New Zealand Markets open in 2 hrs 18 mins

US trade with Colombia grows

At the Colombian Embassy in Washington, Ambassador Carlos Urrutia says there's no doubt that his country's trade deal with the US has paid off.

Colombian businesses are sending more socks and cosmetics to California, beet sugar to New York and glass to Florida to help with hurricane repairs.

US officials are equally excited, saying US businesses have improved their sales to the South American country by 20 per cent. Manufacturers are exporting more transportation equipment, petroleum and coal products, processed foods and a long list of farm products, including soybeans, pork, wheat, grapes and dairy goods.

But a year after the agreement took effect, the growth in trade is producing mounting anxiety in some quarters.

In California, for example, progress has come with a price for the once-dominant flower industry.

Colombian imports have jumped seven per cent in the past year. Less than three per cent of the Valentine's Day roses sold in this country were grown here. On New Year's Day, just two of the 41 floats in the popular Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, featured flowers grown in the Golden State.

"People don't think about where their flowers come from, like they do their food," said Kasey Cronquist, the chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission.

The unhappiness extends well beyond flowers.

Opponents note that the balance of trade between the countries remains out of whack. The United States imported nearly $US25 billion ($A26.30 billion) in goods from Colombia last year, while it exported only $US16 billion.

In Washington, the trade agreement is under increased attack from critics who want President Barack Obama to do more to reverse the violence that persists in Colombia, where at least 20 unionists were assassinated last year.

Despite the complaints, Urrutia said the agreement was clearly benefiting US consumers by giving them more products from which to choose.

Overall, he said, two-way trade between the countries is up by five per cent, and Colombian companies have sent 187 new products to the United States in the past year, including photographic equipment, anti-inflammatory drugs, tropical fruit juices with sugar, and electrical transformers. He said 775 Colombian companies had shipped products to the United States for the first time in the past year, with 23 states getting at least one new Colombian product.

While the Colombian government doesn't track how many new jobs have been produced as a result of the trade pact, he estimated them to be in the thousands, adding that the unemployment rate in the country is declining. It stood at 10 per cent in March, after averaging more than 12 per cent for the past dozen years.

"We've been looking at the figures. What we see is encouraging. We're quite satisfied," Urrutia said.

To mark the one-year anniversary, Obama and his team have been busy touting the deal, too.

In an opinion piece published two weeks ago in The Miami Herald, which is owned by McClatchy, the president called the deal "a moment of great promise for our hemisphere," saying it had created new markets for US businesses while the fast-growing economies of Latin America have helped people escape poverty.

Colombia's human-rights record, which emerged as an issue on Capitol Hill before Congress approved the trade pact in 2011, remains a sore spot.

Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, a nonprofit consumer group based in Washington, said Colombia remained the deadliest country for union members, with 471 unionists receiving death threats since the trade agreement took effect and at least 20 unionists reported assassinated.

Urrutia said the issue had the attention of the Colombian government "at the highest level" and that plans were in place to provide union leaders with armoured vehicles, bodyguards and police protection.

"The facts are that Colombia has made a lot of progress," he said.

"We still have problems. Any attack against a labour leader, a union leader, is one attack too many."

He acknowledged the situation that US flower growers face while offering little sympathy.

"They're very unhappy. I can imagine," he said.

"But you know, the problem is this is global trade. I think protectionism is no longer acceptable anywhere you go, including Colombia.

"This is good for American consumers because they get first-quality flowers at cheaper prices."

Moreover, he said: "If Colombia were not involved, the US market would be absorbing fresh-cut flowers being exported from Holland and Ecuador. We're not to blame."