The Pending US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: False Claims Versus Hard Realities

by James Jordan

This article appeared at Upside Down World.

With a little more than a year until the 2012 elections, the White House and Congressional leadership are anxious to pass pending Free Trade Agreements (FTA) as soon as possible.

Most worrisome of all is the pending FTA between the US and Colombia. Corporate leaders and US and Colombian government officials with their public relations operatives are peddling lie after lie to justify passage.

The following guide put together by The Alliance for Global Justice will help people to better understand and counter the falsehoods they will be hearing in the coming weeks.

Distinguishing between fact and fiction with claims regarding the pending US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement

CLAIM: Passing the FTA will put the US in a better position to pressure Colombia to improve its labor and human rights record.

REALITY: US intervention in Colombia has caused more problems than it has helped and the FTA would only make things worse. Recent investigations by the Colombian Attorney General have uncovered extensive US involvement regarding domestic spying by former President Álvaro Uribe’s administration. Information was shared with and analyzed by embassy staff and domestic spying programs were funded by the CIA. Activities included gaining access to the bank accounts, following the families and bugging the offices of Colombian magistrates.

Targets also included labor leaders. According to an August 20, 2011 Washington Post article: “Another unit that operated for eight months in 2005, the Group to Analyze Terrorist Organization Media, assembled dossiers on labor leaders, broke into their offices and videotaped union activists. The United States provided equipment and tens of thousands of dollars, according to an internal DAS report, and the unit’s members regularly met with an embassy official they remembered as ‘Chris Sullivan.'”

Furthermore, through Plan Colombia, the US and Colombia adopted policies that reject dialogue and negotiations for peace in favor of a military solution for the country’s ongoing civil war, on which the US has spent over $7 billion since 2000. The result has been massive displacement of rural populations, military scandals and murder and disappearances, yet no path opened toward resolution. Meanwhile, non-military aid has more often than not been used to fund programs that augment war and repression.

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that the quest for peace and human rights in Colombia would be bettered by increasing US influence through passage of the pending FTA.

CLAIM: Colombia has already made significant progress in its labor rights record and it deserves for the US to pass the FTA as a reward for Colombia’s “good behavior”.

REALITY: Colombia continues to lead the world in the number of unionists murdered, year after year registering more assassinations than the rest of the world combined. In 2008 there were 48 unionists murdered, in 2009 there were 29 and in 2010, there were 51, 19 of whom were members of teachers unions. In 2009 the rate of impunity for labor and other political assassinations was 95.6%. In 2010 that rate had gone up to 98.5%, and in 2011 a court study showed the rate to have risen to over 99%.

US corporations are guilty of increasing the violence against unionists. Drummond Coal Company, based in Birmingham, Alabama, was caught making payments to death squads that assassinated union leaders. Chiquita Banana was found guilty in US court and fined for paying death squads, and Coca-Cola has long been implicated in assassinations of unionists at its bottling company.

CLAIM: The Labor Action Plan agreed on by the Obama and Santos administrations has granted important concessions and protections to Colombian unions, and passage of the FTA will help assure that this plan is truly implemented.

REALITY: There is no enforcement mechanism for the concessions in the plan. Furthermore, an AFL-CIO statement says that “the Labor Action Plan fails to include commitments with regard to collective bargaining in the public sector, collective bargaining above the enterprise level, or collective bargaining over pensions.” Most worrisome is that workers are supposed to accept, on good faith, that anti-labor violence and better worker conditions will be assured in the future. But with 3,000 unionists killed in the past 25 years, there’s no good faith left.

CLAIM: Colombia has already made significant progress in its human rights record and it deserves for the US to pass the FTA as a reward for Colombia’s “good behavior”.

REALITY: Since Santos has taken office, members of the political opposition have been assassinated on an average of one every three days. The estimated number of disappearances has risen from around 50,000 to more than 61,000.

While roughly half of Colombia’s people live in poverty and half of its children are not in school (estimates vary from as low as 43% to 65% for both), Colombia has the second highest defense budget in Latin America, following the much bigger Brazil. Instead of building schools, the government has been engaged in a 11 year project, with US funding, to build a series of new prisons to accommodate an explosion in incarceration, including a 300% increase in political arrests.

The Colombian government holds well over 7,500 political prisoners. Only 500 to 1,000 of these are Prisoners of War. The vast majority are in jail for legal and nonviolent resistance. Some 5,000 of these captives are from rural populations. The most common charge against political prisoners is that of “Rebellion”. Comparatively, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are holding somewhere between 10 and 20 captives.

