Colombia “Free Trade” Deal

A proposed “free trade” deal with Colombia, where 2,100 unionists have been assassinated since 1991, sheds light on many unsavory facets of U.S. policy.

Some of the sordid elements include payments to high-level Democratic figures, including former President Bill Clinton, to speak out in behalf of the trade deal favored by extreme right-wing presidents in both the U.S. and Colombia and the direct involvement of other top Democrats, like former top Hillary Clinton advisor Mark Penn as lobbyists for Colombia.

Despite the evident failures of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to benefit ordinary workers and farmers in either the U.S. or Mexico, the Colombia FTA—currently being considered by the U.S. House—uses NAFTA as a model and then goes even further in enshrining the powers of corporations to sue elected governments over regulations that might diminish profits. Even though the trade deal is opposed by every American labor group and Colombian union federation, many Democrats are working hard to ram through this trade deal while proclaiming that their party represents working people.

But the most stunning aspect of the Colombia FTA is the willingness of corporate, political (including leaders of both major parties), and media elites to overlook the pile of workers’ corpses that Colombia’s rightist economic polices have produced. More than 2,000 labor activists have been killed by paramilitary forces hired by employers and big landowners, who often operate with the cooperation of the Colombian military. Just 37 cases among the 2,100 deaths have been prosecuted.

Yet the pursuit of “class cleansing” by Colombia paramilitaries and their allies in top corporate and military circles has provoked only a very restrained response in the major U.S. media, which heavily favor the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Editorials from the “liberal” New York Times to the rightist Wall Street Journal beseech us to ignore the body count and instead see the bigger picture, insisting that a “free trade” deal with this blood-soaked nation must be enacted because it “would benefit the American economy and further the nation’s broader interests in Latin America,” as the Times put it.

The systematic killings and torture of union activists, along with kidnappings of family members, is described delicately as Colombia “cracking down” on unionists, as if the punishment were stiff fines for minor infractions of the law rather than being subjected to a blowtorch, chainsaw, or machine gun.

The fact that the death toll among unionists has dropped, having achieved its desire affect of driving the percentage of union contracts to just two percent, is hailed as a great feat under President Alvara Uribe. Less publicized than the falling death toll among unionists is the fact that 400 have been killed since Uribe took office in 2002 and that Colombia still accounts for more than half of the world’s killings of union activists.

Nonetheless, as two Times columns (Edward Schumacher-Matos of Harvard University, 3/31/08; Nicholas Kristof, 4/24/08) cheerily assert, the murder rate for members of this supposedly persecuted group is actually lower than for the nation as a whole. This misleading claim has gained wide currency among policy making elites and editorial writers. But the idea that unionists are somehow safer than other Colombians is blasted as an absurd lie by Roger Atwood, communications director of the Washington Office on Latin America. “This is just a canard—the homicide rate in Colombia is inflated by the deaths of people involved in violence [as left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries], however unfortunate any death is. But trade unionists are simply engaged in the peaceful, internationally recognized right to organize and these rights are officially recognized by the Colombian government on paper. The idea that unionists are somehow safer is very illogical and transparently bogus because they are specifically targeted. Yet this argument has been picked up by the press.”

Among those trumpeting Colombia’s alleged improvements on worker rights has been the New York Times editorial writers, even as their reporters in Colombia relate a recent spate of unionists being assassinated (4/14/08). The Times frames the fundamental question of the Colombia FTA as what will “further the nation’s [the U.S.] broader interest in Latin America.” After all, the agreement would strengthen a friendly Latin government that is “one of America’s few allies in an important region that has become increasingly hostile to the U.S.” The Times bypasses the opportunity to probe the “free trade” economic strategies and aggressive military policies that have isolated the U.S. government. Moreover, the Times’s concept of “the nation’s broader interest” conflates the interests of workers facing the loss of their jobs with corporations and the Bush administration promoting the Free Trade Agreement.

