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President makes a push for Colombia trade pact

Times Staff Writer

President Bush delivered a lengthy, impassioned appeal Wednesday for congressional approval of a free-trade pact with Colombia, linking it to economic progress for the South American nation and to U.S. security from terrorism.

Clearly directing his remarks at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with whom the Bush administration has repeatedly tangled, Bush said failure to enact the trade agreement would play into the hands of “antagonists in Latin America, who would say that . . . America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends.”

The president also used his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to deliver a forceful defense of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama say has cost some U.S. workers their jobs.

Bush recently has placed increasing emphasis on the Colombia pact, speaking about it with new urgency and sending key members of his administration to meet with Democratic congressional leaders.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) opposes the agreement, arguing that the Colombian government has not done enough to curb violence against labor organizers. In a written statement Wednesday, she cautioned the president against sending the pact to Congress without working out Democrats’ objections.

Many Colombian products already enter the United States duty-free under the 16-year-old Andean Trade Preferences Act, and the new pact would cement that arrangement, helping to promote growth and provide jobs. Administration officials say the agreement would help level the playing field for U.S. companies, eliminating Colombian tariffs as high as 35% on their products.

Bush indicated Wednesday that he would send the measure to the Capitol soon after the Easter recess. Under the “fast-track” trade authority in effect when the agreement was signed, that would set a 90-day deadline for a vote, with no amendments or filibusters allowed.

Bush cited the economic boost that he said the trade pact would deliver to Colombia, as well as the efforts by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to fight drug trafficking and to stand up to a Marxist insurgency and Chavez.

“The Colombia agreement is pivotal to America’s national security and economic interests right now, and it is too important to be held up by politics,” he said. “There needs to be a vote on Colombia this year.”

He said the pact would help create jobs in Colombia, making it more difficult to “recruit people to violence and terrorism and drug trafficking.”

Broadening his appeal to a defense of NAFTA, which created a free-trade zone among Canada, Mexico and the United States, Bush recalled President Clinton’s words when he signed the pact in 1994: that the world was on the verge of an economic expansion sparked by a U.S. decision to “compete and not retreat.”

“NAFTA has worked,” Bush said. “People shouldn’t back away from NAFTA.”

Candidates Clinton and Obama have threatened to pull the United States out of the agreement, with Clinton calling for a “trade timeout.”

Bush said “a timeout from trade would be a timeout from growth, a timeout from jobs, and a timeout from good results.”

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com


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