Summit News

Deputy USTR eyes Andean trade deal soon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration hopes to reach a deal with U.S. lawmakers in the next 10 days that would pave the way for approval of free trade pacts with Peru, Colombia and Panama, a top U.S. trade official said on Wednesday.

“We’re working with Chairman (Rep. Charles) Rangel and others to reach an understanding as quickly as possible and it’s certainly our hope that we can reach that this month,” Deputy U.S. Trade Representative John Veroneau said in an interview at the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit.

The United States signed the free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia last year and completed free trade talks with Panama in December, except for the labor chapter.

Some Democrats are unhappy with the labor provisions of the Peru and Colombia agreements. They want all three pacts to include an enforceable commitment to abide by core international labor standards, such as the freedom to organize and bargain collectively and freedom from workplace discrimination.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab has been working with House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, and the top Republican on that panel, Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, to fashion new labor provisions for the trade pacts.

Veroneau said he had no new progress to report in those talks, but the administration still believed it could strike a deal to allow all three agreements to pass with broad bipartisan support.

The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, said last week it did not believe the trade agreement with Colombia could be changed to its satisfaction because of that country’s “atrocious” record of violence against unionists.

Veroneau spoke with Reuters after a trip to Peru, Colombia and Panama to get a first-hand look at the importance of the agreement to the three countries.

“I’m convinced the best way to help workers in each of these countries is to provide better economic opportunities,” which the free trade pacts would do, he said.

Leaders in Peru, Colombia and Panama also believe the agreements would help them lock in important economic and social reforms the countries have made in recent years and promote other important priorities, like improving the rule of law and government transparency, Veroneau said.

Meanwhile, U.S. exporters would benefit from increased access to three of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America, Veroneau said.

Peru, Colombia and two other Andean countries -- Ecuador and Bolivia -- currently can export most of their goods to the United States without paying import duties under U.S. legislation that expires the middle of this year.

The Bush administration’s first priority is winning approval of the Peru and Colombia free trade agreements, rather than pushing for renewal of the approximately 16-year-old Andean trade benefits program, Veroneau said.

The administration also “has not reached a position” on whether Congress should renew trade benefits for Ecuador and Bolivia, which have not negotiated free trade pacts with the United States, Veroneau said.