Colombia's Plata Courts Opposition Liberals to Cement Canada Trade Pact

Colombian Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata is courting senior lawmakers from Canada’s main opposition Liberal Party in a bid to cement their support for a free-trade agreement and assure its passage in Parliament.

Plata, who is also scheduled to testify at a Parliamentary committee tomorrow and meet with Trade Minister Peter van Loan, will have dinner in Ottawa with Liberal lawmakers Scott Brison and Bob Rae tonight, before meeting with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff tomorrow morning. He’ll dine tomorrow night with a larger group of Liberal lawmakers.

“The Liberal Party has a better understanding now of the situation going on in Colombia, but there are still some points that they require clarity,” on Jaime Giron, Colombia’s ambassador to Canada, said in a telephone interview.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s governing Conservatives have made strengthening ties with Latin America a priority in an effort to broaden markets for Canadian commodities and reduce the country’s dependence on the U.S. economy. While Canada and Colombia signed an agreement in 2008, it is still awaiting approval by Canadian lawmakers.

Harper’s Conservatives lack a majority of seats in Parliament and need the support of opposition lawmakers to pass legislation. The other two parties -- the New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois -- have been firmly opposed to the agreement.

Critics of trade with Colombia say President Alvaro Uribe must improve the Latin American country’s human rights record before any accord can be approved. Labor unions allege there’s a history of unpunished violence against trade union organizers.

Yearly Assessments

Brison, the Liberal lawmaker responsible for trade issues, and Rae, the lawmaker responsible for foreign affairs, began talks with Plata last year on amending the free trade agreement to include yearly assessments of human rights conditions. Brison met Uribe earlier this year in Davos, Switzerland to win his support for the proposal.

The Liberals will back an amended version of the agreement, Brison said in a telephone interview, a move that has prompted trade unions to accuse the main opposition party of changing its position on the issue.

In 2008, two-way trade between Canada and Colombia was more than C$1.3 billion ($1.3 billion), according to Canada’s trade department. About 80 percent of Colombian exports are already duty-free, according to figures provided by the trade department, and include goods such as coal, coffee, banana, cut flowers and sugars. Colombia imports wheat and other cereals, newsprint, off-road trucks and machinery and electrical equipment from Canada.

Plata is scheduled to testify in front of the Standing Committee on International Trade tomorrow at 3:30 p.m.

To contact the reporter on this story: Theophilos Argitis in Ottawa at targitis@bloomberg.net.

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