Meanwhile, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warns that if Democrats were to reject the Colombia agreement, the result would be “the Democrats’ equivalent of Kyoto [the global agreement on green house emissions], signaling a retreat from internationalism. It would be seen as the United States thumbing its nose at the world.” To overcome this, “The United States must live in the real world—the real globalized world,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel echoes.

The Colombia FTA follows in the footsteps of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which provided new protections to investor rights and enormously enriched elites in the U.S. and Mexico alike. At the same time, NAFTA managed to both promote the shift of some one million U.S. factory jobs to Mexico and devastate Mexican agriculture with an influx of low-cost, U.S.-taxpayer subsidized agricultural products, thereby driving millions of newly-impoverished Mexicans northward to the U.S. The Colombia FTA is worse, says Global Trade Watch spokesperson Todd Tucker, in creating even stronger levels of corporate supremacy over regulations enacted by elected governments.

 “The FTA goes beyond NAFTA in several ways,” explains Tucker. “For one, it will give oil, gas and mining corporations in the Colombian Amazon additional tools to challenge future Colombian governments’ efforts to protect the rainforest.”

The FTA with Colombia will not produce broader economic opportunities in either the U.S. or Colombia, says Tucker. First, the Colombia market for U.S.-made goods is limited chiefly by the extreme poverty in which half the population is trapped, with tariffs a trivial factor by comparison. Second, Colombian products entering the U.S. face already very low tariff barriers, so this aspect of the trade deal is unimportant.

The influx of U.S. agricultural products that a Colombia FTA would introduce is widely expected to produce much of the same kind of rural dislocation that NAFTA introduced to Mexico. Colombia’s own agriculture ministry concluded the FTA would leave rural Colombians with “no more than three options: migration to the cities or to other countries (especially the United States), working in drug cultivation zones, or affiliating with illegal armed groups.” Given that Colombia already has an estimated 3.8 million displaced people, including many of its Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples, the impact could be shattering.

Few benefits are seen for Colombians who are not part of the nation’s wealthiest classes. “What the FTA does is lock in and codify a neoliberal relationship between the two countries,” notes Tucker, “meaning U.S. policymakers will have fewer tools for ensuring that U.S. corporations do not relocate to Colombia simply to benefit from an industrial climate where unionists are murdered.”

While various editorials have claimed that the Uribe government has taken aggressive steps to insure union rights, observers say that his government actually opposes labor rights every step of the way. The AFL-CIO’s Thea Lee contrasted the rhetoric of President Uribe with the difficulties that Colombian unionists outlined to her.

“If you listened to Uribe, you’d think he was the greatest lover of labor rights in the world,” Lee says. “But the workers face obstacle after obstacle in trying to organize, trying to get government recognition, the government failing to enforce the law if illegal firings occur—every single action is to deny workers the right to unionize.”

“Only about 2 percent have collective bargaining contracts; and about 5 percent are union members,” says Lee. “That puts Colombia at the bottom of the barrel in the company of dictatorships and one-party states.”

David Sirota, author of The Uprising, argues that with the Colombia FTA, “President Bush [aims to] bolster Uribe with a pact giving corporations incentives to leave America for the corpse-strewn pastures of Colombia, a union-hater’s paradise.”

Powerful Forces Line Up For FTA

The AFL-CIO’s Thea Lee sees a powerful coalition pushing for the Colombia FTA that includes the Bush administration, U.S. corporations, the Colombian government, and influential pro-business Republicans and Democrats. “There is enormous pressure from Bush, business and Uribe. We can’t let down our guard at all,” she says. “It’s not going to go away, even with a Dem in the White House. We want to make sure that voices of Colombian workers are heard by members of Congress.”

Colombia has spent an estimated $1 million in the past year to promote the agreement, with monthly retainers of $15,000 to $40,000 flowing to at least four lobbying groups. Also, the New York Times reports (4/8/08), “There have been all-expense paid trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress, featuring coffee tastings and dinner at a posh restaurant inside an old Spanish fort.”

