On June 7 2008, less than one year after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the beginning of bilateral free trade talks with Colombia, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade announced the conclusion of negotiations.
While the US-Colombia free trade agreement has been stalled in the US, due mainly to the grave human rights situation in Colombia and, some say, a US election campaign, Canada has offered transnational capital an opening through the back door.
"The Government of Canada is delivering on its commitment to open up opportunities for Canadian business in the Americas and around the world," stated the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade David Emerson, revealing the true beneficiaries of this agreement. Emerson went on to note that "the free trade agreement will expand Canada-Colombia trade and investment, and will help solidify ongoing efforts by the Government of Colombia to create a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy."
Many Colombians might ask just what "efforts" for a "prosperous, equitable and secure democracy" Emerson is referring to. It seems obvious that Canadian officials don’t understand what those "ongoing efforts" look like in Colombia.
In a feeble and superficial attempt to understand the situation in Colombia, several Canadian members of parliament made a short and very limited trip to Bogotá last month. The delegation didn’t leave Bogotá, on the advice of the Canadian embassy, but they did meet with trade unionists and Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez.
After this very limited foray into Colombia, without further investigation into the situation on the ground for communities affected by the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia, and also without waiting for the completion of a report about the deal being prepared by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the negotiations have concluded, and the agreement is heading for ratification.
NDP International Trade critic Peter Julian told the Toronto Star that the Harper government has made "a horribly bad move by signing the agreement rather than respecting the procedure, rather than respecting the opinion of the committee."
The truth is that the negotiations and the agreement remain shrouded in absolute secrecy. All Canadians and Colombians are told is that Canadian business will have greater access to Colombian markets and, perhaps more crucially, to their resources.
Even if Canadians overlook the current occupations of Afghanistan and Haiti, as well as the flaring conflicts between indigenous peoples and extractive industries across the country, the latest phase of Canadian imperialism also falls short in terms of Canadian democracy. The Canadian public will get not so much as a debate, as Harper et al. open the back door for capital that has no national allegiances.
The Canada-Colombia free trade agreement is seen as a cornerstone in the Harper government’s policy of "re-engagement in the Americas," where Canada fancies itself as a "third way" for Latin American countries seeking to break the United States’ historical grip on the region.
Hardly a superpower itself, the Canadian government mascarades around the world as an altruistic superhero and human rights defender. Tell that to the Haitians, the Afghans, the victims of genocide within Canada, and now to the Colombians whose brutal regime the Canucks are shaking hands with, taking them under their wing and showing them how to "do" democracy.
I have to wonder what kind of democratic lessons Canada has in mind for the Colombians when there are no conditions for serious debate on free trade, among a slough of other issues, in Canada itself?
Uribe’s Colombia: a country for sale
Colombia, the greatest recipient of US military ‘aid’ in the hemisphere, is widely considered one of the last bastions of US power in Latin America. In the context of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ and more recent ‘war on terror,’ there is ‘Plan Colombia’, implemented in 2001, marketed as an anti-drug strategy that has at its heart a counterinsurgency strategy.
Colombia is home to Latin America’s longest-surviving leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The Harper government sees increasing economic ‘partnerships’ with the country as part of the road to peace.
However, a trade deal with Colombia in the context of a 60-year armed conflict has been controversial to say the least. The Colombian state is the greatest perpetrator of violence against civilians in the conflict, and the country remains the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists (year after year, more Colombian trade unionists are murdered than in the rest of the world combined), the much-lauded Colombian democracy is of dubious legitimacy, at best.
Claims that Uribe has toned down political violence in the country are contradicted by the increase of ‘false positives,’ whereby civilians murdered by the Colombian armed forces are dressed up as guerrillas in order to "gain points."
President Uribe has been condemned for his human rights record by international observers in the country, whom he has referred to in the press as guerrilla collaborators. The ‘demobilization’ of paramilitary death squads, the same terrorist groups that Uribe himself had a hand in creating, have been applauded just as new groups such as the Nueva Generación and Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) emerge, continuing the dirty war on civilians, trade unionists (and their family members), and Uribe’s political opposition across the country. Death squad activity is often in response to Uribe’s statements in the media and in so-called ‘community consultations.’ In short, a mafia runs the country.
I recall one particular election issue that brought Harper’s Conservative government to power not too long ago: the corruption of the long-ruling Liberal Party in the ‘sponsorship scandal’ that Canadians didn’t hear the end of. Liberal arrogance had overcome their legitimacy to govern, and the answer was, we were told by Harper and the media, the ‘transparency’ of the Conservatives. But in the context of an FTA with Colombia, the scandals of Canada’s so-called ‘friends and allies’ is conveniently overlooked.
Scandals have shrouded the Colombian government in recent years, penetrating to levels as high as Uribe’s closest political supporters and a family member. At least 65 of Uribe’s allies (the number rises almost weekly) in the Colombian Congress are being investigated for links to right-wing paramilitary death squads, a scandal known in Colombia as "para-política." Of that number, 29 are currently in jail for proven links.
Another recent scandal has called into question the legitimacy of the Uribe regime altogether. The "Yidis-política" scandal involves allegations that the president bought the votes of several Colombian congress members for constitutional reforms that paved the way for Uribe’s re-election in 2006. Former Colombian House Representative Yidis Medina, who made the scandal public last month, is now in jail, and Uribe is under investigation for his role in soliciting Medina’s vote in exchange for political favours. Previously, consecutive presidential terms had been constitutionally forbidden, and the constitutional reforms, rejected in a national referendum in October 2003, were pushed through the pro-Uribe Colombian Congress.
