The Canadian Press Whitewashes Canada, Colombia and “Free Trade”

On November 21, 2008 Canada‘s government under Stephen Harper finalized a trade agreement with the Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe. Last month, the Canadian parliament was expected to ratify the deal (Bill C-23) but the work of Colombian and Canadian activists appears to have delayed ratification until the fall. Divisions within the Liberal party have forced the minority government led by Harper’s Conservatives to temporarily retreat.

The Conservatives have not been able to convincingly sell Canadians on any supposed benefits they will receive from the deal. Trade with Colombia is a minuscule 0.13% of Canada‘s total trade volume. [1] The deal has mainly been sold as an altruistic project that will improve Colombia‘s economy and its human rights record.

In June of 2008, the Toronto Globe and Mail weighed in with an editorial supporting the agreement. The editors applauded the "success of the government of President Alvaro Uribe in bringing comparative peace to Colombia." In July of 2008, the Globe followed up with another editorial. The Globe editors claimed

"Mr. Uribe has not only targeted FARC, but has sought to de-fang the equally violent right-wing paramilitary groups that have also destabilized Colombia. The country is now closer to normality than at any time in its recent history. One way to help Mr. Uribe is to strengthen Colombia‘s economy." [2]

That same month, Globe columnist Jeffrey Simpson also heaped praise on Uribe’s government:

"The opponents say Canada cannot sign such an agreement because of Colombia‘s human-rights abuses, of which there were undeniably many. But it is equally undeniable that those abuses have dropped dramatically, and that Colombia‘s government is legitimate and democratic." [3]

Nearly a year later, Canada‘s major newspapers were rather silent as the deal was to be voted on in parliament. However, the Toronto Star (on May 24, 2009) did publish an editorial. It did not take a clear stand on the deal, but Uribe’s track record was assessed positively, albeit less enthusiastically, than in the pages of the Globe:

"Under Uribe, the insurgency has been contained, violence has abated and human rights abusers have been charged. But legislators have been linked to corruption, paramilitaries and cocaine traffickers."

The Toronto Star editors also wondered

"What more can Canada credibly expect the Uribe government to do to improve Colombia‘s human rights record?"

First of all, to answer the Toronto Star, Canadians should not expect their own government to make human rights a concern, never mind a priority, in its dealings with Colombia unless it is brought under significant pressure.

In his recently published "Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy", Yves Engler described how two Canadian companies, BFC Construction and Agra-Monenco, (with the help of Jean Chretien’s Liberal government) contributed to serious human rights violations in northeastern Colombia that impacted thousands of people. Engler’s book, and the work of Rights Action among others, has exposed how Canadian resource companies – with crucial support from Ottawa – routinely profit from human rights abuses around the world. [4]

Second, the Uribe government is highly criminal and corrupt. Canadians should demand that Uribe’s government do the opposite of what it has done since coming to power. Most importantly, Canadians should listen to the victims in Colombia who are clearly not calling for ratification of this deal. On the contrary, they have taken great risks (discussed below) to oppose it.

Uribe’s Human Rights Record

According to Amnesty International (AI), the killing of civilians in Colombia has decreased from a peak of 4000 in 2002 (when Uribe was first elected) down to 1400 in 2007. Upbeat assessments of Uribe’s track record are based on these numbers (and similar trends for other categories of human rights abuses such as kidnappings by the leftist FARC guerillas). However, it doesn’t take much research to discover why hailing Uribe for a drop in some types of crimes is utterly obscene. The Colombian government and its paramilitary allies are the main perpetrators of the most serious crimes (70% of the killings where the perpetrators were known in 2007, and 87% of the cases of torture). Since the 1990s, Al and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have thoroughly documented that Colombian military and paramilitaries commit most of the serious crimes and collaborate extensively with each other. [5]

Under Uribe, a fraudulent "demobilization" of the right wing paramilitaries has taken place. Both AI and HRW have described in detail how the "demobilization" left 30,000 paramilitaries untouched – not even investigated – and allowed them to consolidate wealth obtained by drug trafficking and land theft. About 70% of paramilitary wealth stems from the drug trade according to a 2003 report by HRW. The net result of the "demobilization" was summed up by HRW as follows

