Reporting from Bogota, Colombia — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates voiced support Thursday for a U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia, a treaty considered a critical reward for one of Washington's strongest allies in the region.
The proposed agreement, first signed during the George W. Bush administration, has long been supported by U.S. businesses but opposed by labor and human rights groups because of Bogota's history of harsh intolerance of labor activism.
Defense Department officials have favored the pact as a way to reward Colombia for its successful effort at beating back drug trafficking and the country's insurgency.
At a news conference in Bogota, the Colombian capital, Gates said he met this week with James L. Jones, the White House national security advisor, to discuss an administration push for congressional ratification of the accord.
"I would hope we would be in a position to make a renewed effort to get ratification of the free trade agreement," Gates said. "It is a good deal for Colombia; it is also a good deal for the United States."
President Obama was skeptical about the agreement as a senator and during his presidential campaign, citing Colombia's record of labor crackdowns. But after meeting last year with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Obama said Bogota had made progress on human rights issues and ordered U.S. trade officials to move ahead on the deal.
Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva said Bogota was pleased by the Obama administration's growing support for the accord.
"This agreement will help further consolidate security in Colombia," Silva said.
Gates is traveling in Latin America to showcase U.S. military partnerships with Colombia and Peru in the hope of enticing other countries to follow suit. U.S. officials hope to replicate a scaled-down version of their pact with Colombia in other South and Central American countries battling drug trafficking and corruption.
American special operations forces spent years training the Colombian army, helping it roll back the rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Now, however, few countries in the region are likely to permit a substantial American military presence. And U.S. trainers are heavily committed to Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving few available for other countries.
Gates suggested that neighboring countries could learn instead from Colombia, noting that Mexican and Peruvian forces have received training from Bogota.
"Colombia's success against terrorists and narco-traffickers does offer a lot of opportunities for them to share their expertise," Gates said. "We certainly would like to see . . . other countries take advantage of Colombia's strengths."