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Bush Pushes Latin American Trade Pacts

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Bush Pushes Latin American Trade Pacts

Politics

Bush Pushes Latin American Trade Pacts

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

The Bush Administration is scaling down ambitions for a big inter-American trade agreement. There's no more talk of a 34-nation deal; instead the Administration is pushing agreements with individual countries. In the case of Colombia, that's still a battle.

Congressional Democrats object to Colombia's human rights record.

BRAND: And to woo at least some of those lawmakers, the White House is teaming with that nation's president to sell a kinder, gentler Colombia.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Medellin, Colombia.

JUAN FORERO: Six American lawmakers led by the U.S. Commerce Secretary came to Colombia this month on a trip designed to generate support for a now-stalled trade agreement.

Among those who needed convincing was Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington.

Representative JIM MCDERMOTT (Democrat, Washington): I had some inkling of what was going on here before I got here, but I always think it's good to see for you.

FORERO: And look they did - in a whirlwind two-day tour. First up was a trip to Nueva Via Vista, an isolated, impoverished river hamlet deep in Colombia's thick northeast jungle.

To get there involved flying on a Russian-made military helicopter across a sea of green rainforest, then climbing into a heavily armed military riverboat escorted by patrol boats bristling with machine guns - the region, after all, is still home to Marxist rebels and drug traffickers - then a walk on a muddy trail into town.

President Alvaro Uribe accompanied the lawmakers. Wearing a blue tropical Guayabera shirt and a straw hat, he spoke to residents and kissed tots. Everything was carefully planned, down to a group of children in green and white school uniforms greeting the president in unison.

Unidentified Children: (Spanish spoken)

Uribe showed off a school and cinderblock homes the government built for people who moved to the town after their village was destroyed in a battle between rebels and paramilitary fighters. The idea was to show how Uribe, seen as a friend of landowners and big business, also cares about the most vulnerable.

President ALVARO URIBE (Colombia): We never abandon this piece of land.

FORERO: Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who's apprehensive about trade pacts, liked what he saw, particularly Uribe's question and answer session with residents.

Representative ELIOT ENGEL (Democrat, New York): I think in a way it's very refreshing. I don't know how many heads of state would do something like that.

FORERO: Uribe, a conservative, is revered in the Bush Administration for aggressively fighting guerillas and adhering to American-prescribed market reforms.

Colombia also is a loyal soldier in the war on drugs, one backed by five billion dollars in U.S. funds. But Democrats in Washington are concerned that 400 union members have been slain in Uribe's five years in office, with only a handful of the cases solved. And they are troubled about ties between paramilitary death squads and 40 Colombian lawmakers, almost all of them allies of the president.

Cynthia Aronson directs the Latin-America program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. She says Colombian and American officials cannot treat the concerns as a PR problem.

Ms. CYNTHIA ARONSON (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): I think there are many on Capitol Hill who feels that things have to fundamentally change or get better in Colombia before people will be willing to vote for a free trade agreement.

FORERO: But on this trip there was little talk of Columbia's unpleasantries. After Nueva Via Vista, the congressmen were taken to Medellin. Once called the most dangerous city in the world, Medellin's homicide rate is now lower than Washington's.

The congressmen took a ride in cable cars that carry people high into a poor barrio, enjoying commentary by the commercial counselor at the U.S. embassy, Margaret Hanson Muse.

Ms. MARGARET HANSON MUSE (Commercial Counselor, U.S. Embassy, Bogota, Colombia): What we're seeing here is, I would say (unintelligible) revolution. Three years ago the police could not walk into this neighborhood, but if you look below you, you now see the very, very clean streets. The citizens are out on the street, taking in some sun.

FORERO: At the top, they could see a ring of green mountains, and way below, winding streets and cinderblock homes built helter-skelter.

Mayor Sergio Fajardo then provided a tour. He's an American-trained mathematician who's won international attention for having turned things around.

As the congressmen strolled through a barrio once ravaged by crime, Fajardo told them how important trade is to Medellin.

Mayor SERGIO FAJARDO (Medellin, Colombia): We are friends. We need you to help us solve the problem, not make it any bigger for us.

FORERO: U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says the pact would create jobs in the United States and help the economy of Washington's closest ally in the region.

Secretary CARLOS GUTIERREZ (U.S. Department of Commerce): It would be a very big mistake to turn our backs on a country that has been one of our best friends for a long, long time.

FORERO: It was just what the Colombians and the Bush Administration wanted to hear.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Medellin, Colombia.

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