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Stephen Harper defends free-trade deal with Colombia

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with a soccer player as he visits the Soacha Youth Development Centre in Soacha, Colombia, Aug. 10, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper defended his decision to sign a free-trade deal with Colombia – which takes effect next week – saying those who oppose an agreement on human-rights grounds are protectionists in disguise.

Mr. Harper visited the Colombian capital of Bogota on Wednesday, set in a high plateau of the Andes Mountains, to celebrate Canada's newest free-trade partner.

Canada is the first Group of Eight country to sign a deal with Colombia, having beaten the United States to the punch. A U.S.-Colombia FTA is held up in Congress by lawmakers who say they're worried about human-rights concerns such as treatment of union officials.

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Mr. Harper's stopover, part of a four-country Latin American tour, came just after a stark reminder of the realities of doing business in Colombia, a country plagued by rebels, criminal gangs and drugs.

Just days ago, a small Canadian company's oil operations were attacked by what Colombian military officials say were FARC rebels, who have been fighting the government for decades. The rebels set fire to an oil reservoir owned by Canada's Alange Energy, a TSE-listed firm that recently changed its name to PetroMagdalena Energy.

Mr. Harper was passionate, however, about his decision to grant Colombia preferential access to Canada's markets, saying its human-rights record is improving and that expanded trade can only help the country of 46 million.

"There are enormous benefits for an important friend and ally that is struggling with deep issues of poverty in this part of the world and has great potential if they get a helping hand, and a steadfast friend from a country like ourselves," Mr. Harper said.

He said U.S. lawmakers must approve the American FTA with Colombia.

"No good purpose is served in this country or in the United States by anybody who is standing in the way of the development of the prosperity of Colombia," he said. "We can't sit around; we can't block the progress of a country like this for protectionist reasons and try to use human rights as a front for doing that."

Amnesty International recently commended Colombia for progress on human rights during the tenure of President Juan Manuel Santos but said the country still faces serious problems. The watchdog group said civilians continue to suffer the impact of the armed conflict with rebels, adding that security forces have often been as responsible as guerrillas and paramilitaries for "grave abuses" of human rights.

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Security is still a major challenge in Colombia. There are vast disparities in wealth; the country's poverty rate exceeds 40 per cent. There are 6,000 police stationed on the streets of Bogota to keep order.

More than 70 Canadian companies operate in Colombia today, an increase in recent years that reflects the country's improving security situation. Mr. Santos said things are far better as the government gains ground on the rebels and disrupts their drug trafficking.

"If you ask any foreign investor, they will tell you security in Colombia has improved substantially," Mr. Santos told reporters.

The FARC rebels, who have been fighting Bogota for years, are diminished today as dispirited fighters leave their ranks.

Talisman Energy executive Chris Spaulding says the jump in Colombia's oil output reflects the increasing ability of foreign firms to operate locally. Production is climbing from 500,000 barrels per day five or six years ago and is soon expected to pass one million barrels a day.

"If you look at Colombia 10 years ago and where it is now, it's totally, totally different," said Mr. Spaulding, vice-president of new business development for Latin America.

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"The petroleum industry is able to get in the areas that we're interested in, do the work we need to do, develop the resources, develop the projects, and produce the oil and gas. The security does pose some challenges. The government recognizes there are some challenges and they're working with the industry and we're working with them to address those challenges," he said. "It's a place that we can do business, but you've got to think about the security situation."

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