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CNN: Protesters block streets as Obama, Uribe talk free trade

June 29th, 2009

President Barack Obama discussed a free-trade agreement with his Colombian counterpart Monday, while scores of protesters clogged streets near the White House to demonstrate against the pact.

Ten protesters chained themselves together on the street and had to be removed by police. Police used a saw to cut the chains apart and then dragged the protesters to the sidewalk.

No one was arrested but police were forced to close several streets around the White House because of the protest organized by Witness For Peace, a Washington-based grassroots organization focused on changing U.S. policies and corporate practices in Latin America.

The protesters assembled shortly before Obama and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe met at the White House to discuss the free-trade agreement, drug cartels and other issues including Sunday’s ouster of Honduras President Jose Manuel Zelaya.

A free-trade agreement between the countries has been stalled in Congress for the last two years due to Democratic concerns over human-rights violations in Colombia, including the deaths of labor leaders.

Obama opposed the Colombia agreement as a senator, but said Monday his administration is working with Uribe’s government to work out a pact that can gain bipartisan support in Congress.

“It is a matter of getting both countries to a place where their legislatures can feel confident that it will be ultimately to the economic benefit of these countries,” Obama said, adding he had no strict timetable for completion of the pact. “I have noted a special concern that is bipartisan and shared both by this administration and Congress that the human rights issues in Colombia get resolved.”

The protesters complained that many areas in Colombia slated for commercial development under a free-trade agreement are where human-rights abuses have occurred. Further development could displace people and worsen abuses, they contended.

“We want there to be a stop in the internal displacement that’s taking place in Colombia,” said Gimena Sanchez, one of the protesters. “Colombia has … over 4 million people who have lost their homes due to violence, combat operations and threats to their lives.”

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