President Obama greets children and teachers after speaking at the Summit… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
CARTAGENA, Colombia — Despite strong opposition from his allies in the U.S. labor movement, President Obama said Sunday that he trusted Colombian authorities to improve protections for workers and union leaders as he cleared the final obstacle for implementation of a free trade agreement next month.
The decision marks a victory for the U.S. business community, which has pushed the White House to increase commercial opportunities in Colombia's growing economy. The pact eliminates duties on most exports, eases travel restrictions and strengthens intellectual property rights.
"We all know more work needs to be done, but we've made significant progress," Obama said at a news conference. "It's a win for our workers and the environment because of the protections it has for both — commitments we are going to fulfill."
The announcement came as the weekend Summit of the Americas ended in some disarray. Talks among the leaders were upstaged by the unfolding scandal of 11 Secret Service agents who were ordered home for misconduct, including allegedly bringing prostitutes to their rooms.
The summit also concluded without the customary joint declaration because of deep divisions over communist-ruled Cuba, and Argentina's claims to the British-held Falkland Islands. The U.S. and Canada refused to adopt a final statement specifying that Cuba be invited to future hemispheric summits.
"There is no declaration because there is no consensus," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters. The next summit is scheduled to be held in Panama in 2015.
Obama's decision to go ahead with the free trade deal led to applause from U.S. business leaders, some of whom accompanied the president to Colombia, and sharp criticism from labor leaders who normally support the administration.
Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the deal would open the way to job creation, welcome words for a president battling high unemployment in an election year.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk called the deal "a significant milestone" that advances U.S. economic and strategic interests.
Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said she met with Colombian labor leaders to address their concerns. She said efforts to protect workers' rights are "a work in progress," adding, "I remain confident."
Labor leaders sounded far less buoyant. The AFL-CIO has endorsed Obama's reelection, but his support for the Colombian deal could damp enthusiasm by union members to get out the vote on his behalf.
U.S. labor leaders oppose the deal because of widespread harassment and violence in Colombia as trade unions have tried to organize workers. Dozens of union organizers and activists have been killed in the last three years.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the announcement "deeply disappointing and troubling."
"We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions," he said in a statement.
The AFL-CIO joined Colombian labor organizations CUT and CTC in condemning the deal, saying the government had not done enough to stop violence against workers groups. "We fear that prematurely declaring the plan a success will not only halt progress, but lead to backtracking," the unions said in a joint statement.
When the pact takes effect May 15, most industrial and manufactured products exported from the U.S. and Colombia will immediately become duty free, making it cheaper for American businesses to sell their goods in Colombia. More than half of U.S. agricultural exports to Colombia will also become duty free.
Parsons reported from Cartagena and Gold from Washington.