A free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia will generate additional export opportunities for American farmers and ranchers, President Bush said in a letter notifying the House and Senate of his intent to sign the pact.

It would also “help create jobs in the United States and help American consumers save money, while offering them more choices,” he said. And it would “benefit the people of Colombia by providing economic opportunity and strengthening democracy.”

In accordance with Trade Act provisions, the president must notify Congress at least 90 days in advance of signing the agreement.

“My administration looks forward to working with the Congress in developing appropriate legislation to approve and implement this agreement,” the letter said.

The agreement would be the largest Western Hemisphere trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.

Colombian trade authorities were less than happy with the announcement, saying the president’s refusal to push the agreement through Congress before the November congressional elections would unfairly penalize their country if current unilateral trade privileges aren’t renewed before their scheduled Jan. 1 expiration.

In 1991, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru were granted the trade privileges covering thousands of products to help diversify their economies and wean them away from the production of coca, from which cocaine is manufactured.

Should the proposed agreement not be completed by the Jan. 1 expiration date of the current trade privileges, goods from the Andean countries would be subject to an 18 percent tariff.

The United States and Colombia announced earlier this year that they had reached agreement on a free trade pact, but negotiations have continued on several agricultural issues.

Countries in the Andean region have also been sharply critical of U.S. farm program subsidies.

If Congress approves the agreement, apparel and textile products would be duty-free as soon as it is implemented. Colombia’s textile industry exported $600 million of duty-free clothing products to the United States last year and flowers totaling more than $750 million

U.S. labor unions are expected to oppose the agreement.

The AFL-CIO notes that some 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia over the past 20 years, “but this hasn’t stopped the Bush administration from pushing for a trade deal. Given such a ghastly record, members of Congress might want to ask whether they really want yet another pact that fails to protect workers’ rights.”

Some U.S. political analysts have speculated that the Bush administration has delayed submitting the Colombian pact because the publicity surrounding another high profile trade deal could have an adverse impact on Republican candidates in the November elections.

National Corn Growers Association president Gerald Tumbleson said the agreement would be good for U.S. corn producers, and could boost corn exports to Colombia to as much as 500,000 metric tons short term and 1.5 million metric tons longer term.

“This is another trade agreement that will open market access for corn growers, and we applaud President Bush for signaling his intent to sign it,” he said.

Bob Bowman, NCGA chairman of the Joint Trade Policy A-Team, said for corn growers to be competitive and increase their market access on a global scale, “the United States must pursue trade agreements that are fair and balanced. An agreement with Colombia will increase our export opportunities and have a significant benefit for agribusiness and the economies of both countries.”

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