Author`s name Alex Naumov

US Congress reluctant to pass free trade deals with Latin American nations

As US popularity in Latin America falls to its lowest in decades, the Bush administration faces serious problems to develop its strategy in the region. This week, secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged the US Congress to pass free trade deals with Peru, Colombia and Panama, warning that non-approval would be seen as a US "withdrawal."

The Democratic majority in the Capitol has blocked accords patiently negotiated by Washington with governments in Latin America. Failure to pass the bilateral deals "would be a great blow to those countries. It would be a retreat," Rice told reporters at the Organization of American States.

The United States would gain economic and strategic benefits from the accords with Peru, Panama and Colombia, Rice said in a speech at the headquarters of the Organization of American States and in a subsequent roundtable with a handful of reporters

The US Congress is looking at these deals and one with South Korea in coming days. The Democratic-led Congress tends to lean more toward protectionism on trade than President George W Bush's Republicans.

But democrats not only question trade issues over these deals. They are also concerned on the political consequences that could bring the ratification of the agreements.

Prospects for passage of the Peru deal this month look good. The Panama accord also is expected to pass. But Colombia, with a history of armed conflict and human rights violations, has emerged as the most controversial deal.

In recent weeks, the administration has argued that Colombia has made great progress reducing violence. But the AFL-CIO opposes the trade measure, as do Democratic leaders in the House, saying Colombia has done too little to prosecute those responsible for the killings of almost 400 trade unionists in the past five years.

Rice rejected the idea of delaying approval until Colombia met unspecified benchmarks demonstrating additional progress: "I don't know at this particular stage how much more evidence you need. … Why would you wait?"

Rice spoke a day after Costa Rican voters approved by a 51.6% to 48.4% margin a similar trade deal with the U.S. The narrow win was the latest sign of waning global enthusiasm for additional trade integration. Efforts to reach a new global trade agreement likewise are foundering, and there is mounting public unease in the USA over trade approaching the 2008 election.

Washington is concerned over the anti-US agenda fuelled by Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez and his allies in the region: Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Earlier this month, US enemy Nº 1, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toured South America to promote bilateral cooperation on energy and trade issues.

Both the US and the Israeli governments fear of an increasing influence of Iran in the region, thanks to the close ties Tehran has developed with Caracas.

Hernan Etchaleco