President Barack Obama is committed to finalizing free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama but faces “political winds” and an uncertain outcome, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Speaking at a conference of leaders from the Western Hemisphere, Clinton expressed some chagrin at seeing colleagues from Colombia and Panama, which have been pushing for final approval of trade deals signed by the Bush administration and have worked to address U.S. concerns.

“We are, as President Obama said in the State of the Union, committed to our free-trade agreements with both countries but we’re also facing very difficult challenges,” she said. “But I am absolutely here to reiterate that commitment.”

The Obama administration has said it is working to resolve concerns with Colombia and Panama so it can send them to Congress for a vote. However, the pacts are unpopular with many Democrats and the White House has been reluctant to force a vote on them, especially ahead of the November congressional elections.

Clinton acknowledged both countries have worked hard to deal with concerns raised by the U.S. administration and Congress. U.S. lawmakers have pushed Colombia to do more to stop the killing of trade unionists and pursue those responsible while Obama has called for the pacts to include tougher labor standards.

“I think we are going to pursue this,” Clinton said of the free-trade deals. “I can’t predict the outcome but it is something that the president and I in particular feel strongly about.

“We just have to deal with the political winds and we need more help from the private sector,” she added, saying better advocacy was required to explain “the importance of trade and why it is good for the United States and American workers.”

Clinton’s remarks came at the Council of the Americas’ 40th annual Washington Conference, which is taking place at the State Department and is attended by heads of state, U.S. Cabinet members, government ministers from the region and congressional leaders.

Clinton said in addition to deepening trade ties with the region, the Obama administration wanted to pursue efforts to improve security, develop energy production and boost economic development as a way of reducing income inequality.

“We believe that we can do so much more on both energy and climate,” she said. “We are particularly concerned about how so many countries in the Caribbean and Central America are dependent on imported oil at great cost to their economies.”

She said drug trafficking and violence were creating insecurity across the region.

“We need smarter more effective strategies to deal with this continuing threat to civil society,” Clinton said. “We have some good examples of what does work but we are nowhere near what I would consider to be an effective strategy.”

She said the economic inequality in the region was driving some of the criminal activity.

“While we can take a lot joy in the positive GDP growth, our income disparity continues to grow, and that is not good news for anybody,” Clinton said. “That’s a source of social and political instability. It feeds a lot of the criminal activity that unfortunately is now dominated by the traffickers of drugs and arms and people.” (Reuters)