In Bolstering Economic Ties, U.S. Turns a Blind Eye to Colombia’s Questionable Human Rights Record

Source: The Washington Times

Obstruction to the long-stalled free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with Colombia is finally coming to an end, as President Barack Obama submitted the Colombian, South Korean, and Panamanian FTA proposals to Congress on October 3, 2011. Along with the two other pending FTAs, the Colombian agreement has been on the congressional backburner since the United States and Colombia initiated an agreement on November 22, 2006. The trade accord, first drafted by former President George W. Bush, and later revised by his incumbent Barack Obama, has been widely criticized for expanding trade relations with a country that still has an enormous record of human rights violations toward political activists and union leaders.

There has been little progress in investigating violence toward labor organizers and human rights activists committed by right-wing paramilitary death squads. Ignoring criticism, Washington maintains the claim that Bogotá is taking the appropriate steps to investigate human rights cases. Several U.S. unions, including the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union, greatly oppose the FTA agreements because of the possibility that a very large amount of jobs will be lost in the U.S. manufacturing sector if they are enacted.

President Obama has been strongly advocating for the set of FTAs, in addition to the American Job’s Act, a USD 447 billion proposal that will greatly assist in job creation measures, a majority of which would come in the form of tax breaks. The Colombian FTA would also increase U.S. exports by USD 1.1 billion per year. In attempts to ease tensions and some of the burden on those who may lose their jobs as a result of the Colombian FTA, Congress is currently debating the Trade Adjustment Act (TAA). This legislation would offer very limited protection for U.S. workers who have been hurt by foreign competition. Both the FTA and TAA are part of President Obama’s economic plan to improve a very stagnant U.S economy. The pending FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea will indeed serve some U.S interests and create some jobs for American workers.  Despite these advantages, the FTAs strengthen commercial ties with nations that have abysmal human rights records, like that of Colombia, which implies that the U.S. is willing to overlook questions of human rights in favor of bolstering its economy.

President Obama’s motivation behind this series of proposals designed to create jobs is both economic and political in scope. In the past when Obama served as a senator from Illinois, he strongly opposed the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). However, today, Obama seems to be overtly supportive of the Colombian FTA because of the apparent economic benefits it will bring to the U.S.  For example, it is estimated that 70,000 jobs will be created as a result of the three pending FTAs. In fact, President Obama’s introduction of the FTA and TAA take place at a seemingly crucial time; November 2012 marks next year’s U.S. presidential elections. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the passing of the FTAs will be critical for building “free” and “fair” economic platforms in both the Southeast Asian and South American markets. However, where is the fairness in providing leverage to countries that practice low-quality democracy and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and issues of social justice? If the TAA were to be passed, what justice would the agreement bring to the tens of thousands of labor jobs lost at home and abroad in order to fulfill Obama’s political and economic agenda? The Colombian FTA will not only reduce the number of jobs of the U.S. labor force, but also will serve to undermine the U.S. workforce.  The FTA could create a larger revenue stream for the U.S., but only at the expense of a diminished U.S. labor sector and continuing large-scale acts of violence toward civilians, including incredibly brave labor leaders who are mowed down with depressing regularity.

 This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Denise Fonseca.