Rep. Jim Matheson

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, got a firsthand look last weekend at Colombia's progress, as President Bush continues to push Congress to approve a pending free trade agreement with the country.

Matheson and six other lawmakers participated in a trip with Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez that included meetings with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, members of his cabinet, Chief Prosecutor Sandra Castro and residents of Medellin.

This was Gutierrez's fourth congressional trip to the country. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, went on a similar trip last September.

Matheson said he supports the free trade agreement because it could lead to more Utah goods, such as supplement or agriculture products, going to Colombia, bringing in money for local businesses.

But looking at the bigger picture, Matheson said an agreement with Colombia "could be another piece in the puzzle to bring stability" to the country.

He said there is still the "guerilla challenge" and the "cocaine challenge," but that he saw an opportunity for an "important security investment in a part of the world where other countries are not supportive of the United States."

Matheson attended a session with about 12 demobilized citizens now participating in a program to reintegrate them into Colombia's civil society with job training and education, according to the Commerce Department. The delegations also toured a bread factory and a rode a cable car up a mountain. A mayor built the cable car to help connect those on top of the mountain with those in the city. He also met with labor union leaders who are in favor of or opposed to the free trade agreement.

"A lot has changed in the past few years," Matheson said, adding that during the trip he learned 40,000 people have surrendered arms.

And a lot changed just in the few days Matheson was overseas, as the Colombian government crossed into Ecuador and killed Raul Reyes, the second in command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered his troops to Colombia's border in light of Reyes's death. President Bush said he spoke with Uribe Tuesday and emphasized that the United States "fully supports Colombia's democracy, and that we firmly oppose any acts of aggression that could destabilize the region."

Uribe told the president that one of the best ways the United States could support Colombia would be to move ahead with the free trade agreement.

"The free trade agreement will show the Colombian people that democracy and free enterprise lead to a better life," Bush said. "It will help President Uribe counter the radical vision of those who are seeking to undermine democracy and create divisions within our hemisphere."

Continuing the same message he delivered last week, Bush told Congress that the trade agreement "is more than a matter of smart economics, it is a matter of national security."

"If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region, and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere," Bush said.

"Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to come together and approve this agreement. By acting at this critical moment, we can show the Colombian people and millions across the region that they can count on America to keep its word, and that freedom is the surest path to prosperity and peace."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who is a former Deputy United States Trade Representative, said trade is the "best disinfectant."

Huntsman said a free trade agreement would help recognize that the government is working "and put down a very serious insurgency."

The United States and Colombia already have agreed to the terms of a free trade agreement, but Congress needs to approve it before it can be implemented. Some Democrats oppose the agreement, saying the country needs tougher human rights and organized labor protection.

E-mail: [email protected]