Mrs. Clinton is optimistic on three free trade pacts

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Obama administration will soon send the U.S. Congress implementing legislation for free-trade agreements with Panamá, Colombia and South Korea. Action on the trade accords, reached during the Bush administration, has long been stalled.

Mrs. Clinton did not say when the implementing bills will go to Congress, but strongly suggested the long-awaited action will come soon.

The deals with Colombia, Panamá and South Korea were signed by the Bush administration in 2006 and 2007, with an expectation of swift ratification that would sweep away trade barriers and boost employment in the United States and the three other countries.

But action on the agreements faltered amid concern in the U.S. Congress about, among other things, labor and environmental standards in the three countries, and market access for U.S. farm products.

Speaking at the annual Conference on the Americas, Mrs. Clinton reported great progress on the trade deals. “We have worked with our Panamanian and Colombian partners to address key concerns and forge broader bipartisan support in the Congress, just as we did with the South Korean free-trade agreement,” she said.

“Panamá passed important new laws on labor rights and tax transparency. With Colombia we have established an action plan to address concerns about labor rights, violence and impunity. And Colombia has already taken important steps to implement this plan, and we are working hard to execute the next phase by June 15th,” she added.

The Obama administration in recent days has won support from farm-state legislators for the South Korea free-trade deal by agreeing to seek consultations with that country on market access for U.S. beef exports. Senate hearings on all three trade deals are expected later this month.

In her remarks, Mrs. Clinton called political and economic strides in Latin America in recent years a “stunning transformation.” But she lamented a continuing, huge gap between rich and poor in the region and said in many countries the wealthy are not paying enough in taxes to support public services.

Arturo Valenzuela earlier told the gathering the United States remains very concerned about what he termed the authoritarian tendencies of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez.

But Valenzuela said the Chávez government is under duress because of the country’s poor economic showing, and said the opposition is gaining ground. He said overall, the influence of leftist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, the so-called ALBA group, appears to be waning. Valenzuela is assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.

“Where maybe four or five years ago a lot of people perceived that there was sort of an ascendancy of the ALBA group that they had a very significant strong voice in much of the hemisphere, we have seen in fact a greater degree of isolation. And they simply have lost a significant amount of ground,” said Valenzuela.

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