Colombia exports seen close to $40 billion

BOGOTA Thu May 6, 2010 5:39pm EDT

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's total exports should rise to close to $40 billion this year, breaking previous record of $37 billion set by the Andean country in 2008, Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata said on Thursday.

Exports, which reached almost $33 billion in 2009, are rising on commodity prices, the U.S. economic recovery and diversification of exports that once went to Venezuela before a diplomatic dispute battered sales of Colombian products.

"Colombia is having a very good year, it is having a good run," Plata said in Bogota as part of the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit.

"I believe if we keep up the same trend (as the first quarter) then we will have close to $40 billion despite the fall in Venezuela, which was 70 percent in the first quarter," he said.

The value of Colombian exports rose 19.4 percent in the first quarter of this year, especially on better prices and volumes of oil shipments while non-traditional exports, such as textiles, bananas and flowers, were basically flat.

Colombia's exports do not represent even 20 percent of the $230 billion estimated GDP of the country, a top coffee exporter and now Latin America's No. 4 oil producer and increasing an attraction for mining companies.

The low ratio is mainly because of a lack of infrastructure development, roadways and airports and the few trade deals so far concluded. Foreign investment has also only begun to come back to Colombia in the last few years as security improved and the country's long guerrilla war waned.

As well as the global crisis in 2009, Colombia has managed to deal with the dispute with neighboring Venezuela after Colombian exporters sent a record $6 billion in goods to the neighboring country in 2008.

TRADE 'EMBARGO'

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has restricted imports of Colombian goods in a dispute over a Colombian government deal to allow U.S. troops more access to its bases as part of cooperation against rebels and cocaine traffickers.

Chavez, a fierce adversary of U.S. influence in Latin America, says the deal is part of a Washington-based plot to attack his OPEC nation. Colombia dismisses those charges.

Plata said Venezuela was imposing more and more restrictions on Colombian goods and there was little sign the measures will be lifted soon. Venezuela has restricted access to permits, licenses and to hard currency under its strict capital controls, exporters say.

But the hit from a reduction in exports to Venezuela has been eased by increasing sales to the United States, Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Peru and China.

"There are diplomatic relations, but there is no dialogue open and we are seeing the trade restrictions are worse each moment, whether it is through permits, access or availability of currency," he said.

Plata and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe have described the measures as a trade "embargo".

The minister said that he expected the free trade agreement with Canada to be approved this year, but saw it unlikely that a long-awaited free trade agreement with the United States was about to be approved.

Democrats in the U.S. Congress have resisted signing the agreement for Colombia, saying they want to see more done to protect Colombian labor leaders from violence. But Colombia says the U.S. has still not been clear on what concrete actions it has to take to appease those concerns.

Plata blamed the delay on the electoral process in the Congress and what he called the "slowness" of U.S. President Barack Obama's trade policy.

"I see the trade policy of the United States is pretty much blocked," he said. "President Obama talks about free trade agreements and doubling exports but in practice we see little movement."

(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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