WASHINGTON, Oct 9 (Reuters) The US Congress will deliver a ''great blow'' to Peru, Panama and Colombia if it fails to pass free-trade agreements with them, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today.
''It would send a loud and clear message across the region that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its promises,'' Rice said in a speech on US trade relations with Latin America at the Organization of American States.
Rice's speech is part of major White House push to win approval of the free-trade pacts. Congress could pass the Peru agreement in coming weeks but the other two deals face significant obstacles.
Rice warned that failure to approve the agreements would deliver a ''great blow to these three countries.'' She urged lawmakers to view the agreements as part of longer-term bipartisan efforts to promote democracy and prosperity in the region.
''The United States has always believed that our success is linked to the success of our neighbors,'' Rice said.
US labor groups fiercely oppose the agreement with Colombia, which they call the most dangerous country in the world for union workers. They accuse the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe of failing to aggressively prosecute hundreds of cases of murdered trade unionists.
In June, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders said they could not support the Colombia deal until they saw ''concrete evidence'' of a sustained effort to reduce violence and put murderers in jail.
MILITIA TIES Many Democrats also are alarmed by alleged ties between Uribe's party and drug-running militias formed in the 1980s to help beat back leftist rebels.
Uribe's cousin and 30-year political ally Mario Uribe quit Colombia's Senate last week to avoid a judicial investigation into whether he colluded with right-wing paramilitary death squads.
Rice and other Bush administration officials credit Uribe with making tremendous progress toward peace, justice and prosperity after decades of civil war. They point to Colombia government figures that show a drop in murders of trade unionists of between 61 percent to 69 per cent since 2002.
Colombia's Prosecutor General's Office also created a $1.5 million labor sub-unit in 2006 to address 204 priority cases of violence against trade unionists. Of those, 10 per cent have been resolved, resulting in 37 convictions, US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told lawmakers last week.
Gutierrez, who has already led one congressional delegation to Colombia, is leading another small group this weekend in the belief that best way to convince lawmakers is to let them see the changes in Colombia for themselves.
President George W Bush is expected to urge Congress to pass the free-trade pacts in a speech in Miami on Friday.
Pelosi and House Democrats indicated in June that Congress could approve the agreement with Panama after the Peru pact.
However, that plan was thrown into doubt after Panama's National Assembly elected as its leader a lawmaker wanted in the United States on charges he killed a US soldier in 1992.
Pedro Miguel Gonzalez was nominated by Panama's ruling Revolutionary Democratic Party and elected on September 1, despite his long-standing indictment in the United States.
Gonzalez was acquitted in a 1997 trial in Panama, but Washington says that proceeding was marred by jury rigging, witness intimidation and government harassment.
Rice did not mention the issue in her speech but said approving the free-trade agreement would help Panama lock in the transformation it has made to a stable democracy.
Reuters PDT VP0016