U.S. President George Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe are calling for U.S. legislators to ratify a free-trade agreement with Colombia.  VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

President Bush says the free-trade agreement will be good for employers, farmers, and workers in the United States and Colombia.

Following a White House meeting with the Colombian leader, President Bush said it is more than a trade vote. He said the agreement sends a signal to South America that Washington stands with nations willing to make hard decisions.

"This agreement has strategic implications," Mr. Bush said. "It is very important for this nation to stand with democracies that protect human rights and human dignity, democracies based upon the rule of law.

The agreement, concluded last year, would remove trade barriers in the service sector and provide a legal framework for U.S. investments in Colombia.  U.S. trade representatives say it would better enforce labor and environmental laws, protect intellectual property rights, and establish a system for better settling trade disputes.

Some congressional Democrats, including the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charles Rangel, have expressed concerns about the deal's safeguards for worker rights.  There have also been private sector complaints about Colombian sugar imports hurting U.S. producers.

President Bush says he expects Congress to be open-minded and give President Uribe a fair hearing.

Mr. Uribe said the free-trade agreement will help guarantee security for all Colombians, and will include trade unions and political opponents, while promoting freedom and social justice.

U.S. officials also say the Colombian free-trade agreement is an essential component of a regional strategy to combat narco-trafficking.

President Uribe says increased exports will create more high-quality jobs and undermine the drug trade.

"We have not won yet in eradicating illicit drugs, but we are winning.  And it is very important for the free-trade agreement," Uribe says.

Colombia's free-trade agreement must be approved by both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee before being considered by the full Congress.