Colombia trade deal a 'powerful message': PM
MONTREAL - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe appealed Wednesday for increased foreign investment to help the South American country in its effort to shed the shackles of poverty, crime and drugs.
"Investment is a way for countries like Colombia to overcome poverty, to create better income distribution and to get rid of narcotics," Uribe said in a speech to the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Montreal.
The 56-year-old conservative politician said the fight against narco-trafficking can be aided by investments that give people legal alternatives.
Efforts to fight criminals have resulted in the dismantling of FARC, a paramilitary organization, and the extradition of 14 ringleaders to the United States.
Uribe said he's worked since his election in 2002 to boost confidence in Colombia by enhancing freedom and democratic values and trying to improve security for its 46 million residents.
Throughout the country, justice has regained its footing, helping to reduce crimes, the Harvard University graduate said.
The number of killings and kidnappings remains high, but deaths have been reduced nearly in half to 17,000 a year.
Colombia is looking to make reparations to more than 220,000 victims of crime, spending $10 billion. The first 12,000 victims will receive payments in June.
"Total reparation doesn't exist, but any endeavour of reparation removes the seeds of hate," said Uribe, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former U.S. president George W. Bush in January.
On the social front, the government is expanding health coverage and providing more loans to help students attend university.
One critic dressed in business attire briefly interrupted his speech before being removed from the room screaming.
Outside the conference, dozens of protesters gathered, mostly in opposition to the South American leader and his efforts to secure a free-trade deal with Canada.
"We believe that free trade will give us nothing good and will increase human rights problems," said Fabian Leon Asocdom of SOS Colombia, a coalition of social and union groups.
Uribe later travelled to Ottawa, where he met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who urged Parliament to pass a newly signed free-trade agreement with Colombia to send a clear and "powerful message" to the world against protectionism.
Harper said passing the Colombian trade deal is "the right thing to do for Canada, to do for Colombia, and the right thing to do for the global economy.
"Drug traffickers will trade with or without a free-trade agreement," Harper told a news conference with Uribe.
"We need a free-trade agreement to make sure that we open up other economic opportunities to draw economic activity away from the drug trade."