WASHINGTON Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is pushing President Barack Obama to win congressional approval of a long-delayed free trade deal before Uribe leaves office in August, the top Colombian trade official said on Wednesday.
"We want to see action. The government of President Uribe will end on the 7th of August ... To us it is important that we finish our term and this is something that we leave as a legacy to our country," Colombian Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata told reporters
Plata, who meets on Thursday with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, said he understood that the U.S. congressional debate on health care reform delayed work on other legislation, including the free trade agreement.
But "now that health care is done, I'd like to know what is going to happen," Plata said he would ask Kirk.
Plata said he would also give Kirk data showing the United States lost corn, wheat and soybean meal sales to Brazil and Argentina in 2009 because those countries had free trade agreements with Colombia and the United States did not.
Canada could take the rest of the corn, wheat and soymeal market from the United States since it is already moving to approve a free trade pact, Plata said.
Other U.S. exports could be at risk from a deal Colombia is negotiating with the European Union, he said.
Chris Garza, a trade specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his group was concerned that 2009's lost sales may never be recovered unless Congress quickly approves the free trade deal.
"What we have learned from experience is once you start losing market share, it's very difficult to gain it back," Garza said at a lunch for Plata hosted by the National Foreign Trade Council, a U.S. business group.
DEMOCRATS IN US HOUSE HAVE OPPOSED DEAL
Uribe began negotiations with the United States on a free trade agreement during his first term in office and the two countries signed an accord nearly 3 1/2 years ago.
However, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives strongly opposed the deal on the grounds that Colombia has not done enough to stop murders of trade unionists and to prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
Last year, the Obama administration said it would give Colombia a set of labor benchmarks that needed to be met before it would send the deal to Congress.
"We never got them. It's been over a year now and we never got those. But that doesn't mean we stopped making progress," Plata said, noting that union membership has increased from 850,000 in 2002 to 1.5 million in 2009.
The number of union members killed each year in Colombia has dropped from 196 to 28 over the same period, Plata said. While 28 is still too high, it shows progress, he said.
Also, Colombia has convicted 234 individuals responsible for killing union members during Uribe's eight years in office, compared to two in the previous 10 years, Plata said.
Last week, Obama told business leaders that he wanted to move forward on the free trade deal with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, but gave no timetable for action.
However, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin said in a speech at the National Press Club that Colombia still needed to address a number of labor concerns.
"We need to have trade agreements that essentially reflect our values, and in the case of workers, basic international labor values. Once that happens, we'll be able to proceed," Levin said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Stacey Joyce)