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U.S. agenda may delay Colombia trade deal: minister

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Support for a free-trade pact with Colombia is growing among Democrats long opposed to it, but midterm elections and a full domestic agenda may further delay the deal, Bogota's defense minister said on Thursday.

Democrats seem encouraged by President Barack Obama's will to get the long-postponed deal passed to boost exports, minister Gabriel Silva told reporters in Washington after meeting with Senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, an influential voice within his party.

"He is optimistic. The Democratic Party, in the voice of President Obama, has expressed the goal of reaching the approval of the free-trade agreement," he said.

But he said Dodd "mentioned this is a complex electoral year with a very heavy domestic agenda", referring to stalled debates on healthcare reform and pressing demand to create jobs.

"The dynamics in the Congress could be in our favor and that is how we hope it will be," Silva said.

Colombia is Washington's closest ally in South America and has received more than $5 billion in mostly military aid since 2000 to help fight leftist rebels and cocaine traffickers.

Yet negotiations over a free-trade agreement with Colombia launched in 2006 have been blocked by Democrats who complain President Alvaro Uribe's conservative government has not done enough to stop violence against unionists and human rights defenders.

Critics also say Uribe has not focused on stopping former militia fighters from organizing new gangs that murder those who challenge their control over local communities.

New York-based group Human Rights Watch said earlier this month the tide may be changing among Democrats, but the deadlock won't be lifted until Colombia acts to stop rising violence in the country.

Silva said the Colombian government respects human rights but does not share the group's findings, which he said were based upon partial facts.

Obama spoke last month in his State of the Union address about strengthening trade with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, two other nations also awaiting congressional approval of trade pacts, as part of his plans to double U.S. exports in the next five years.

An editorial published earlier this week by The Washington Post argued Obama should give the Colombia trade agreement a push to support U.S. exporters. If approved, the trade deal will lead Colombia to eliminate most tariffs on U.S. exports.

(Reporting by Esteban Israel, editing by Philip Barbara)

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