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BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Colombia has enjoyed strong economic growth under the administration of President Alvaro Uribe. But the leader of this country, with a population of 40 million, is concerned that the U.S. Congress has been slow to approve a bilateral free-trade agreement with Colombia, which is regarded as one of the United States' closer allies in Latin America.

The Produce News met with President Uribe May 11 at Palacio de Nari?o, a grand building in downtown Bogota that is the president's residence and is akin to The White House in Washington.

The Harvard- and Oxford-educated President Uribe spoke fluently in English as he met for 20 minutes for an interview with The Produce News. For security reasons, cameras are not allowed inside the Palacio de Nari?o.

President Uribe, who was first elected to office in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006, credited Colombia's strong floral and fruit export businesses for significant contributions to Colombia's economic success. He said that his country's tropical locale and various microclimates give Colombia the opportunity to produce a wide range of agricultural products.

"Flowers and fruit are very important," said President Uribe. "In the last 30 years, the flower industry has advanced a lot in research, and there are a lot of new varieties. We've seen a great advancement in varieties, and at the same time, the industry is intensive in labor. A great majority of the workers are women, who are heads of family."

President Uribe continued, "Prosperity is the only way for any country, such as Colombia, to overcome poverty and move forward." This creates better income distribution, which is critical for that development, he noted. Of the Andean Free Trade Agreement, President Uribe said, "We have to have patience and urgency."

The president said that Colombia "has a long tradition of good relations with the United States. We have been allied in democratic values and have the same core fundamental" respect for law and order as the United States. President Uribe told The Produce News that his country is strongly allied with the United States in the fight against narco-terrorism."

Despite these strengths, without the U.S. congressional approval of a free trade agreement with Colombia, "for the near future, I don't see many possibilities for Colombia to increase its exports to the U.S. Nevertheless, the free trade agreement is very important as a signal for investment in our country and other free-trade agreements."

He continued, "We need investments for this country to give our people the opportunity for something different than narco-traffic to overcome poverty and create a better social income distribution. The free trade agreement is a necessary step on the way for us to reach those goals. It is important to consider the bilateral trade balance between Colombia and the U.S. At first glance, you see a surplus for Colombia, but once you subtract oil -- even without coal -- there is a balance surplus for the U.S.

"Politically, it is not understandable that when Mexico and the Central American countries and others have that agreement with the United States, that Colombia does not yet," he added. "But we are working with prudence, patience and urgency."

He said that in the last four years, the increase of direct foreign investment into Colombia has jumped to $10.6 billion from $700 million. In 2008, 54 percent of that total amount went to energy, much of it to fund the development of Colombia's oil, natural gas and coal resources. He noted that, of course, the other "46 percent went to other economic sectors" from direct foreign investments.

Investments are needed in all sectors of Colombia. "Our government is totally friendly to domestic and international investors," he said, noting that Colombia is one of the more attractive countries for foreign investors.

"The main aspiration is for Colombia to maintain a high rate of investment as a percentage of our [gross domestic product]," he said. Over the last four years, the foreign investment rate has been over 25 percent, "and we are making all efforts to keep it above the line of 25 percent."