WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama expressed hope that Congress would eventually approve a long-delayed free trade agreement with Colombia, but said that country needed to make more progress on human rights first.
“There remains work to do. But I’m confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people and good for the people of the United States,” Obama told reporters after a meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
In remarks in the White House Oval Office, Obama said he did not have “a strict timetable” for submitting the trade deal to Congress because he already had a busy legislative agenda this year and needed to consult with lawmakers first.
But he said Colombia could improve chances for the pact by making further progress on a number of human rights concerns that have blocked approval of the pact since it was signed by officials in the administration of former President George W. Bush in November 2006.
“President Uribe has assured me that he is interested in resolving those issues, and as I said great progress has been made. I trust that we can make more progress and I think that will help shape the overall environment in which this issue is being debated in Congress,” Obama said.
Uribe said approval of the pact would send an important U.S. “signal of confidence” in Colombia, adding that his government was open to any U.S. advice on how it could improve its human rights record.
It was Obama’s second meeting with Uribe, a conservative politician who enjoyed a close relationship with Bush and whose country has received more than $6 billion in U.S. military and other aid under the Plan Colombia program since 1999.
Obama opposed the free trade agreement during last year’s presidential election campaign on the grounds that Colombia had not done enough to reduce killings of trade unionists and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
The AFL-CIO labor federation, the United States’ largest labor group, remains strongly opposed to the free trade agreement, as do many Democratic members of Congress.
When Bush tried to force a vote on the agreement in April 2007, he lost a showdown with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who instead pushed through a legislative rule change to indefinitely delay action on the pact.
“I think the burden is not simply on Colombia,” Obama noted on Monday. “I think Colombia has done a lot of excellent work. It is a matter of getting both countries to a place where their legislatures feel confident that it will be ultimately to the economic benefits of these countries.”
Obama, after meeting Uribe for the first time at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in April, asked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to work with Colombia and Congress on a plan to enact the pact.
Uribe also met on Monday with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and World Bank Robert Zoellick. Zoellick launched the U.S. free trade talks with Colombia in May 2004, when he was Bush’s trade representative.
Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Todd Eastham