"…paramilitaries have made major gains in consolidating this impunity, along with their economic and political power, with the collusion of the Colombian government."[6]

Under Uribe, Colombia‘s population of internally displaced people has grown from 2 to at least 3 million people – over 70% of them from rural areas. Only the Sudan has more internal refugees. During 2007 alone, 305,000 people were driven from their homes. According to a national study of Colombia’s displaced people published in 2008, only about 11% have fled their homes to avoid crossfire between armed groups. Most (54%) have been driven out by threats – others (25%) terrorized into fleeing because of assassinations or massacres. Roughly 37.0% of the refugees blame paramilitaries for driving them away; 29.8% blame the FARC rebels; 22.5% either don’t know or refuse to say whom they blame.[7]

Paramilitaries have made Colombia the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. Apologists for Uribe have argued that the murder rate for unionists is not higher than it is for "ordinary" Colombians. However, in testimony before the US Congress, HRW noted that the "ordinary" Colombians include other highly vulnerable groups such as the internal refugees. HRW testified that in 2004-2006 more trade unionists were killed in Colombia than police officers. Approximately 2550 trade unionists have been murdered since 1986. In only 78 cases has anyone been convicted and nearly a third of those convicted served no prison time. [8]

If all of this were not enough to establish that the Uribe government is thoroughly criminal, a UN probe recently confirmed that the Colombian military has been systematically murdering civilians and passing them off as FARC rebels. The UN investigator, Philip Anston, referred to the military’s actions as "cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit". In April, the UK canceled military aid to Colombia over this scandal. A Colombia general, Mario Montoya, who resigned over the scandal was promptly named by Uribe as ambassador to the Dominican Republic.[9]

FARC Victims Matter Most to the Press

Occasionally, some of the truth about Uribe’s government has been hinted at – for example when the Toronto Star wrote that Colombian "legislators have been linked to corruption, paramilitaries and cocaine traffickers". Left unstated was that most of the legislators being investigated by the courts are from Uribe’s governing coalition. Uribe’s supporters have argued that he deserves credit for the fact that the investigations are taking place. Human Rights Watch has answered this argument as follows

"..these investigations are the result of an initiative by the Colombian Supreme Court – not the Uribe Administration. While Uribe has funded the court, he has often taken steps that could undermine the investigations, lashing out against Supreme Court Justices and even, at one point, floating a proposal to let the politicians avoid prison." [10]

Sadly, a well informed and hard hitting editorial about Uribe’s government (however unlikely that is to appear) would have less impact than it should. The Canadian press has misled readers through more effective means than the occasional editorial or op-ed that praises Uribe.

According to a LexisNexis search of Canada’s major newspapers (between June 2, 2008 – June 2, 2009) the following victims of the FARC guerillas were mentioned:

Ingrid Betancourt, politician [23 articles]
Marc Gonsalves, U.S. military contractors [1 article]
Horacio Palacios[1 article]
Oscar Tulio Lizcano[1 article]

The following paramilitary victims were mentioned

Amparo Torres (living in exile in Canada) [1 article]
Colombian TV journalist Hollman Morris (threatened) [1 article]
Kimy Pernia Domico [1 article]
Jorge Dario Hoyos Franco [1 article]

Admittedly, this is a crude way to sample the Canadian media’s output but the results are too lopsided to invalidate some conclusions. Victims of the FARC receive way more attention than any others (by a ratio of 26:4 without even considering the greater level of detail that is usually reported about FARC victims). The impression is conveyed that the FARC – rather the government and its paramilitary allies – are Colombia‘s worst human rights abusers.

