House extends Andean trade benefits 10 months

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to renew expiring trade benefits for Colombia and three other Andean nations through the end of year, while the White House waged an uphill fight to win approval of a free trade pact with Bogota.

On a voice vote, the House approved a 10-month extension of the Andean trade preference program, which provides Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia with duty-free access to the U.S. market for most of their exports.

The program dates back to the early 1990s and is part of U.S. efforts to discourage cocaine production in the Andean region by providing other job opportunities.

It expires this week for the third time in a little more than a year as a result of jostling between the Bush administration and Congress over trade relations in the region.

“I hope the Senate will quickly follow our lead and pass this ten-month extension so that it can be signed into law as soon as possible,” said House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

The Bush administration has hoped to replace the one-way preference program with a set of free trade agreements that would eliminate tariffs that U.S. companies and farmers face on their exports to the Andean region.

Congress approved a free trade pact with Peru last year, after it was modified to include labor and environmental provisions long demanded by Democrats in trade agreements.

However, House leaders have said they cannot support a separate free trade agreement with Colombia until that country shows more progress on reducing violence against trade unionists and putting murderers in jail.

In a speech on Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the Colombian government had already done much to address concerns raised by Democrats.

“Since 2001, the government of Colombia has resolved 59 cases involving trade unionists, with 126 individuals sentenced for their crimes,” Schwab said.

Of 187 priority cases identified last year, 13 have been prosecuted so far, with 25 people sentenced, she said.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao will lead a small delegation of U.S. lawmakers on a three-day visit to Medellin this weekend in the hopes of building support for the pact.

It will be Gutierrez’s fourth such trip to Colombia over the past several months.

A stream of high-ranking Colombian government officials are planning to visit Washington in March to press for U.S. congressional approval of the pact.

“This administration will not yield in our efforts to persuade the Congress to do the right thing ... . Colombia deserves a vote, a vote that is soon,” Schwab said.

Editing by Xavier Briand