updated 8/24/2006 3:22:12 PM ET 2006-08-24T19:22:12

President George W. Bush said Thursday he wants a free-trade agreement with Colombia, which would be Washington's largest Western Hemisphere pact since creation of NAFTA in 1994.

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In a letter to Congress, Bush said the deal would benefit Colombians by expanding economic opportunity and strengthening democracy. He said it would generate export opportunities for U.S. farmers, ranchers and companies. Bush also said a free trade deal with Colombia would help create jobs in the United States and help U.S. consumers save money while offering them more choices.

Trade negotiators in Colombia have said that their country is being unfairly punished because of the White House's refusal to push a bilateral free trade deal through Congress ahead of November's midterm elections. The deal also is a unique test of Washington's leadership in a region where trade deals that lock in billion-dollar subsidies for U.S. farmers have been sharply criticized.

In 1991, Washington granted privileges covering thousands of products to help four Andean countries - Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia - diversify their economies away from production of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine. But they now stand to lose millions of dollars when unilateral trade privileges expire and 18 percent tariffs are restored.

Delayed gratification
Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, the United States' staunchest ally in Latin America, has bet heavily on a trade agreement to replace expiring privileges. In February, Uribe risked his own re-election chances and traveled to Washington to conclude talks over a deal that eliminated overnight all but a fraction of tariffs on the $14.3 billion (??11.1 billion) in goods traded annually between the two countries.

Since talks concluded, ratification has been held up by the White House's refusal to notify the U.S. Congress, perhaps fearing another highly politicized trade deal could hurt the re-election chances of Republican incumbents, according to Colombian trade negotiators and congressional Hill staffers.

Bush notified Congress of his intention to enter into the free-trade agreement on Thursday in a statement issued in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he will spend the rest of the week.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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