By Kevin Bogardus and Sam Youngman - 04/07/11 09:43 PM EDT
President Obama met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House on Thursday to formally announce a trade deal between the two countries.
Expected to be sent to Congress soon for approval, the Colombia deal will help achieve the president’s goal, announced in his last State of the Union address, of doubling U.S. exports within five years.
U.S. business supports the agreement, while organized labor opposes it because of the treatment of union workers in Colombia.
In the Oval Office, Obama praised Santos, saying he is "at the forefront of a progressive and thoughtful agenda within Colombia.”
The president also said the South American country “can be a role model for the rest of the region.”
First negotiated by the George W. Bush administration in 2006, the agreement has been held up in Congress by Democrats’ concerns over Colombia’s poor record of violence against trade unionists.
In response to those concerns, the Obama administration has had the Colombian government agree to an “action plan” to better protect union members, pledging tougher sentences for those who threaten union workers and more police investigators to help prosecute crimes against labor.
"Now, there's a lot of work to do to translate this action plan into reality," Obama said. “I have great confidence in [Santos's] ability to be able to execute this plan.”
Saying Colombia has long waited for the “green light” for the trade deal, Santos said the action plan “establishes stronger physical defense of workers” and will ensure that “the rights of workers are going to be guaranteed and protected.”
The action plan has not won support of the labor movement here. Unions criticized the plan as insufficient to protect workers from violence, and said that Colombia’s labor laws are below international standards.
In a statement Wednesday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said his labor federation was “deeply disappointed” that the Obama administration has moved forward on the Colombia agreement, saying the proposal does not go far enough.
Unions like the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Steelworkers came out against the trade deal Thursday.
Arguing it will help create U.S. jobs, business has long lobbied for passage of the trade deal and praised the Obama administration for moving forward on the agreement.
The White House estimates that the trade deal could expand U.S. exports by more than $1.1 billion and support thousands of additional jobs here.