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Obama Joins Santos of Colombia in Lauding Free Trade Pact

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Dec. 3 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the free trade accord that took effect last year has been a boon for both countries and that relations are at a high point.

Concluding an Oval Office meeting, Obama also lauded the Colombian government’s “bold” efforts to make peace with Marxist rebels to end a half century of bloodshed, steps that are essential to economic growth.

The trade agreement has been a “success so far,” Obama said. “That creates jobs in Colombia. It creates jobs here in the United States of America.”

In the first year of the pact, U.S. exports to Colombia increased 19 percent and 1,300 Colombian companies for the first time exported goods to the U.S., according to a White House fact sheet. Two-way trade between the countries is $41 billion.

While China has displaced the U.S. as the biggest export market for Brazil, Peru and Chile, Colombia still sells seven times as much to the U.S. as it does to the Asian giant, providing Americans with 75 percent of their cut flowers, as well as oil, coal, gold, coffee, nickel, fruit and clothing.

Security Aid

In addition to commercial ties, the Andean nation received $473 million in U.S. aid last year, the most in the Americas, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. U.S. military and police support has helped Colombia beef up its armed forces and wage a military offensive since 2002 that recaptured territory from Marxist rebels.

Santos’s government for the past year has been in peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia’s biggest rebel group which has used cocaine profits and extortion to finance war against the state.

“It sends a signal to the people of Colombia that it is possible to unleash the enormous potential if we can move beyond this conflict, but obviously there are going to be some very challenging questions moving forward,” Obama said.

The relationship between the two nations is shifting toward an emphasis on economic development as the Colombian government has been asserting more control of its own security, counterinsurgency and anti-crime operations.

Santos said U.S.-Colombia relations are at “their best moment ever” with an agenda expanding beyond security to include education and energy.

The White House visit comes two weeks after Santos, 62, announced he will seek re-election in May to a second four-year term.

Since taking office, Santos has cut taxes on foreign bond holders and implemented free trade deals, while the peso weakened 8.4 percent against the U.S. dollar this year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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