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Colombia presses U.S. for trade vote this year

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzon urged President Barack Obama on Wednesday to work with the U.S. Congress to approve a long-delayed bilateral trade deal this year

"We hope and we stress that 2011 is the year the U.S. Congress approves the pact," Garzon, speaking through a translator, said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"There is no middle road on this," said Garzon, who has been meeting this week with members of Congress and the Obama administration about the pact that was signed in November 2006.

Garzon said he was convinced there was a majority in Congress to approve the deal, but added "it needs the will of the U.S. government as well," referring to the Obama administration.

His comment came one day after Obama mentioned the Colombia free trade agreement in his annual State of the Union speech, kicking off intense lobbying on both sides of the pact.

An official with the AFL-CIO labor federation said it would fight any attempt by Obama to strike a deal with Republicans for approval of the pact.

"It's our position that Colombia still has quite a long way to go to really tackle questions of violence and threats of violence against trade unionists," said Jeff Vogt, deputy director of the 12.2 million-member federation's international department.

"I think we'd be vociferously opposed (if Obama submitted the agreement to Congress). Colombia continues to be such a bad actor on labor and human rights," Vogt said.

Since his Democratic Party lost control of the House of Representatives and a number of seats in the Senate, Obama has come under increased pressure from Republicans to submit for congressional votes three trade deals left over from former President George W. Bush's administration.

Many Democrats -- but by no means all -- want Obama to move forward with the three pacts.

Obama has responded by negotiating changes in the South Korea agreement to address U.S. auto industry concerns, and by telling Congress in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday he wanted that pact approved "as soon as possible."

He also mentioned his interest in finalizing two other trade deals with Panama and Colombia, but offered no timetable for action on the pacts.

The vague reference to the two Latin American agreements was enough to unsettle critics of the pacts, while stirring criticism from others who want Obama to show stronger leadership to win their approval.

"Frankly, I am disappointed by the lack of an action plan or commitment to move the long-stalled Colombia and Panama trade agreements," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican.

U.S. ALLY

Many rank-and-file House Democrats strongly oppose the Colombia agreement.

They and the AFL-CIO, America's largest labor federation, say Colombia has not done enough to stop the killings of labor unionists and to prosecute those responsible.

Garzon, a former union leader, said Colombia's new President Juan Manuel Santos was committed to ending the culture of "impunity" and has put human rights at the heart of his administration.

He also argued approval of the long-delayed agreement was in the United States interest because since the deal was signed Colombia has been negotiating similar pacts with Canada, Chile, the European Union and other countries.

U.S. business groups and other supporters of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement say that Colombia is a much safer country for union workers and all its citizens than it was before former President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002.

They note Colombia is a stalwart U.S. ally in a region where some leftist leaders, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, are open foes of the United States, and also argue the trade pact is needed to prevent U.S. companies from losing sales to competitors in Europe and Canada.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noting the support of more than 1,000 companies and business and farm organizations, said in its blog on Wednesday, "The White House just needs to take a deep breath and move forward" with the pact.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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