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US Examines New Push on Colombia Free Trade

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the Obama administration is looking to make a new push to gain ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia signed in 2006 by the Bush administration, but stalled due to opposition in the U.S. Senate.

Secretary Gates told a news conference that he discussed the ratification issue with one of President Obama's top advisers as he prepared for this visit.

"I discussed this earlier this week with National Security Advisor Jim Jones," he said. "And I would hope that we would be in a position to make a renewed effort to get ratification of the free trade agreement. It's a good deal for Colombia. It's also a very good deal for the United States" said Gates.

Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva said his government is satisfied with the level of priority given to the issue in Washington.

Silva said the reasons to ratify the agreement go beyond trade. He said it is a strategic issue, and that free trade with the United States would improve the living conditions of Colombians that would further consolidate security.

Gates also praised Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose eight years in office will end in August, calling his efforts "heroic," and saying they helped transform Colombia from a country crippled by terrorism to what he called a "lynchpin" of regional security. Gates said Colombia is now exporting what it has learned about how to fight an insurgency through military and civilian means to other countries in the region, and even elsewhere, including Afghanistan.

The secretary also pledged that the U.S. commitment to help Colombia through security assistance and other means will continue into the country's next administration.

"In our meetings today, I conveyed to President Uribe and Minister Silva, not only our appreciation for our partnership with them, but also our commitment to work just as closely with whoever succeeds them after the upcoming elections. Our continued bi-lateral defense cooperation is vital to both our nations," Gates said.

In an interview earlier this week, a former Colombian government minister Mauricio Cardenas, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said all the presidential candidates are likely to welcome such continued cooperation.

"There is not a big discussion in terms of the importance of continuing the support of the U.S. and strengthening the Colombian military forces and the security apparatus. I think there is a consensus in Colombia that this has to be sustained," said Cardenas.

In addition, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, who is now at the American Enterprise Institute research organization in Washington, says this visit could help Gates push for the Free Trade Agreement when he returns to Washington.

"It's really important for the United States to be present, for the secretary to have an up-to-date view of what's happening in that country so that he is an asset in terms of the Obama administration's efforts to convince people on the Hill that this is still a fight that we need to be involved in, that we have a reliable partner in Colombia," said Noriega.

In a brief statement at Thursday's news conference, President Uribe said Colombia's success and its partnership with the United States offer reassurance to Colombians, Americans and people of other countries who value freedom.