U.S., Colombia talks making "good progress"

WASHINGTON Wed Mar 30, 2011 4:59pm EDT

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk speaks during a Reuters interview in Mexico City February 8, 2010. REUTERS/Henry Romero

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk speaks during a Reuters interview in Mexico City February 8, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Henry Romero

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Colombia are moving toward an agreement in talks on anti-union violence in Colombia that has blocked approval of a free trade deal, the top U.S. trade official said on Wednesday.

"We're making very good progress," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the Reuters Latin American Summit. "We're very encouraged with what we've heard from the Colombians thus far."

During his recent trip to South America, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to resolve issues blocking the trade deal with Colombia and another with Panama in order "to present them to Congress this year," Kirk said.

The administration of former President George W. Bush negotiated the trade deal with Colombia, which the countries signed in November 2006.

But Democrats, who won control of Congress in elections the same month, objected strongly to the pact on the grounds that then-President Alvaro Uribe had not taken strong enough steps to protect workers' rights and killings of union leaders by paramilitaries and other right-wing groups.

"We did believe it was important that we address the continued concern ... over what many believe is targeted violence against labor leaders and the absence of any real mechanism to protect their basic rights and hold accountable those who have perpetrated that violence," Kirk said.

"We think we have a unique opportunity with the carrot of the FTA to work with Colombia to do some things that they might otherwise undertake to do over the next several years," he added.

The former Dallas mayor and friend of Obama declined to provide detail on what steps the two countries were discussing to address the concerns or to give an estimate of how much longer it would take to finish discussions.

But he said an agreement could include U.S. technical assistance to help Colombia strengthen its labor ministry and enforcement of labor laws.

"I think we would welcome the opportunity to share our expertise. But we want it to be something the Colombians would welcome, rather than see as forced upon them," Kirk said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Jackie Frank and Cynthia Osterman)

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