Media Complicity in Colombia
The Canadian mainstream press will no doubt be reporting on Uribe’s 84% approval rating in the country. This distorted figure is a product of the gross media concentration in the country, a media owned and controlled by Uribe’s friends and allies that duplicates on a daily basis the message that the FARC are the only problem in the country.
The famous 4th of February mobilizations against the FARC and for the release of the hostages they are holding are emblematic of the propaganda process in the country. While the release of hostages is a position that many Colombian agree with, many sectors of the population did not participate because Uribe used the march – organized partly through Facebook and supported by the Colombian business community by granting workers a day off to attend the march – to his political advantage.
Just over a month later, on March 6th, mobilizations were held in Colombia in support of the victims of state and paramilitary crimes but were largely ignored by the national and international media. Six trade unionists and organizers of that march were murdered in their homes in the days that followed, more facts ignored by the mainstream press. These were seen as messages to the opposition and victims seeking reparations and justice: "do not oppose your own extermination."
The approval of a supranational constitution such as an FTA by a government that came to power through support from paramilitaries, influence peddling, and propaganda indicates the shadowy and shaky character of Colombian democracy frequently applauded in Ottawa.
The country’s 4 million internally displaced people (nearly 10% of the population) is referred to by the United Nations as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the hemisphere. Systematic forced displacement occurs largely in territories where transnational megaprojects are in the works.
The link between displacement and megaprojects has led Colombian activists, such as economist Hector Mondragón, to conclude that "it is not that there is displacement because there is a war; there is a war so that there can be displacement."
In any other context, displacement for profit would be called armed robbery.
A Backdoor Agreement
Canadian-Colombian trade relations are nominal in comparison to other countries, barely surpassing $1 billion in trade each year. However, in terms of sectors engaged in megaprojects, such as mining, oil and gas, Canadian multinationals are among the major players. The all out war on guerrilla groups, handshakes with paramilitaries and narcotics traffickers, and the dirty war on trade unionists, the political left, and human rights defenders are construed as "stability" and "security" for Canadian investors.
DFAIT reports that, now that negotiations have been concluded, a legal review of the texts will be carried out. These negotiations have occurred in complete secrecy, and the texts have not been released to the public. This begs the question, "if the FTA is so good for the Canadian and Colombian people, why aren’t they telling us all about it?"
Following the legal review, the FTA will be signed by the Colombian and Canadian governments and brought to each country’s legislative bodies for ratification. In spite of the serious legitimacy crisis of the Colombian government, there is little doubt that the FTA will be signed there. The Uribe government is in a desperate situation in terms of legitimacy, and Canada’s endorsement is essential to deflect international criticism.
Clearly, the Canadian government has nothing to offer Colombia in terms of democracy other than a veneer of credibility unduly enjoyed by Canada in the world. But just as real democracy means much more than elections every few years, the vitality of debate in any country must be viewed from the bottom up, from what is going on in communities and among social movements.
Whose resistance is it, anyways?
One day after Democrats in the US House of Representatives froze the Bush Administration’s attempt to push the US-Colombia FTA through Congress, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) sent an open letter to US House Representative Nancy Pelosi. In that letter, they outlined clear lessons destined for the US public, lessons that are no doubt relevant for Canadians as well. The indigenous communities of Northern Cauca do not politely ask to be heard, they demand it.
On the 5th of March 2005, six municipalities in the department of Cauca held the first Popular Consultation on free trade in Colombia*. The referendum was monitored by national and international observers and included a process of popular consciousness-raising, reflection, decision and action.
Ninety-eight percent of the people responded NO to the following question: "Are you in favour of the FTA between Colombia and the United States?"
Since that popular consultation, others have been carried out in different parts of Colombia. In short, an illegitimate regime is progressively being replaced by direct democracy in communities in resistance.
Imagine the bravery of people who continue to resist and seek alternatives in the context of a brutal war, a plan of integral aggression directed at displacing them from the territories where they live for the benefit of transnational corporations, who seek resources and cheap, ‘flexiblized’ labour from a population living in a state of permanent shock.
The Colombian government attempted to discredit the referendum in Cauca, taking a position that is racist by inferring that those who voted are incapable of understanding and consciously deciding for themselves, that they could not understand the fruits of ‘free trade.’
Imagine their bravery, and then look in the mirror. What have Canadians done? How have they engaged in this issue, or any issue for that matter, and taken matters into their own hands? Many Canadians may never know the difficulties of people resisting the military imposition of an economic model that is ultimately intended for the entire planet, or for ‘our Mother Earth’ as the indigenous peoples in Cauca call it. Many Canadians may not know the extent to which they are kept in the dark through the entrenched telling and retelling of the "Canada the good" mythology.
In some ways, the victims are not only those in Colombia who have claimed political agency for themselves at high costs, but also those of us in Canada who cannot see the extend to which the atrocities of our own history provide the backbone for the perpetuation of war and suffering for the benefit of a tiny few.
The Canada-Colombia FTA is just a part of the latest chapter in that history. The alarm bells rang generations and generations ago, but have we heard them?
It’s time to wake up, eh?
*Read more about the Popular Consultation held in Cauca, Colombia, in March 2005: http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1224/61/
Michèal Ó Tuathail is a member of the La Chiva Collective (www.canadacolombiaproject.blogspot.com), a group of people working in solidarity with Colombian and Canadian social movements and communities.