WASHINGTON – President Bush reassured Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Wednesday that the United States would work quickly to sort out remaining details of a free trade pact it signed with the South American nation in February.
"I will submit the agreement to Congress once it gets done, and I would hope members of both political parties understand the importance of a free trade agreement with this vital ally of ours," Bush told reporters after an Oval Office meeting with Uribe.
Bush said the two also spoke about how Colombia and three other Andean nations agreed on Tuesday to chart new trade plans with the United States without Venezuela, a major U.S. critic. Uribe, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Alfredo Palacio and Peru's Alejandro Toledo signed an accord pledging to respect the rights of Andean bloc nations to negotiate free trade agreements with the United States.
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a fierce critic of U.S.-backed trade liberalization, announced in April that he was abandoning the Andean bloc, saying it had been "fatally wounded" when Colombia and Peru signed trade pacts with Washington.
Bush did not publicly address the U.S. decision to break off negotiations on a free trade agreement with Ecuador.
The decision followed Ecuador's decision to annul an operating contract with Occidental Petroleum Corp., which the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said constituted a seizure of assets from an American company. The government of Ecuador claimed that the oil company had broken the terms of its contract.
Bush said he and Uribe also discussed democracy, human rights and drug trafficking.
"He's got a tough job in dealing with narcoterrorist groups in his country, but he's committed to dealing firmly with narcoterrorism," Bush said of Uribe.
Uribe acknowledged that his nation needs to show better results in speeding up the eradication of drugs.
"One challenge is that Colombia can overcome this long nightmare of terrorism," Uribe said. "I understand the mandate my fellow country citizens have given me to work harder and with better results for my country to get peace. And the United States' cooperation is necessary."
Bush said he needs to do a better job communicating to the people of South America and Central America about U.S. desires to promote justice, education and health. "We spend about $1.6 billion a year in Central and South America," Bush said. "I want the people to understand that money is meant to help them, to help improve their lives."
Bush congratulated Uribe on his landslide re-election last month. The clear win for the law-and-order conservative was a triumph as well for U.S. policy-makers amid a rising tide of leftist nationalism in Latin America.
"I asked him what it's like to win with a lot of votes," Bush joked, referring to recent close presidential elections in the United States.