CLAIM: Passage of the US-Colombia FTA will help bring peace and stability to Colombia and will renew the confidence of would-be investors.

REALITY: If recent behavior is any indication, the administration of President Santos and the Colombian military have no interest in peace. Nor does the US government, as long as it insists on the military solution to Colombia’s conflict.

From August 12-15, 2011, more than 20,000 peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian community members, along with representatives from the Catholic Church, national and international human rights defenders and leaders of social and labor movements, gathered for a National Encounter for the Land and Peace. While the conference was commencing, the Colombian military began a commencement of its own, undertaking an indiscriminate and unprovoked bombardment of the municipality of Chaparral, Tolima.

While the Encounter was still underway, Pres. Santos declared the door to negotiations was “closed” and that he had “the key and the key is in my pocket”. That same weekend, Santos went on to say that “Advocacy for peace is harmful.”

In the weeks preceding and including the Encounter, seven peasant labor leaders and one human rights defender were arbitrarily arrested in Putumayo with no reasons given nor charges made. And in the two weeks following the Encounter, there have already been a number of assassinations, assassination attempts and disappearances of members of the political opposition and unionists.

The best way to increase investor confidence in Colombia is not through war and repression nor via neoliberal trade agreements. What is needed is dialogue that brings together all major sectors of Colombian society to work out a political solution to the conflict. That is the only way to foster an atmosphere of real stability.

CLAIM: The US-Colombia FTA, along with the Santos administration’s agrarian reform plan, will help develop rural infrastructure, create new jobs for farm workers, and help reestablish displaced farming families.

REALITY: After some 13 years of Plan Colombia, an estimated 4 to 5 million persons have been forcibly displaced, 60% of these being from farming families and 60 to 70% being women and girls. During the first ten years of Plan Colombia (1998 to 2008), 760,000 peasant families were forcibly removed from over 13.5 million acres. Conversely, paramilitary death squads now control some 10 million acres of the country’s most fertile land. In almost all cases where there has been massive displacement, the vacuum has been filled by big landowners, narco-traffickers, agribusinesses and transnational mining and energy corporations.

The Santos agrarian reform plan does more to consolidate displacement and land loss than to make up for it. Farmers who come from families that have cultivated plots for generations are being asked to show titles in areas where titles have never been used or kept. Much of the dispossessed farm land has been replaced by African Palm plantations. Farming families from these areas who are participating in the agrarian reform are being told that they will have to wait until the plantations reap a full crop before they can return. That is a process that takes up to 10 years. Since African Palm plantations are notorious for leaving the soil depleted, when these farmers come back to their plots, they will be trying to raise crops on wasted terrain. Ultimately, only a minority of displaced farmers will be able to return to their land, while ownership will be consolidated for a majority of the interests that have benefited most from the forced removal of rural people.

CLAIM: The US-Colombia FTA, as well as pending FTAs with Panama and South Korea, will bring jobs to workers in all the involved countries.

REALITY: Neoliberal free trade policies have been a big part of the reason that economic crises are taking place all over the world and have led to ever widening gaps between the rich and the poor. Colombia has the second largest gap between the rich and the poor in South America and the eighth largest worldwide, according to the World Bank’s World Development Institute. The FTA will make matters worse.

For US workers, FTAs have not lead to more and better jobs, but to blighted, failing cities where industries once thrived and to rural areas where it has become almost impossible for family farms to survive. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) maintains that KORUS will make the US trade deficit with Korea twice as bad, up to $26.9 billion annually within seven years. This will result in 888,000 jobs lost as a result of Korean imports. If one figures in employment created by increased US exports and jobs lost because of the already existing deficit with South Korea, there are some 200,000 jobs that will be lost. The EPI predicts a US-Colombia FTA will result in a loss of 55,000 jobs.

CLAIM: The US Congress and President Obama were elected to listen to, represent and serve the people of the US and to act in their best interests.

REALITY: According to a poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal in 2010, the number of US residents surveyed who believe FTAs hurt the country went up to 53% from 32% in 1999. And this unhappiness with FTAs reaches across political perspectives. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, as well as a separate poll that same year by the Pew Research Center, show that over 60% of both Tea Party sympathizers and union families oppose FTAs. And both Tea Partiers and union members vote at higher rates than the general public. So who are the White House and Congressional leadership listening to if it is not We, The People?

James Jordan is National Co-Coordinator for the Alliance for Global Justice.

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