Obama on Latin American Trade: Muddled and Confused

Uribe—Latin America’s Most Disgraced President

• Legacy of Colombia’s violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty will be a heavy cross for Uribe to bear.

• Honored in Washington, Uribe is scorned throughout Latin America for being Bush’s favored hemispheric figure.

However muffled the language may be, President Uribe is destined to be Latin America’s most scorned president in modern times. Condemned by voice and written denunciations throughout the hemisphere, Uribe did manage to solely win enthusiastic, if almost meaningless praise, from lame-duck President George Bush, who saw nothing wrong with Colombia applying Iraqi-style tactics on Ecuadorian territory. Even the most accommodating analyst would have to inform Uribe that he has just finished the most catastrophic week of an already catastrophic presidency and effectively the demise of his presidency and influenced on the hemisphere. There is no question that, ironically enough, Farcista Raúl Reyes has posthumously inflicted the most devastating and lasting defeat on Uribe. Metaphorically speaking, Reyes has scalped Uribe and then hung the Colombian leader’s tattered presidential sash upon a pike and walked the macabre sight through the streets of Latin America.

A Heavy Burden to Bear

At the end of the day, the price of gunning down Reyes will prove to be excessively high for Uribe. On going negotiations for the release of scores of FARC-held hostages, which has eagerly sought after by Uribe, have been unquestionably terminated, at least for the foreseeable future. Reyes was the FARC figure most identified with the hostage-release dialogue with Colombia and European intermediates. In the past, Reyes was the FARC official most engaged in talks that had taken place with high level figures abroad, working for the release of a number of FARC detainees, particularly Ingrid Betancourt, whose freedom was especially sought after by the French, due to her holding both Colombian and French citizenship. Additionally, Reyes was said to have maintained liaison with Venezuela’s efforts, which had been abruptly guillotined last November, when Hugo Chávez was sacked by Uribe as Colombia’s unofficial negotiator. By ordering the killing of Reyes, Uribe guaranteed that former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt will remain in guerrilla custody indefinitely.


A Man for Few Seasons

Uribe cultivates a hard-line image that brooks no flexibility when it comes to visiting affliction upon the Farcistas, which has won him considerable popularity within Colombia. But it is a popularity that is more broad than deep. As for FARC, it is not a soft and fuzzy organization at all, but it must be understood that all of their actions have an end in mind. Behind the drug trafficking and kidnappings lies a resolve to obtain the freedom of their imprisoned comrades and to guarantee their own securities. Yet here again, Uribe’s instincts were antipathetic to a rational assessment of how to peacefully resolve on internecine strife that had been going on for decades, with honor and with homage to the Colombian nations.

Now prepared to retire from office, the Bush administration already has reached the nadir of its popularity on the Hill and when it comes to its Latin American policy, no one can suggest that it was even faintly credible. In fact, Bush’s policy was a parody of a policy; in effect, with no exaggeration, it could be called an anti-policy. Uribe is unlikely to witness the U.S. Congress passing a beneficial trade measure on his behalf. In terms of the high price that Uribe is being forced to pay, the toll is there to clearly be seen.

The Colombian president does not have a compelling reputation which can make him proud. Uribe is anything but an apostle of democracy. He is armed with a grim personality that is far more Dick Cheneyesque in its import than Helen Keller. He had no problem with packing the country’s Supreme Court after unsuccessfully trying to convince its members to decide in his favor that the Constitution in fact allowed him to stand for re-election.

Nor did the U.S. make much of a fuss when, for a token guilty plea and a minimum prison sentence, AUC vigilantes are guaranteed against being extradited to the U.S., even though the extradition policy had been at the heart of Washington’s anti-drug strategy. Another sore point is Uribe’s reputation for playing fast and loose when it comes to personal matters of corruption, and his years of very murky connections to some of the country’s worst rightist extremists. He has worked tirelessly to provide these AUC extremist vigilantes (classified as “terrorists” even by the State Department) to see to it that their future isn’t bleak even now, many of the people who Uribe protected from doing jail time have gone back to a life of major drug trafficking. In a recurring scandal involving Uribe, some 35% of the legislative representatives of his conservative party have direct ideological and/or financial arrangements with these death-squads. Nor should it be forgotten that even the State Department acknowledges that the AUC was tolerated and afforded sweetheart deals by Uribe while it still was carrying out massacres of trade union leaders and hundreds of other civilians.

