Defeat the U.S.- Colombia Free Trade Agreement!

by Paul Garver

The impending legislative battle over implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement provides an unsual opportunity to defeat the pro-corporate “free trade” agenda while promoting the rights of Colombian and American workers.

On 17thJanuary U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab spoke to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, promising that the Bush Administration would make passing the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) its top trade priority for 2008.

Since fall 2007 an interagency task force within the Bush administration has been meeting weekly to coordinate its campaign to promote the Colombia FTA. Senior administration officials, including Barry Jackson, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and external affairs (taking over Karl Rove’s portfolio), and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez are in charge of the administration’s campaign.

The Administration regards the right-wing Uribé government as a staunch ally in its struggle to contain Venezuela’s populist government of Hugo Chavez. Hence it is working closely with the Uribé government, to the extent of using the same scare language to try to stampede Congressional Democrats into acquiescence. Schwab told the Chamber: “None of us – not the Administration, not the Congressional leadership – wants to look back in a few years and ask “Who lost Latin America?” Calling the Uribé government “most certainly our friend,” she added: “How we deal with the Colombia FTA is widely viewed as the proxy for how we treat our friends in Latin America.”

Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos similarly warned of the consequences of rejecting the FTA for the USA: “Colombia plays such a vital role in the continent for U.S. interests that it would be geostrategic suicide to make a decision like that …I wonder who wants to be the one who loses Colombia like they lost China in the 1950’s.”

However the Colombian government is an inconvenient ally. Not only is Colombia the source of 90% of the powdered cocaine imported into the USA, it is one of the world’s most notorious violators of human rights. Although right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerilla bands still claim victims, the state’s own security forces now account for the majority of killings and assassinations of civilians. In the last few weeks soldiers arrested and “disappeared” the President of the Organic Coffee Growers of Colombia and five of his sons, and shot to death a 63-year old trade unionist and former Nestlé employee near Bogota. Six Catholic bishops from Colombia’s Pacific coast region have recently denounced the “constant deaths, disappearances, kidnappings and forced displacements” as government security forces increase the presence in the region.

For many years Colombia has led the world in murders of trade unionists. In 2007 it maintained that distinction, even though the numbers of assassinations declined somewhat to 38. However paramilitaries remained active, making more than 200 death threats and about a hundred forced displacements of trade unionists. The reduction in the number of murders has much to do with the virtual disappearance of unions from Colombian society.

Systematic terrorism has helped to decimate union ranks. Total union membership has declined to some 866,000, 60% of which are in the public sector, where there are no signed labor agreements. Leaders of teachers and municipal workers are now the major targets of repression, since private sector unionism is nearly extinct. In 2005 union bargaining agreements covered only 62,000 workers, out of Colombia’s total workforce of over 20 million. 25% of these union workers are covered by a single sectoral agreement for banana plantation workers in the province of Urabà, the only surviving union contract that covers more than a single facility.

In November 2007 the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), representing 168 million workers in 153 countries, accused the Colombian Government of “implementing a policy to destroy the trade union movement” and says that “instead of using its resources to tackle the real problem, the Uribe government is spending millions of dollars on a massive public relations campaign, sending top officials abroad to tell the world that the situation is Colombia is improving. They are lying.”

All three labor confederations in Colombia oppose the FTA. In November the leaders of Colombia’s three trade union centers – the CUT, CTC and CGT – wrote an open letter to US Congressmen that cited the 2,535 trade unionists assassinated in recent years. In less than 1% of the cases has anyone been convicted of these crimes – which amounts to nearly total impunity. The union leaders also reported the increase in death threats against trade unionists and the ongoing activities of paramilitary death squads.

The main objective of the letter was to urge the US Congress not to ratify the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The unions believe that the Agreement will have a disastrous impact on the livelihoods of Colombian workers and subsistence farmers. Increased imports of U.S. agricultural commodities will displace even more subsistence farmers from rural areas, leading to an increase in undocumented Colombian emigrants to the USA.

For its part on 9thJanuary of this year the AFL-CIO released a well-documented report on “Worker Rights, Violence and Impunity in Colombia.” (read here). The AFL-CIO remains firmly committed to opposing the passage of the Colombia FTA. Normally this should mean that the Democratic leadership in Congress would be reluctant to buck union opposition and popular disapproval of NAFTA expansion to more Latin American countries. However in May 2007 House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel and other House Democratic leaders reached a compromise with the Administration that trade legislation would include provisions for enforceable labor and environmental standards. With these modest amendments the U.S.-Peru FTA sailed through the U.S. Senate and passed the House despite the opposition of a slim majority of Democrats. The Bush administration is now insisting that the Peru agreement be a template for passing the Colombia FTA.While Charles Rangel and other Democratic leaders are insisting that Colombia is a special case of human rights abuses that must be addressed, they are also committed to this flawed labor rights “template.” While inclusion of labor rights principles in trade legislation does represent modest progress in theory, the actual provisions included in the Peru and Colombia FTAs are in fact impracticable and unenforceable. A detailed analysis by Columbia law professor Mark Barenberg of the Peru FTAs labor provisions ( US Peru FTA) -the Colombia provisions are identical- shows that:

  • Only a government can file a complaint against labor rights violations (and the U.S. government has never filed such a claim in more than two decades of similar legislation);
  • There is no provision for Congressional oversight or public input;
  • The requirement that violations of human rights must concern trade or investment poses a high threshold for proof.

