WASHINGTON — Failure to approve a free-trade agreement with Colombia and to reauthorize military and anti-narcotics aid to that country would imperil U.S. relationships throughout Latin America, the State Department's third-ranking official said Friday.
The U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which has stalled in Congress, has "taken on huge symbolic importance," said R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.
"What would the message be if we said no to the people of Colombia?" he said. "The message would be entirely negative for our policy in all the hemisphere."
Burns, just back from a trip to Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, made the comments at a forum on U.S. diplomacy in Latin America that was sponsored by a government-financed research center.
The free-trade pact would do away with tariffs and expand trade between the U.S. and Colombia. Democratic lawmakers have blocked it over concerns about the killings of union leaders and allegations of links between the Colombian government and right-wing paramilitary groups.
The U.S.'s popularity in Latin America remains low, and thousands protested when President Bush visited the region earlier this year. A string of Latin American countries have elected left-leaning leaders.
Argentines, Bolivians, Brazilians, Mexicans and Venezuelans polled in April and May said the U.S. posed a bigger threat than any other nation to their countries' futures, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey released last month.
Colombia, long the U.S.'s staunchest supporter in the region, has bristled at the Democrats' attempts to block the free-trade pact and to cut funding to the Plan Colombia aid package.
Burns urged Congress to extend Plan Colombia another five years, until 2013.
A bill that the House of Representatives approved recently would provide Colombia with more than $500 million for one year but cuts the amount to be spent on police and military assistance. The Senate is considering a similar measure.
The U.S. government already has spent more than $5 billion to fight armed groups and eradicate coca and heroin crops under the program.
"We should be giving $500 (million) to $600 million a year in assistance to Colombia," Burns said. The country deserved the money, he said, because it's made progress in quelling violence and fighting paramilitary groups.
"They've worked with us to try to limit the production and sale of coca, and we Americans have to try to work to limit the demand for coca by our young kids," Burns said.