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Harper in Colombia on free-trade deal ‘victory lap’

Globe and Mail, Toronto

Harper in Colombia on free-trade deal ‘victory lap’

By Steven Chase, Bogota— Globe and Mail Update

10 August 2011

Stephen Harper pays a brief visit to Colombia Wednesday to celebrate the coming-into-force of a free trade agreement with Canada.

His visit – part of a four-country Latin American trip – comes amid reminders of the insecurity faced by Canadian companies in Colombia.

On Monday, a Canadian company’s oil operations were attacked by what Colombian military officials says were FARC militants.

The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) have been fighting the Colombia government for decades.

Colombian military officials told local media that 30 FARC rebels set fire to an oil reservoir owned by Canada’s Alange Energy Corp. The TSE-listed firm has recently announced a change of name to PetroMagdalena Energy Corp.

Mr. Harper visits President Manuel Santos in the Colombia capital of Bogota, a city of 8.5 million nestled in a high plateau in the Andes mountains.

He will also hold a roundtable with Canadian businesspeople in Bogota to discuss business opportunities here.

The Canada-Colombia free trade deal comes into effect August 15.

The Prime Minister’s visit to Colombia on this trip has been described as a “victory lap” for Mr. Harper.

Canada has succeeded in beating the Americans to the punch in securing preferential market access to Colombia. A U.S.-Colombia deal has been stalled by lawmakers in Washington over what proponents call protectionist concerns.

Ottawa took flak from human-rights advocates over a trade deal with Colombia, but Canadian Foundation for the Americas executive director Carlo Dade said recently that Mr. Harper’s drive to clinch the agreement was a gamble that’s been vindicated.

He said evidence in Colombia suggests the country is evolving in the right direction. For instance, former president Alvaro Uribe in 2010 accepted a Colombian court’s decision to reject a referendum that could have allowed him to skirt term limits for his office. Mr. Uribe said he respected the court’s decision.

“When was the last time you heard a Latin American leader say that?” Mr. Dade said.

“It could have turned out completely differently had Uribe said, ‘No, the country needs me too much – it is too difficult not to have me.’ Harper would have had egg on his face.”

Mr. Harper heads to Costa Rica Wedneday night and then Honduras Friday.