The paramilitary victims that were mentioned were better positioned than most to get noticed by the Canadian press. Amparo Torres was able to obtain (unfortunately precarious) refuge in Canada. Hollman Morris is a prominent TV journalist in Colombia. Kimy Pernia Domico spoke before Canadian parliament in 2006 about the damage done to his community by a Canadian funded "development project". He was disappeared by paramilitaries shortly after returning to Colombia. Jorge Franco’s daughter spoke before the Canadian parliament about her father’s murder.[11]

In 2003, I performed a similar exercise looking only at Toronto Star articles during a three month period. The results were essentially the same. At the time, paramilitary leader, Carlos Castaño, had stated that he was pleased with the US media’s coverage of the conflict. He said that he was "relieved that now we are no longer being lumped into the same basket as the FARC". It is hard to imagine paramilitary leaders being any less pleased with the Canadian media’s coverage in 2009. As consistently as human rights groups have shown that the Uribe government and its paramilitary allies are Colombia‘s most dangerous and successful criminals, the corporate press has ignored this crucial fact. [12]

It is worth noting that AI and HRW (especially HRW), whose reports are cited above, are hardly radical groups eager to challenge powerful interests. This was graphically revealed in the way they responded to the 2004 coup in Haiti. It speaks volumes that such a scathing assessment of the Uribe government can be obtained by reading through reports that AI and HRW have published. If anything, they are likely to understate the Colombian government’s level of criminality. [13]

But Isn’t Uribe Popular?

One would think that the Colombian government’s horrific track record would lead to doubts about the validity of its democratic credentials. Even the relatively minor transgressions of the Uribe government should prompt considerable skepticism. The Colombian Supreme Court ruled that Yidis Medina, a former Colombian legislator, was bribed to vote in favor of allowing Uribe to run for a second term in 2006. Thirty three other legislators are under investigation for selling their votes on the matter. [14]

In fairness, independent and presumably reliable polls have found significant popular support for Uribe. Latinobarometro found 75% support for Uribe in 2008. However, two comments should be made that never appear in the press. [15]

One is that Uribe’s level of popular support does not disprove the criminal nature of his government. After all, the near annihilation of indigenous peoples in North America was perpetrated by elected governments with significant popular support. Similarly in Colombia, a minority of the population has been targeted.

Another very important point is that attempting to erode Uribe’s level of support through legitimate, democratic means is extremely dangerous in Colombia.

For example, on March 6, 2008, Colombian trade unionists organized demonstrations against the ongoing crimes of the "demobilized" paramilitaries. Within a week after the demonstrations, four of the unionists involved with organizing it had been murdered. HRW and 22 other groups, including Amnesty International, wrote an open letter to Uribe denouncing slanderous remarks that a key advisor of his had broadcast against the organizers [16]

According to a LexisNexis search, none of Canada’s major newspapers mentioned the demonstrations, the murder of the organizers or the open letter to Uribe by human rights groups.

Rather than report the well established pattern of Uribe’s wild accusations preceding grave crimes against his opponents, the Canadian press has often treated Uribe’s allegations as if nothing could be more credible.

An extreme example of this was the Jeffrey Simpson article mentioned above. Uribe has claimed the laptops captured from a FARC camp in 2008 showed that Hugo Chavez had been funding the rebels. Simpson declared Uribe’s evidence against Chavez to be "incontestable".

However, the content of the files (even taking much of what Colombia says at face value) does not prove Uribe’s allegations at all. Significantly, Colombia has not pursued any formal, independent investigation of the content of the files. Instead, excerpts have been released to media as it has found expedient. [17]

A Colombian senator, Jorge Enrique Robledo, wrote an article on May 31 about a scandal which implicates Uribe’s sons. Uribe quickly retaliated by claiming that the laptop files show Robledo is an ally of the FARC. During his recent visit to Canada, Uribe again invoked the "magic laptops" to allege that FARC cells were active in Canada. [18]

What about the Economics of the Deal?

In 2005, thirty municipalities in northern Cauca organized an internationally monitored referendum on a "Free Trade" agreement with the USA. Turnout was 70% (much higher than in most Colombian elections) and 98% (about 50,000 voters) rejected the proposed agreement. In a letter to Barack Obama the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca explained

"The FTA [free trade agreement] will mean that if Colombia tries to change the laws to allow its people to share in its resources, or take any independent action, then we will be obliged to compensate investors."

