White House officials say the United States and Colombia have reached a deal on a free trade agreement. President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos are to meet Thursday to discuss the deal.
Obama administration officials say the free trade pact could increase U.S. exports to Colombia by more than $1 billion, and could lead to a similar deal with Panama.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters by telephone Colombian officials have agreed to offer greater protection to workers and labor union leaders, who have often been the targets of violence. U.S. officials insisted on renegotiating parts of the trade agreement to increase that protection.
“The plan significantly expands the protection for labor leaders and union organizers. It bolsters efforts to hold accountable and punish those who have perpetrated violence against union leaders. And it makes a number of important steps to strengthen labor laws and their enforcement," he said.
Kirk said Presidents Obama and Santos will meet at the White House Thursday to approve the worker protection provisions. “President Santos is in the United States for an appearance at the United Nations. It is expected that he will travel to Washington tomorrow to meet with President Obama, and we anticipate that the two presidents will approve the action plan," he said.
The U.S. Congress must approve the agreement before it can take effect. Top lawmakers from both parties say they support the pact, as do American business leaders.
The top Republican in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, called word of the agreement “welcome news.” He called on the White House to work with lawmakers to implement free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea as soon as possible.
The U.S. signed free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea in 2007, during George W. Bush’s presidency. Congress, then led by Democrats, did not bring the deals up for a vote, and the Obama administration renegotiated the provisions it did not approve.
A renegotiated free trade agreement with South Korea was signed last December.
While visiting Latin America last month, President Obama said approval of the trade deals with Colombia and Panama are among his economic priorities. “And as I have directed, my administration has intensified our efforts to move forward on trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, consistent with our values and with our interests," he said.
White House officials say with the Colombia deal on track, they hope they can work with leaders on Capitol Hill to find ways to advance the stalled trade agreement with Panama.
The U.S. last year exported $12 billion worth of goods to Colombia, which has the third-largest economy in Latin America. The International Trade Commission estimates that tariff reductions in the agreement will expand those exports by more than $1 billion, and could support thousands of new American jobs.
Under the free trade deal, 80 percent of U.S. exports to Colombia will become duty-free, and the remaining tariffs will be phased out over ten years.
President Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015.