(Sept. 18) Politics typically play an influential role in international trade agreements, but the produce industry should keep a careful eye on U.S. dealings with four Andean nations so that fresh produce trade doesn’t become a political victim.

Preferences awarded by the U.S. to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia already have been extended twice and are due to expire on Feb. 28, which is a very real possibility with a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Trade with the four South American countries involves thousands of products, and of note are imports of flowers, bananas and asparagus, and exports of apples and stone fruit.

Large trade agreements have come under heavier scrutiny as members of Congress weigh their effects on their constituents, particularly as they relate to jobs.

And agreements with the four nations aren’t at the same negotiation points.

Papers have already been signed with Peru and Colombia, but they may not pass Congress, although the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act could be extended into the next U.S. presidential and congressional term in 2009 as a sign of good faith.

In Ecuador and Bolivia, the governments have refused to negotiate a free trade agreement.

Adding to the political nature, some in Congress fear extending the agreement could be seen as rewarding nations that have been friendly with noted America basher Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Produce industry members should stay in close contact with industry groups that monitor trade deals, such as the Untied Fresh Produce Association, to make sure fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t sacrificed at the bargaining table.