The voters are a small percentage of Colombia‘s population, but they are also are among the most frequently victimized by human rights abusers. As they explained in the letter

"In the past six years we have lost 1,200 people to assassinations by armed groups, both legal and illegal: right-wing paramilitaries, guerrillas, police, and members of the Armed Forces."

They hope to undo the damage done by the systematic murder and theft they have endured and do not want "free trade" agreements to stand in their way. In October and November of 2008 the people of Cauca spearheaded massive protests against "free trade" and other policies of the Uribe government. Government reprisal’s left one activist dead and over a hundred wounded. [19]

The concerns expressed by the people of Cauca, and other rural areas where opposition to the "free trade" deals is overwhelming, are very well founded. The Canada-Colombia deal (like similar agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA) is largely an "investors’ rights" agreement. Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company, announced in April that it intended to sue the government of El Salvador under CAFTA (through a US subsidiary since Canada is not a signatory to that deal). Pacific Rim is looking to force El Salvador to issue permits for what would be the largest open pit mine in the country. [20]

The farmers in the Colombian departments of Nariño, Boayacá and Cundinamarca who organized referendums on "free trade" (with basically the same results as in Cauca) are also wise to be concerned. In Mexico, real per capita growth since the implantation of NAFTA is a quarter of what it was in the preceding years. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers were displaced as the elimination of protectionist measures led to a flood of imports from the US. [21]

While trade with Colombia is not large enough to impact most Canadians in any significant way, it is important to Canadian corporations that are well connected in Ottawa. Conflict zones in Colombia have proven to be attractive places for Canadian resources companies to invest. However, if the people whose land has been stolen and contaminated make political gains then these corporations stand to lose a great deal. [22]

More generally, the world’s richest countries did not develop through "free trade". Ha Joon Chang, a specialist on development economics, has diligently uncovered the historical record of how rich countries really became rich. In his book "Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective" he points out that when the USA was a developing country during the 19th century it used tariffs of up to 40% to protect against rivals who were only 30% more productive. Today, developing countries are told to use much lower tariffs against competitors who are several times more productive (up to fifty times more productive in the case of the poorest countries). [23]

Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy research, has frequently pointed out that the "free trade" agreements like NAFTA often leave in place or even strengthen protectionist measures (especially patents, copyrights and subsidies) which mainly benefit privileged people within rich countries. [24]

Can’t Learn From Colombia – Look at Peru

In its most recent editorial about the agreement (June 14), the Toronto Star asked

"Does the argument that Canada would do more harm than good by ratifying stand up to serious scrutiny?"

Only nine day earlier, as if to ridicule the Star’s question, Peru erupted in violence over laws that were introduced to facilitate the passing of trade agreements with Canada and the US – specifically allowing foreign investment on lands where indigenous peoples live.

The Council of Canadians reported

"600 Peruvian police in helicopters and on foot opened fire on protesters blocking a road near Bagua in the Peruvian Amazon. Conservative estimates indicate that 60 Indigenous and police have been killed. Police are accused of burning bodies then hiding them in the river and of removing the wounded from hospital to hide the real number of casualties."

The Canadian parliament ratified the Canada-Peru deal two days before the violence. Activists are urging the Senate to sent it back to parliament.[25]

The Star’s editorial of June 14 was quite reasonable compared to what other newspapers have written, but the jury should no longer be out on "free trade" with Colombia – or any other country.


Sign Petition Against Canada Colombia trade deal

Write to Canadian Liberal MPs

Emails and other information can be found here

Participate in the Council of Canadians alert

Write to the Toronto Star

Write to the Globe and Mail

Please copy all emails and replies to


[1] see COHA analysis of deal
[2] The Globe and Mail; Editorial; June 11, 2008; From Emerson to Chavez
The Globe and Mail; July 4, 2008; Editorial; Ingrid Betancourt’s Rescue
[3] The Globe and Mail; Jeffrey Simpson; July 5, 2008; A bold rescue is good news for Colombia – and Canada

[4]Engler wrote "With $18.2 million from EDC [Export Development Canada] the companies’ Urra dam submerged over 7,400 hectares, including old-growth forest as well as the lands and homes of 411 families, all of whom were without individual legal land titles, only having collective indigenous land rights. About 2,800 people were forcibly resettled to make way for the Canadian companies’ project and a further 70,000 people were directly impacted. Predictably the community resisted the dam. According to Amnesty International, six indigenous people protesting the project were killed and ten additional members of the community were disappeared by paramilitary and guerrilla forces."

