Junketing Senators cave in to Ecuadorian leader

Six junketing U.S. senators Friday said they will seek to extend trade benefits for Ecuador, despite a promise by its leftist President-elect to halt a key U.S. anti-drug operation in the Andean nation.

Rafael Correa, who takes office in January and is a friend of U.S. foe President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, has said Ecuador has done its share to be part of a preferential tariff program for countries in the region that fight drug trafficking.

After a brief meeting with Correa in Quito, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said “the people of Ecuador should feel comfortable that it will be extended.”

A spokesman for Correa, however, said the incoming President has not changed his mind about halting the drug program.

The Nevada politician said that Correa’s refusal to extend in 2009 a lease on an air base used by the U.S. military to hunt for cocaine smugglers will not jeopardize the program.

“There should be no connection between Manta and other trade agreements,” Reid told reporters.

The U.S. military missions flying out of the Manta base are responsible for more than half of all South American drug seizures.

The operation is seen by experts as playing a vital role in curbing the trafficking of cocaine from Peru, Bolivia and the world’s top producer, Colombia.

“Our position is that the trade benefits be renewed for two years … our position is that the benefits should last as long as the anti-narcotics fight,” Correa told reporters after the meeting.

Earlier this month, Congress passed a six-month extension of the program after a fierce debate in which Republicans argued Ecuador had not to done enough to secure a free trade deal with Washington.

Correa, a former economy minister who won November’s vote by a wide margin, has said he opposes signing a free trade deal with Washington.

Peru and Colombia have approved U.S. free trade deals, but the pacts need to be ratified by the newly elected U.S. Congress.

“It’s going to be very hard for the trade deals with Colombia and Peru to be ratified in a Democrat-led Congress, and the trade benefit is a consolation prize,” said Daniel Erikson, an analyst with Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

Reid is leading a delegation of four Democrats and two Republicans on a multi-country South American tour that includes a tourist stop at Inca ruins for the Senators and their families. The incoming Senate majority leader has come under criticism for not postponing the trip so the delegration could attend the funeral of former President Gerald Ford.

(Includes information from Reuters)