Congress might see Colombia, Panama trade deals by mid-year

The Miami HeraldFebruary 16, 2011 

A senior U.S. working group is in Bogota this week to assess progress Colombia has made in labor law reform and in protecting labor union leaders from violence — issues that have been stumbling blocks in winning congressional approval for a U.S./Colombia free trade agreement.

Although the United States and Colombia signed off on the agreement in November 2006, and Colombia’s Congress approved it in 2007, the U.S. Congress has yet to give its stamp of approval.

When the group returns, it will present a report to President Barack Obama and his Cabinet to help them determine whether sufficient changes have been made on labor rights issues, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew M. Rooney, who was in Miami on Monday.

The Colombian government has said it is making progress. But historically, Colombia has had one of the worst records in the world for protecting labor unionists. In Human Rights Watch’s annual World Report issued last month, it said that since 1986, 2,800 labor organizers have been killed in Colombia.

But the Unified Center for Workers, Colombia’s largest labor group, said last month that union leaders are still being murdered and the crimes aren’t being investigated. Domingo Tobar, the secretary general of the Unified Center for Workers, said by his organization’s count, 46 union leaders were assassinated last year.

From January to October 2010, the government reported 25 union leaders were killed.

Meanwhile, a delegation from Panama is expected in Washington in the next few weeks to report on progress it has made on issues, such as corporate and financial transparency, that have been concerns in the United States, said Rooney. The agreement with Panama, which was signed in 2007, also has languished.

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