Larry Birns
Director of COHA

Obama on Latin American Trade: Muddled and Confused

As the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, Barack Obama, a contender for the Democratic Party nomination, has been reluctant to discuss U.S. policy towards Latin America. In recent years, the region has undergone a major tectonic shift towards the left, prompting many to wonder how the young Illinois Senator might deal with progressive economic change if elected President.

In South America, there has been considerable resistance to the Bush Administration’s free trade initiatives. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has even set up his own trade and barter scheme, the Bolivarian Alternative to The Americas (or ALBA), as a foil to Washington’s private sector model. Realizing that it cannot push through a hemispheric-wide free trade initiative, the Bush administration has sought individual free trade agreements on a country-by-country basis. However, recent deals have been questioned by many due to their lack of regard for adequate labor and environmental mandates.

Would an Obama administration seek to break with the corporate-friendly trade policies of the past, and instead restore human rights and fair play to the forefront of United States economic policy? Overall, Obama has been critical of the Bush Administration’s trade policy, though, unfortunately, he has been all over the political map on the issue.

From NAFTA to CAFTA

In the wake of John Edwards’ departure from the presidential race, Senator Obama and Clinton have been struggling to floor each other with anti-NAFTA rhetoric. Edwards had been a leading critic of corporate free trade on the campaign trail and Obama now seeks to capture the former North Carolina senator’s backing by sounding a more populist note. “Our diplomacy with Mexico must aim to amend NAFTA,” Obama has said. “I will seek enforceable labor and environment standards – not unenforceable side agreements that have done little to curb NAFTA’s failures.”

But Obama doesn’t stop there.

“To reduce illegal immigration,” Obama says, “we also have to help Mexico develop its own economy, so that more Mexicans can live their dreams south of the border. That’s why I’ll increase foreign assistance, including expanded micro-financing for businesses in Mexico.”

That kind of rhetoric is right on the money. For far too long, progressives have failed to prevent the right from hijacking issues such as NAFTA and trade. Media pundits like CNN’s Lou Dobbs rail against NAFTA, but typically from a nationalist, xenophobic perspective. Obama has taken a more principled stand, and makes the obvious point that migration has been fueled by dire poverty.

Obama also has spoken out in favor of several corporate-friendly free trade agreements. Writing in the Chicago Tribune in 2005, he declared that CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement) did little to protect U.S. labor and was bad for the environment in Central American. “So far, almost all of our energy and almost all of these trade agreements are about making life easier for the winners of globalization, while we do nothing as life gets harder for American workers…Our failure to respond to globalization is causing a race to the bottom that means lower wages and stingier health and retiree benefits for all Americans.”

To his credit, Obama voted ‘no’ on CAFTA. Some of the other main players in the current election cycle, notably Clinton and McCain, voted ‘yes’, thus guaranteeing CAFTA’s passage.

Campaigning in Iowa, Obama continued to harp on the issue of unfair trade agreements. Speaking to the United Auto Workers, he pledged to fight initiatives such as CAFTA in future. “We’re not going to stop globalization in its tracks, but we shouldn’t be standing idly by while American jobs are shipped overseas,” the Illinois Senator remarked. “It’s time to put Main Street ahead of Wall Street when it comes to trade. The only trade agreements I believe in are ones that put workers first–because trade deals aren’t good for the American people if they aren’t good for working people. That’s why I opposed CAFTA.”

Concern over Colombia

On the pending Colombia free trade measure, Obama should be lauded for his position. He emphatically opposes the pending free trade deal with the Andean nation that the Bush White House so aggressively backs. Obama states that “I’m concerned frankly about the reports there of the involvement of the administration with human rights violations and the suppression of workers.”

According to an analysis by the American Friends Service Committee, Colombia will have to reduce tariff barriers for most imports under the agreement, as well as agree to new rules on intellectual property, government purchasing, investment, labor and environmental protection among others. “The twenty-three percent of Colombia’s population employed in agriculture could be displaced by competition with strict subsidies [on] U.S. imports and some may turn to coca production or affiliate with armed groups rather than migrate,” notes the organization.

Critics say that Obama is justified in his reluctance to consent with the Colombia agreement. Bogotá has done its utmost to ram the agreement home with a minimum of democratic participation. Once Nasa Indians, from the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca, organized a referendum on the free trade agreement that mobilized 51,330 voters out of a total of 68,448 registered voters (signifying that 98 percent voting against the free trade agreement), President Uribe declared that there were “dark forces of terrorism” organizing such plebiscites and accused indigenous peoples of being ignorant on matters pertaining to trade.

