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Rice to Take House Democrats to Colombia to Push Trade Pact

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flies to Colombia Thursday with 10 House Democrats in an effort to boost congressional support for a free-trade agreement with that country. The Bush administration faces an uphill battle to win election-year approval for the Colombia trade deal. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Rice trip to Colombia with legislators is one of several being conducted by senior Bush administration officials in an effort to promote the Colombia trade pact, which faces strong opposition from congressional Democrats and labor and human rights groups.

The Secretary of State is taking her entourage to Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, which, owing to an improved economy and more effective law enforcement, has been shedding its image as a center for crime and the illicit drug trade.

The Bush administration says that the trade pact eliminating virtually all tariffs between the two countries, would help the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe continue the country's recovery from decades of civil conflict.

Opponents of the accord say congressional approval should be withheld pending more progress on human rights. But in a talk with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon reversed the argument, saying the trade deal is needed now to help Mr. Uribe consolidate economic and human rights progress already made.

"As its economy grows and pulls in people that have historically been outside the formal economy, the basis for political stability and the basis for a culture of justice expands. And therefore we see the FTA [Free Trade Agreement] not just as a trade policy with Colombia, we see it as part of a broader social and economic development policy and as necessary for consolidating the democratic gains that Colombia has made," he said.

State Department officials say the trade package would secure the jobs of nearly 700,000 Colombian workers involved in the U.S. export business, while the U.S. workers would benefit from the elimination of Colombian import duties far higher than those maintained by the United States.

Rice and her House delegation, including Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Eliot Engel, are to meet in Medellin with, among others, business leaders, trade union officials and former members of rightwing paramilitary groups demobilized under a key initiative of the Uribe government.

On the eve of Rice's departure, the New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch said Rice should use the trade deal as leverage to get the Colombian government to confront what it said is still a "deplorable" human rights record, including the world's worst toll of violence against trade unionists.

Shannon said human rights is a constant part of the U.S. dialogue with Colombia and that the Rice mission is structured so that the members of Congress can make their own judgments about what the Uribe government has achieved in that area:

"We see this as an educational experience that will allow us to make our argument more concrete when we meet with members on the Hill. At the same time, when it comes to ending impunity and building this culture of justice, there's always more that can be done. There's always more that has to be done. And we understand and respect the concerns of our Congress in this regard," he said.

Congress in December approved by a wide margin a similar free trade agreement with Peru, which has a less turbulent recent past than Colombia.

Both Bush administration officials and House Democrats say a vote on the Colombia package would be much closer.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not yet scheduled a vote, and the powerful AFL-CIO Labor Federation said this week it sees virtually no chance for the pact to win approval this year. The fate of two other pending trade deals, with Panama and South Korea, is also in doubt.