The Colombian government has particularly sought to bring “moderate” Democrats and congressional staffers on the junkets. During these tours, they meet with purported “labor leaders” urging passage of the FTA. But the AFL-CIO notes that almost all of these “leaders” hold no official standing and that all of Colombia’s union federations oppose the Free Trade Agreement.

Few political observers will be surprised by the Bush administration’s willingness to overlook the deaths of trade unionists in order to enlarge the “free trade” web to include Colombia. Uribe has had an especially hostile relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose outspoken populism has made him a special target for Washington’s wrath, including instant recognition of a short-lived dictatorship which briefly replaced him in a 2002 coup. Under President Uribe, Colombian military forces invaded EcuadorCaribbean nations. and killed a group of FARC leaders on March 1, including the group’s leading spokesperson in negotiations for release of hostages, triggering condemnation from Latin American and

But more remarkable has been the extent of support for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement among insider Democratic forces. While both Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have proclaimed their opposition to the Colombia FTA, the authenticity of their stance against “free trade” is highly dubious (see John Nichols, “Trade Issues Trouble Leading Dems,” the Nation, 4/4/08).

Bill Clinton has also been closely aligned with the Colombia trade deal. He was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America in 2005. Gold Service International’s aim is attracting investment to Colombia through educating opinion leaders. Bill Clinton spoke out publicly for the Colombia FTA during that period.

In June 2007, Clinton received an award from President Uribe for his efforts to transform Colombia’s image in the United States. As ABC News reported, “the Colombia government [was] trying to counter its negative image among Washington Democrats and secure congressional passage of a free trade agreement.” In his remarks at the ceremony, Bill Clinton called upon Congress to adopt a new view of Colombia. “We need to remember that we are friends,” he stated. “We need to remember that we want to share a common future. We need to remember that for the first time in over three decades there is a law enforcement presence representing the elected government of Colombia.”

Still, despite the array of powerful forces pushing for it, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement may face a tough path to passage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dealt the proposal a powerful blow in early April by insisting on a vote that revoked the “fast-track” process that has been used to ram through “free trade agreements” like NAFTA with limited debate and without amendment. One trade expert describes the fast-track powers conceded to U.S. presidents as an unconstitutional device that permit the president and Congress to both deny ultimate responsibility.”

Opponents of corporate globalization like Todd Tucker saw Pelosi’s move as a major step forward in blocking the Colombia FTA and promoting a more thorough deliberation of trade that will hopefully provide the chance to separate Congress from its close embrace of corporate campaign contributors and bring it more in line with strong public resistance to the shift of jobs to low-wages nations, the importation of toxic products, and the spread of environmental degradation. (A 2006 Pew Research poll found 77 percent of Americans opposed to the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to foreign nations.)

“Speaker Pelosi’s decision to cancel Fast Track was unprecedented,” said Tucker. “It is highly laudable that she reasserted Congress’s constitutional authority over trade. Public Citizen, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and many other groups will be dedicating our full resources to ensure that the Colombia FTA is defeated by Congress.”

But other critics, like Sirota, are troubled by hints that Pelosi—who backed a recent trade agreement with Peru despite its weak protections of labor rights—may eventually cave in on the Colombia FTA…. “If brought to the floor immediately, it would lose,” Pelosi noted April 9. “And what message would that send?”

Pelosi’s implicit “message” to Sirota and other opponents of the corporate globalization agenda is that she might eventually be brought around to supporting the Colombia FTA, especially if Bush makes concessions on issues like an economic stimulus package geared toward working families and more retraining benefits to workers dislocated by the flight of industry to Mexico, China, and other low-wage, high-repression nations. Sirota suggests that a vote on the Colombia FTA might be delayed until the lame-duck session after the November election, when the public’s ability to hold Congress is minimized.

“The trade deal isn’t being delayed because it would pass now—it is being delayed because if it came to a vote now, it would probably lose because populist Democratic forces are better organized right now,” Sirota wrote April 10. “In other words, Pelosi is maneuvering to thwart the will of the rank-and-file members of her caucus, all to keep a lobbyist-written trade deal alive.”

