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Latin jitters over Obama's free-trade policies

Business elites and conservative governments worry about his opposition to free-trade deals.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent, Staff writer / November 17, 2008

Resisting: Indigenous Colombians protested against the free-trade deal with the US in Calí, Colombia, last week.

Jaime Saldarriaga

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Bogotá, Colombia; and Mexico City

As a "citizen of the world," Munir Rodriguez says he was thrilled to see Barack Obama win the US presidency. But as a consultant for Colombia's fresh-cut-flower industry, which has been counting on the approval of a free-trade deal between the two counties, the election outcome means uncertainty for the future of his clients.

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"With Obama, everything is up in the air," says Mr. Rodriguez.

Throughout his campaign – which received significant support from US organized labor – Mr. Obama said he would oppose a free-trade deal with Colombia negotiated by the Bush administration, and suggested he may seek to renegotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico.

His campaign statements have raised concerns among Latin America's business elites and conservative governments of a more closed, protectionist America under Obama. But many hold out hope that, as president, Obama will take a different view from candidate Obama.

"We have a strategy to seek approval of the free-trade agreement by working with the Democratic majority in Congress and President Obama," Carolina Barco, Colombian ambassador to the US told local media.

Colombian officials were hoping that the free-trade agreement would be voted on during this week's congressional session, but that now seems unlikely.

Obama's support for free trade

Despite concerns among Latin American free-traders, analysts note that Obama is not against the idea. He supported a trade deal with Peru once labor and environmental protections were attached to the text, although he was absent the day the deal was voted in late 2007. And he said he would support a similar deal with Panama once the president of the national legislature in that country – who is wanted on murder charges in the US – stepped down in August.

And Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, noted that despite a firm labor backing, Obama's closest advisers are firmly in the pro-free-trade camp. Rahm Emmanuel, appointed chief of staff, was a key player in gaining congressional approval of the 1993 NAFTA agreement.

But Colombian exporters know that there will be more conditions attached to their trade deal now. "Clearly Obama is going to demand more from Colombia on human rights," says Rodriguez, the flower industry consultant.

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