What’s more, in an effort to prepare itself for the negotiation and implementation of the free trade agreement, Bogotá is “reforming” its constitution. Because of U.S. demands that local laws be changed to facilitate the implementation of the new trade agreement, Uribe has seen fit to change the country’s laws to create a more secure investment environment. However, in order to do this Uribe has eroded “inalienable” constitutional rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

In addition, the free trade agreement would do little to protect domestic workers. Colombia is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a trade unionist. Most Colombian trade unionist murders are committed by paramilitaries with links to the Colombian military. More than 800 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia over the past six years, with such killings rarely being solved.

To his credit, Obama recognizes the need to rethink the nature of trade agreements. “I think it is very important for us in our free trade agreements with any country to ensure that basic human rights are being observed, basic worker rights are being observed, basic environmental rights are being observed,” he has remarked.

Obama’s Puzzling Peru Position

Given Obama’s consistently critical stance on Latin American free trade deals, his position on trade with Peru is puzzling. Despite the fact that a majority of House Democrats, 12 of 18 House committee chairs and every Democratic presidential candidate opposed the Peru NAFTA expansion (except for Clinton), Obama publicly backed the measure (though he did not cast a vote on the Senate floor). The deal, which passed the House by a vote of 285 to 132 and the Senate by a vote of 77 to 18, eliminates tariffs and sets rules of investment between the world’s largest economy and the Andean nation.

But the measure only came to a vote after Democrats were able to persuade the Bush administration to toughen labor and environmental provisions. Trade between the U.S. and Peru, which totaled $8.8 billion in 2006, is now scheduled to increase by $1.5 billion once the accord is implemented. Peru will ship more asparagus and apparel, while American producers export more meat and grain.

Obama and Peru

The agreement proved contentious in Peru, as it was strong-armed through the Peruvian legislature. In April 2006, the National Electoral Council of Peru a petition with nearly 60,000 signatures submitted requesting a referendum on the pact. However, when elections two months later handed anti-free trade parties a legislative majority, the outgoing Congress decided to ignore the petition. Despite widespread calls for a re-vote by the newly elected legislature, the lame-duck Congress approved the agreement.

Last month, Peruvian farmers went on a national strike against the deal. Fearful that the U.S. would flood the Peruvian market with subsidized rice imports, thus spelling disaster for the area’s producers, local activists blocked roads in protest of the agreement. The government then declared a state of emergency and sent in security forces. Four farmers were killed in the ensuing violence.

Obama said that he supported the agreement because it contained improved labor standards. But the Senator’s comments do not withstand close scrutiny: it is by no means clear that the Bush administration will act to enforce new provisions within the agreement guaranteeing greater workers’ rights. Some Democrats also claim that the new trade agreements will cost U.S. workers jobs as cheaper products from other nations drive American companies offshore or out of business. In the early stages of the presidential race, John Edwards stumped against the Peru pact, and prominent unions such as The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, International Association of Machinists, and United Brotherhood of Carpenters have campaigned against it as well.

Labor unions, however, say that changing regulations regarding the workplace and the environment do not make up for outsourcing manufacturing jobs. “This deal was not a good deal for workers and should never have been put forward,” Teamsters President Jim Hoffa said. “I hope that the Democratic leadership tells the Bush administration that Congress will now focus on job-creating trade policies and no more of these job-killing agreements.”

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, had nothing but withering scorn for Obama on the Peru vote. In a recent press release, Public Citizen stated, “The fact that Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to announce his support for the Peru NAFTA expansion…makes his recent attacks on Clinton regarding NAFTA bizarre.” Overall, even though not one U.S. labor, environmental, Latino, consumer, faith or family farm group supported the Peru free trade agreement, a majority of Senate Democrats such as Obama “broke with their base, dismissed widespread public opposition to more-of-the-same trade policy and joined Republicans to deliver another Bush NAFTA expansion to the large corporations pushing this deal.”

Nevertheless, it should be recognized that Obama has been right on three out of four Latin American free trade deals. Many of his supporters fervently believe that his Peru stance will prove the exception rather than the rule and that he will push for a progressive trade policy if he is elected President.

Nikolas Kozloff is a COHA Senior Research Fellow and the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2008)