Also sharing some of Sirota’s concern is Roger Atwood, communications director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-partisan research and advocacy group focused on human rights. “Nancy Pelosi has stopped the 90-day fast-track provision, but still seems willing to compromise on the other aspects that might allow the trade agreement to go forward on a vote. That does seem to be the tenor of her comments.

“Our position is that Colombia has not made anywhere near enough progress to introducing accountability into the government’s action on human rights and ending impunity for the killings of trade unionists, which is still quite shocking,” Atwood states. “Despite all the talk about violence lessening, there’s been 23 unionists killed so far this year alone “

Roots Of Violence

Noted U.S. foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky traces the main roots of the present violence back 60 years: “A populist leader was murdered in 1948 and shortly after, power fell into the hands of the first former fascist to take power after the Second World War…who received U.S. backing. These events were followed by a huge upsurge of violence in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed.”

The U.S. role escalated during the Administration of John F. Kennedy, when U.S. policy in Latin America shifted to encouraging a focus on “internal security” following the Cuban revolution. The U.S. flooded Latin America with military equipment and training aimed at rooting out “communists,” a term that effectively came to mean anyone questioning Colombia’s sharp inequalities. During the 1980s, the U.S. trained three times as many Colombian military officers as those from El Salvador, then engaged in a heated war with leftist guerrillas. In the 1990s, despite a mounting level of human rights abuses, Colombia became the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere.

This escalation of military assistance, including training, was followed by the enactment of Plan Colombia, ostensibly to dry up the supply of cocaine to the U.S. Plan Colombia, originated by the Clinton administration, has provided over $4.7 billion to the Colombian military. “Politically, Plan Colombia has benefited from the seamless merging of ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric with that of the war on terror” notes Lillian Segura in the Nation (3/26/07).

Yet it has had negligible impact on the growth of cocaine and marijuana in Colombia and its shipment to the U.S. The outcome of Plan Colombia’s cocaine eradication efforts was bluntly summarized by the NY Times (8/19/06): “As much coca is cultivated today in Colombia as was grown at the start of the large-scale aerial fumigation effort in 2000, according to State Department figures…. Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the leading sources of coca and cocaine, produce more than enough cocaine to satisfy world demand, and possibly as much as in the mid-1990s, the United Nations says. In the United States, the government’s tracking over the past quarter century shows that the price of cocaine has tumbled and that purity remains high, signs that the drug is as available as ever.”

Critics have noted that Colombia’s military has concentrated on areas of political instability in the nation’s south while largely ignoring the biggest concentrations of the cocaine industry in the north. While failing in its proclaimed goals, Plan Colombia nonetheless has provided the Colombia military with the rationale and equipment to sweep through the countryside with massive force applied against anyone challenging the stunningly unequal distribution of land and wealth. The richest 3 percent control about 70 percent of arable land while the bottom 57 percent struggle for survival on 3 percent of the land.

Along with the Colombian military engaging in the bombings and strafing of villages, massacres of civilians, and other atrocities, a massive paramilitary force allied with business leaders and landowners conducted “social cleansing” operations of their own. Colombia’s intelligence service, known as DAS, “compiled lists of union members, along with details of about their security, and handed them over to a coalition of paramilitary groups know as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia [known by the Spanish acronym of AUC],” as reported by the Washington Post (4/10/07).

U.S.-owned firms have been connected closely to the paramilitary death-squads. Three Colombian unionists were killed at Drummond Mining, a U.S.-owned firm based in Alabama, although the firm managed to persuade a U.S. jury not to hold it responsible for the murders. The giant banana firm Chiquita, the one-time United Fruit Company which exercised enormous domination over Central America and northern South America, paid $1.7 million to the AUC, one of the largest and most notoriously vicious of the right-wing paramilitaries.

While the temporary derailment of the Colombia FTA from fast-track status gives hope to those seeking to end Colombia’s brutal and systematic suppression of worker rights, it also exposes the extent to which the Democratic establishment has embraced some of the most inhumane pillars of George W. Bush’s policies.


Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and progressive activist.