The Rights Action website is at


On paramilitaries and the drug trade [estinate from 2003] see

See also sources cited here

[6]HRW Smoke and Mirros: Colombia’s demobilization of paramilitary groups

[7] http://www.codhes.org/index.php?option=com…9&Itemid=52

HRW’s estimate of Colombia’s internally displaced population in 2002 see

See also http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/02/01/colomb17975.htm

[8] Testimony of Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno before the US House of Representatives

Testimony of Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno before the Canadian Parliament

[9]On the UN investigation see

On General Montoya’s appointment as ambassador see

On UK aid cancellation see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/2…uk-military-aid

[10] http://www.hrw.org/legacy/english/docs/200…colomb18630.htm

[11] LexisNexis covers the Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Sun.

Articles that named Paramilitary victims

The Toronto Star, February 21, 2009; CSIS endangering ‘lives of my sons’; Colombian union activist says agency gave media family addresses [about Amparo Torres]

The Gazette (Montreal), March 18, 2009; Jeff Heinrich; The unwanted witness [about Hollman Morris]

The Toronto Star; February 10, 2009; Colombians blast flower trade [mentions Kimy Pernia Domico]

The Toronto Star; May 30, 2009; Canada now Colombia’s top trade target [mentions Jorge Dario Hoyos Franco]

[12] http://www.en-camino.org/node/9

[13] On HRW’s reporting about Haiti see

AI’s track record on Haiti see

[14] http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/n…e-election.html


[16]Open letter to Uribe

[17] For a debunking of the "incontestable" evidence see below

Colombia’s Magic Laptops

Hugo Chavez, the FARC Laptops, and the Non-Existent Emails

INTERPOL Clarifies it Never Determined Authenticity of Laptops that Implicate Venezuela

[18] Znet: Justin Podur: Uribe in Ottawa

Podur recently noted that even the establishment friendly International Crisis Group (ICG) recommended that a precondition for arms sales to Colombia should be that the government renounce the strategy of "stigmatisation by high government officials of human rights groups as linked to guerrillas"

[19] on the Cauca vote and other local referendums see

Witness For Peace; Faces of Colombia; Who are the victims of Free Trade?

Open Letter to Obama in opposition to FTA

See also
The Struggle for Land in Colombia by Hector Mondragon

On mobilizations in October/November of 2008 see

En Camino; Profound Contradictions Between Government and Indigenous Movement Evident in Sunday’s Historic Encounter By Mario A. Murillo; November 3, 2008

For more background see Justin Podur’s photo essay from 2004

[20] On the investors’ rights nature of the agreement see

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; Investors Rights Trump Human Rights; The Investment Chapter of the Canada-Colombia FTA

On the Pacific Rim law suit against El Salvador see the Rights Action alert archived at

[21] See Witness For Peace report (note 19) for discussion of impact of the Colombia-Canada deal on Colombian farmers

CEPR; Time to Take a Second Look at Our "Free Trade" Agreements By Mark Weisbrot

CEPR; CAFTA Not Likely to do Better Than NAFTA By Mark Weisbrot

[22] For more discussion see
Making a Bad Situation Worse:A briefing note prepared by:
Canadian Council for International Co-operation, Canadian Association of Labour Lawyers, Canadian Labour Congress, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

[23] p 67; Chang; Kicking Away the Ladder

[24] See Baker’s free online book; The Conservative Nanny State; Chapter 1; "Doctors and Dishwashers:How the Nanny State Creates Good Jobs for Those at the Top"

[25] Council of Canadians: Action Alert: Canada must halt free trade agreement with Peru


Leave a comment