"When we see a country like Colombia that has decided to address its social, political and economic problems in an integrated way, that wants to embrace democracy and human rights, then we say, 'We're in,'" he said.
Uribe is popular at home for his tough security policies, which he says are setting the stage for prosperity in a country where about half the population lives in poverty.
Colombia has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid to crack down on the cocaine trade. Democrats in control of the U.S. Congress are toughening conditions on that aid and oppose a trade pact due in part to the fact that the Andean country leads the world in labor murders.
Uribe's former state security chief is accused of providing a death list of trade union leaders to paramilitary hit men.
Harper's visit comes as many Colombians feel betrayed by the United States for not backing the trade pact.
"This gives Canada an opportunity to come in and assure Colombia that it is a loyal ally," said Michael Shifter of Washington-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.
Harper's swing through Latin America, which he wants to use to increase Canada's influence in the region despite skepticism at home, includes stops in Chile, Barbados and Haiti.