Trip sways Matheson about free trade

Utah representative says establishing such a pact will help Colombia be a stronger U.S. ally
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WASHINGTON - Fresh off a tour of Colombia, Rep. Jim Matheson says a free trade agreement with that South American country could boost its strength as a U.S. ally, a point President Bush also stressed Tuesday.

Matheson, a Utah Democrat, spent three days in Colombia this weekend with several other members of Congress, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. They met with President Alvaro Uribe and toured parts of the nation that Matheson says even police would not dare to visit just a few years ago.

"There's just been a real transformation in this country," Matheson says. "This is a country that has made tremendous strides to provide security for its population . . . [however], they're clearly very open about all the challenges they face."

Indeed, while Matheson and other U.S. officials were taking in the local scene and learning about the changes going on in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador both sent troops to the Colombia border after Colombian commandos killed Raul Reyes, a top leader of the guerilla army FARC.

The Associated Press reported that the Colombian government denied it assassinated Reyes and just found his body, though Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called that a lie.

Matheson says he was told of the military actions by Uribe but didn't see any of it firsthand during his trip. He said Colombians were celebrating in the street.

Bush tied the Colombian national security - and by extension, its ability to serve as a strong U.S. ally in the region - to a free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia.

"President Uribe told me that one of the most important ways America can demonstrate its support for Colombia is by moving forward with a free trade agreement that we negotiated," Bush said in a Rose Garden speech.

"The free trade agreement will show the Colombian people that democracy and free enterprise lead to a better life. It will help President Uribe counter the radical vision of those who are seeking to undermine democracy and create divisions within our hemisphere," Bush said.

Matheson says a fair trade agreement with Colombia - the U.S. already has an agreement with Central American countries as well as Mexico and Canada - would help augment the relationship between the U.S. and Colombia and boost the economics of both as well.

He added that the delegation, organized by the Commerce Department, also spent time learning how Colombian officials are fighting to curb the production of drugs in the nation and how the United States may be able to help stem the flow of cocaine.