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Free trade pact divides boro Colombian meet

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The community met Saturday to discuss the matter at a forum sponsored by the Queens Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The proposed agreement would eliminate the tariff on U.S. imports to Colombia, which range from 20 percent to 30 percent. There is currently no duty on most Colombian imports to the United States."It's not really free trade," said Sunnyside resident Maria Guzman, one of a handful of protesters outside the forum. "What if [the U.S.] exports potatoes? Colombia produces potatoes and carrots. What's going to happen?"Corona resident Alirio Orduna, founder of the Corona Youth Cadets, a nonprofit program emphasizing military-style leadership and outdoor skills, praised the free trade agreement because it would make Colombia less reliant on goods from neighboring countries.He cited last week's standoff as an example. The raid by the Colombian military into Ecuador to attack left-wing rebel forces resulted in Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez mobilizing his army and recalling his ambassador to Colombia. The crisis ended when Uribe apologized to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correo at a summit of Latin American leaders, but it lasted for almost a week.Such incidents also bring commerce between the nations to a standstill, Orduna said, resulting in empty shelves in stores."If something happens with free trade, we can say to hell with them," said Orduna, a Colombian native, of the neighboring countries.Luis Plata, Colombia's trade and industry minister, said the United States is already Colombia's No. 1 trading partner, exporting more than $6 billion in goods to his country. The free trade agreement, he said, is vital for Colombia to compete with the other South American nations that recently signed the agreements with the United States like Peru."It's important that Colombia doesn't get left behind," he said in an interview.But critics of the free trade agreements warn that no tariffs will result in an influx of cheap, federally subsidized American agricultural products that drive small Colombian farmers out of business.Elmhurst resident Leonard Morin, a representative for New York City People's Referendum on Free Trade, said in Mexico, where a similar pact was enacted, direct competition with American growers put 1.5 million farmers out of work. In Peru, he said, the free trade agreement resulted in a nationwide farmers' protest in February that lasted two days and resulted in four deaths.Plata dismissed the issue as a talking point for opponents. Because of Colombia's subequatorial climate, he said, its land is best suited for growing different crops than the U.S."It's become a more ideological thing than a real thing," he said. "It's not a big concern for us."According to the "CIA World Factbook," Colombia's primary agricultural products are coffee, cut flowers, bananas, rice and tobacco. The chief agricultural products of the United States, according to the book, are wheat, corn, other grains, fruits and vegetables.But Colombia faces another major hurdle before free trade is ratified: its history of violence against unionists.Plata said Colombia's government strongly supports the agreement, which passed its congress last year. In the United States, however, a Democrat-dominated Congress has been wary about passing the agreement because of close ties to labor unions.Morin said the agreement would further hinder union efforts or attempts to improve working conditions."It's a combination of imposing poverty and more repression," he said.Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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