Bloomberg.com
By Mark Drajem
July 24, 2009
www.bloomberg.com

July 24 (Bloomberg) — Colombia, spurned by the U.S. Congress on a proposed free-trade alliance, is starting a public relations offensive that will dot Washington with eight-foot- tall hearts.

Colombia will put 40 three-dimensional fiberglass heart sculptures around downtown. At Union Station near the Capitol, visitors will also be able to download free Colombian music, sample the country’s coffee and see pictures of buildings in Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena, said Maria Claudia Lacouture, the campaign’s general manager.

The $800,000 tourism effort, funded by both the government and groups such as the coffee and flower growers, is intended to alter the perception among some in the U.S. that Colombia means drugs, violence and crime and isn’t intended to sway lawmakers on the trade accord, Lacouture said.

“It will have a positive effect” in any case on the bid to persuade Congress to back the accord, said William Morley, a lobbyist who has worked for AmCham Colombia, the Colombian- American Chamber of Commerce in Bogota, which represents U.S. business interests in the country.

“This will encourage everybody to take a step back, and remind us why we fell in love in the first place,” Morley said in an interview on July 22.

The U.S. House rejected a request for action by President George W. Bush last year, voting 224-195 to delay a decision on the Colombia agreement. It was the first time Congress hasn’t taken up — and passed — a trade deal submitted by a president, and was a blow to Colombia because Congress approved a similar pact with neighboring Peru the year before.

Obama’s Instructions

President Barack Obama said he has instructed U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to negotiate changes to the agreement that would allow Congress to approve it. Those talks began in Washington last week.

Democrats such as Representative Phil Hare of Illinois and unions such as the AFL-CIO federation oppose the deal, saying the government of President Alvaro Uribe tolerates murders of labor leaders and hasn’t made necessary changes to improve the rights of workers.

“This is an enormous waste of money and time,” Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO, said of the Colombian public relations effort in a phone interview today. “They should instead use these resources to address the very serious issues with respect to violence and labor law reform.”

Colombia is also the world’s largest producer of coca, used to make cocaine, and the city of Medellin gained notoriety in the 1980s as the drug criminal Pablo Escobar took over the city and violence terrorized the country.

Coca Production Halved

In 2008, Colombia cut drug cultivation, and coca production was less than half its peak in 2000, according to the United Nations. Since Uribe took power in 2002, the country reports that it has boosted economic growth and cut down on kidnappings and murders.

According to focus groups conducted by the “Colombia Is Passion” tourism campaign, views of the country in the U.S. remain tied to drugs and violence. The hearts to be installed in Washington in September are intended to reverse that image.

“It’s easier to change the reality than the perception,”, Lacouture said in an interview in Washington on July 22.

After Washington, the hearts will move to New York, Shanghai and then Europe.

“If we can help” getting the free trade deal approved, “that’s great,” Lacouture said. “But that’s not the purpose. This is not a political thing.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at mdrajem@bloomberg.net

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