Major U.S. corporate interests are supporting the campaign for passage. On 20thDecember CEOs from major corporations (including ExxonMobil, Cargill, GE, Caterpillar, GM, Citibank, IBM, Coca-Cola, Intel, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, 3M. Walmart, Xerox, Target, Proctor & Gamble, Oracle, etc.), sent an open letter to the US Congress supporting ratification of the Colombia FTA. The CEO letter mixed economic and geopolitical arguments for passage, stressing the elimination of barriers to U.S. farm products, manufactured goods and services, and new sales opportunities for American small business, farmers and ranchers.

The letter links the passage of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement to a “pro-growth” trade agenda.

The letter claims that the Uribé government has addressed Colombia’s “internal problems” and that rejecting the agreement would “undermine the U.S.-Colombia relationship, which has been a significant factor in promoting Colombia’s progress.” However Chamber of Commerce lobbyists have also assured corporate leaders that the labor rights provisions do not convey any enforceable obligations.

The Bush and Uribé administrations will heavily promote the agreement. In the next few months the U.S. will send at least six congressional delegations to Colombia, led by top administration officials like Commerce Secretary Gutierrez and Condolezza Rice, designed to win the support of enough Congressional Democrats (some eighty) needed to ratify the agreement.  (Update: On 24-25 January Condoleezza Rice led a delegation of ten Congressional Democrats to a whirlwind trip to Medellin, where they will tour a farm whose exports of cut flowers to the USA would be among the major beneficiaries of permanent free trade status under the FTA.  Flower growers and the government have conspired to block all organizing of independent unions in the industry).

 Although both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have promised to review trade agreements, including Colombia, their campaigns are also responsive to corporate contributors that strongly support the business “free-trade” agenda.

While the Bush administration would prefer to have prior approval from Democratic legislative leaders before introducing the legislation implementing the deal, it has threatened to go ahead without it. However Democratic supporters of the deal and even business lobbyists have warned that going ahead unilaterally would make it harder to win enough Democratic votes for passage. “Fast-track” rules require Congress to vote up or down within 90 working congressional days of the introduction of the implementing legislation, although some believe that Nancy Pelosi could change the House Rules Committee to eliminate the fast track provisions for this particular bill. She might do this if she judges that the Bush administration is using the issue as a “wedge” to divide Democrats in an election year.

However the legislative debate is joined, its outcome will depend mainly on the internal balance of power within the Democratic Party on the issue, and that in turn depends on the level of popular mobilization. The Bush administration, those who want the U.S. to continue imperial rule over the Americas, and powerful corporate interests linked to the Democratic Party will be pushing the Colombia FTA. Organized labor, human rights and fair trade groups will oppose it; but ultimately the outcome depends on an estimate of how the issue is expected to play out in the upcoming elections.

While the political stakes are considerable, our major concern must be the welfare of working people in Colombia and in the USA. Colombian trade unionists have send a desperate signal for help, while American workers need a new approach to trade and investment that effectively and enforceably protects worker rights. Winning the struggle against the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Act (the official name of the FTA) is both possible and necessary, and provides us a unique opportunity to set back a “free trade” agenda that privileges corporate interests over human rights and ignores the interests of the majority of the people of both Colombia and the USA.

A founding member of DSA, Paul Garver worked for SEIU and recently retired from the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF).

3 Responses

  1. […] more information,? You can find background on the Colombia FTA in earlier Talking Union posts here and here . Also, check out this AFL-CIO Now Blog entry which covers the issues nicely and this […]

  2. In 1994 Representative Marcy Kaptur appeared on CNN and warned hte listener’s that NAFTA and GATT would not improve the blight of the American worker but insteatd simply enrich the dictatorships and other facist governments without a corresponding increase in the livliehoods of the world’s wroker bees.

    In short, the workers would continue to live in poverty while their governments expanded and grew more socialistc.

    Has that 1994 prophecy for the world workers come true. That is, has their standard of living improved, remained the same or deteriorated is NAFTA and GATT

  3. […] on the Colombia FTA at or by clicking on Talking Union posts here and […]

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